This past May 14th, the Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred rocker marked his 49th year in the music business: it’s been that long since “Bo Diddley” debuted on the R&B charts and sent an electric volt through jukeboxes across, America. And he hasn’t quit, either. When we called his Florida residence for this exclusive interview, he was in the studio. ”Man, I don’t even know what I’m playing,” he laughed “I don’t even know what it is yet.”
You turned 70 last year.
How does that feel?
Hell, it ain’t nothing but a number. I’m still here, you know?
Where’d you get the famous Bo Diddley beat from? Legend says it was a jungle movie of some sort.
That’s wrong. I made that beat. I don’t know where people get that jungle bullshit from.
So it just came about one day?
Well, I got the name Bo Diddley from the kids in grammar school. That’s what they used to call me. Willard Elementary School in Chicago.
Yeah, but what about the beat?
That’s what I’m talking about! The name and the beat go together. I had the name, and then I made the beat with it. I came up with that beat. They tried to say it’s actually a jungle beat, and so it may be. It may be connected somewhere, but I ain’t heard no jungle cats playin’ it, you know? People should ask Bo Diddley if they wanna know the story. When you go to the dentist, you go to the dentist to get a tooth pulled. Don’t go round the corner to the mechanic. All these people try to tell you what you sound like, and that sucks.
What were the Chess brothers like when they discovered you?
I discovered them. I walked in to Chess records and I had a little old demo tape. I had a Webco recorder that they had back then, and I made a little ol’ record.
Was that “Bo Diddley?”
Yeah. “Bo Diddley” and “I’m A Man”
You made two songs?
Yeah. You could do that with that Webco recorder. The funny thing was, I first went to Vee-Jay. They said they didn’t know what the hell I was doing. They wasn’t interested.
You claim you invented rock and roll guitar. Is that true?
Who can you find before me? Me and Chuck Berry were the first people who did that, who started playing that kind of guitar. But what gets me is, when my white brothers started playing guitars and trying to sound like us, and people started saying that Elvis started rock and roll. Elvis ain’t started a goddamn thing. I love him, I love what he did, I really do, but we was there before. He was great, but he came three years after me, damn near. Hell, I was already breaking records at the Apollo Theatre. I mean, put me in the right lot. I did something for America.
What was it like, touring in the South in the early days?
It was messed up. Because people in the south, even though I feel that I was very much loved, I was singled out as an individual. In some places, you know. But my black brothers and sisters were mistreated, and so was I in some places. They got some people, they don’t give a shit that you a musician, on a mission from God, whatever, they don’t care!
And you know, in America, there’s no place for that kinda crap. Because everybody here came from some goddamn where else. One of the things that will bring us to our knees as a country is this devil crap that plagues us, causes us to hate one another.
See, I hate people that did something to me, but not the color of their skin. When I’m playing on the stage, I don’t see color, I see people. And I don’t even think it’s about color, really. It wasn’t hatred, it was economic, dollar bill. Like my mother said, who’s got the money makes the rules.
See, my white brothers and sisters know that if you hated me, and you got me cookin’ in your kitchen, that don’t make sense, cause I could still get at you, You know? ‘Cause I’m makin’ your food. A black man could poison the world.
Have you reached a point where you can get what’s coming to you in the record business?
Well, all these other people that come up at the same time as me, everybody else finished, and I’m still working. What the hell is that shit. These dudes all millionaires, and I’m still workin’. Back in the old days, wasn’t no white managers was gonna spend no money on no black dudes. Elvis is great, I love what he did, but he didn’t go through this shit that we go through. We were the first ones on Ed Sullivan, and we got paid $750. $750! And then after the show, they asked for the check back under the table.
One of the reasons I’m still here is cause I just shut up and kept on pumpin’. I been bitter for a long time, but I never showed it, and it’s time for me to get up. Time for me to let people know. We still got the same thing going on today, they just dressed it up and put a bowtie on it.
Everyone always asks about the odd-shaped guitars. Why did that come about?
Oh, I just wanted to be different.
You built those yourself?
Yeah. But right now, Gretsch is starring t0 making my guitars. I might get a dollar out of that. I damn sure didn’t make it on the records I figure I’m owed about six million I should have in the bank. And I ain’t even talking about interest. Interest, that’s gotta be about two, three million just by itself. People say, “Bo, why you still workin’?” I gotta work!
How did “Say Man” come about?
That was just what they used to call signifying. That was one of the first like that. But now they come up with something called rap, you can’t understand what they sayin’. I’m not stupid, you know – I can hear it, it just don’t make no sense. It’s kinda degrading to what we call music. If the cats ate makin’ money, I’ll take my hat off for it, but the dirty rap lyrics; I think the guys who are writing dirty lyrics and feeding it to the kids, that sucks.
America has come to a place that I can ask: Where did the respect go? A lot of people haven’t really come t0 grips with this. I played all over the world, and the kids don’t have that kind of thing. In Japan, they don’t have this kinda crap.
Talkin’ about our kids … I got something I wanna talk about.
I been listening at the president, and I know Bill real good. But I don’t understand why they don’t ask somebody like me, some of these old mamas and daddies, what’s wrong with the children? Remember when they had the generation gap? Well, I know about it.
I wasn’t there.
See, they had all those kids that left home, that didn’t get finished being trained by mama and daddy. They are grandparents now, none of their kids was brought up the way I was brought up. There’s about half a generation that didn’t get slapped and told, “Don’t talk back to me.” My mother use to say “Don’t talk back to me.” And if you did, you got that lick. That’s a form of chastising, and learnin’ you, how to act and how to treat other people. It’s like havin’ a puppy. You can train a puppy not to mess in the house, things like that. You can train that puppy, how come you can’t teach a child?
And all that crap talking about gun control and kids? That sounds real good, don’t get me wrong, but that ain’t gonna stop the problems. Because they still sell crowbars, axes, torches and everything. A kid can get in there and do what ever he want to if he wants to bad enough. You need to educate that child. You gotta get that booty. You not gonna win all of them, but you can teach most of them. I feel sorry for the people in Colorado. Those kids didn’t pull all that crap together themselves.
You don’t think so?
Hell, no. Somebody older had something to do with it. They didn’t come up with that by theyself. Some old decrepit son of a bitch had something to do with that.
See, these are things that Bo Diddley likes to talk about. I’m not just a musician. They say, “He’s just a rock and roll guitar player, he don’t know shit.” You’d be surprised what I know. Like a song that I did, called “Kids Don’t Do It,” on the album A Man Amongst Men. If you go out and look for that CD, you’ll see it. It’s damn near about what happened at that school, and I don’t ever hear it played on the radio. I ain’t heard no DJs play it. Lot of DJs figure I’m old fashioned, I guess. Well, I just got started. I just got started.
What were your main influences?
None. I ain’t had no influences. Everybody tried to sound like me, but I don’t sound like nobody. I’m self-taught.
I saw you at Storyville a number of years ago. You had a problem with the sound people – you needed them to turn it up.
When you a sound man, you got a sound to do. If you can’t run it, get the hell out. Lotta cats act like they in a studio, they keep moving everything around. Just set it and leave it. Go downtown and get a hamburger. [Laughs].
So you like it loud?
I like to hear what I’m doing.
Do you always talk with the guitar on stage?
I been here 45 years, doin this stuff. I used to do the same thing every night,but now I switch it up at every show.
I’m dealing with the new kid on the block. I used to be a boxer. And if a sucker hit you on the right side of the head, you gotta turn that head show your left side, and tell the other side to quit hurtin’. I got to get off this phone. The lights just went out.
One last quick one. What’s the one thing people don’t know about Bo, that they should know?
What’s that? Well, I’m a good person. Everytime I turn around, I read something about somebody else in the paper. You never read about some shit that I did. Cause I don’t mess with people.