By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Now, he has come to terms with his influence -- his is a pride mixed with a certain kind of bitterness known only to those who create something, only to have it taken from them without permission. It's nice to know you're important, but it means nothing when you have so little to show for your impact.
"That happened three, four years after I started, and then people was tryin' to do what I was doin'," Diddley says. "And I didn't like it at the time, because I felt like, 'I had scuffled to come up with it, so you go and scuffle to come up with what you want; but after a while, I started thinking, 'Wow, this is good for me that people think enough of my material to try to do it better than me or destroy it.' A lot of people did a good job of covering my tunes, like the Rolling Stones and George Thorogood. I liked it. It kept my name out there. When people would do that, they would say, 'Hey, that sounds like a Bo Diddley tune.' I put myself in a position to admire the people who did this for me. I thank them for doing it. I just would like to get paid."
And here's where the story becomes a familiar one: Bo Diddley created rock and roll, and no one wrote him a check for his hard work. His is a tale told by dozens of R&B pioneers, men and women swindled by label owners who paid their "employees" with cars instead of cash. During the mid-1980s, Diddley was engaged in myriad lawsuits with labels, trying to recoup some of the cash he never saw during the 1950s and '60s. Bo didn't know diddley about the music business, never felt the fat fingers of producers and label men lifting his wallet from his pocket. When he discovered he had been robbed, it was too late.
The reason he is owed so much and has recovered so little is no mystery: Not only did Chess Records sign Diddley and his contemporaries to unfair deals, but during the late 1960s, Diddley was forced to sell off his publishing rights when he fell into financial ruin. It didn't matter that the Stones (and, for that matter, the Clash during 1979) would take him out on the road. His music simply had fallen out of favor during the 1960s and '70s, so he stopped recording, stopped touring -- and the money stopped coming in. He was near poverty and forced to sell off his publishing rights just to put food on the table. Turns out "legend" is just another word for "broke."
"They pushed me into a corner, and I was in what you call poverty for a while, and I had to sell my material in order to survive," he says. "In other words, they guided me into a corner where I couldn't do nothing but that. Either that, or I'm out walking the streets with nowhere to go and my family split up. It was a nice maneuver they did, and it actually was wrong. They should have paid me up front. I had one of the biggest records of all time. It stayed on the charts longer than Elvis Presley's record did. That was 'Bo Diddley/I'm a Man.' It was a two-sided hit. But I didn't get paid for it. A lot of people want to know how this could happen. It's very easy how this happens. There's a word called trust. It hurts, man. It hurts everybody.
"Back then, when I was on Chess, sumbitch would come upstairs and go, 'Oh, you want a new Cadillac?' and when I told them I didn't want one because I already bought one and it was sitting outside, that's when they got funky with me. I got too smart, and I didn't need them to sign for me, because I paid my own bills. Back then, they'd offer somebody like myself a new car, and we'd take it, because we never had nothin'. But we didn't know we probably paid for the sumbitch 15 times. Ya dig what I'm sayin'? That's called wrong, man."
And it doesn't help that every few years, a new Diddley best-of hits the market. In January, a decade after MCA released a definitive boxed set, the label issued yet another collection -- which contains material found on a 1997 greatest-hits disc. Diddley says MCA and its parent corporation, Universal, have "done the right thing," but it hardly makes up for all that lost coin. To that end, Diddley is trying to release two albums on his own, his first since 1996's A Man Amongst Men. One will be a collection of all-new material, while the other will consist of unreleased material he recorded on the road during the 1950s and '60s.
"It's got all the scratches and all the grunts and all the out-of-tune tuning up," Diddley says of the latter project. "This is what a lot of people want to hear today -- where I came from. So I'm going through some of those old tapes -- they're brittle and rotten -- and getting what I can off them and release them to the public and let people hear stuff I did in 1962, stuff the record company never got their hands on. I didn't give everything I did to Chess Records. I didn't put all my eggs in one basket. I got stuff, man, and some of it sounds horrible, but it was a building block for me to get where I am today. And I think I'm going to call it" -- he lets out a slight, gruff chuckle -- "The Best in Junk."