A mother of a father
The history books are written with his blood and the blood of half a dozen men just like him, fathers sacrificed on the altar. They created this thing called rock and roll, snatched it from thin air and gave it shape and breath and voice, and then they were gone. Look back at your history books: They came and went almost like that, replaced and destroyed by greed, racism, ignorance, and, finally, apathy. One minute, they're recording and releasing records every month, climbing the charts like King Kong. The next, their discographies become a litany of on-the-cheap best-ofs, assembled by gluttonous labels trying to rub a little more polish off some golden oldies.
The strongest among them never quite disappeared; they lingered like shadows, like ghosts. They toured as oldies acts, went into the studio to rerecord their jukebox classics, and popped up whenever some upstart needed a little instant cred. But if they were not forgotten, they were ignored -- as though their brilliant yesterdays rendered them somehow unimportant today.
Forty-five years ago this very month, Ellas Otha Bates McDaniel, the adopted son of Mississippi sharecroppers, went into a Chicago recording studio and emerged with a two-headed beast that devoured anything that stood in its way. On one side of the vinyl was a song called "Bo Diddley"; on the other, "I'm a Man." Not until Ali would any man have a more volatile one-two punch. McDaniel came out swinging with his homemade cigar-box guitar and a rhythm all his own: chick-a-chick-a-chick a-chickchick, boom boom boom boomboom. His was a sound no more indispensable to rock and roll than electricity. Yes, it's hyperbole, but the man and his contributions demand no less: Without the man called Bo Diddley, there might have been no Buddy Holly, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Led Zeppelin, no Iggy Pop. No nothing.
As a child growing up in Chicago, he played the violin; imagine how barren the landscape might be now had he stuck with the instrument. He got his first guitar when he was 10, formed a band in high school, got his first regular gig at a Chicago club, the 708, in 1951. Fact is, his story isn't all that different from any other musician's: He fell in love with noise, then spent so many years learning how to tame it. And the first time he went into the Chess Studios in 1955 to record, it was as a backing musician for Chuck Berry. Many men might have been content with that -- being part of history, if not exactly making it.
But Diddley craved something more, even if, all these years later, he's not exactly sure how he did it. Critics often write of how Diddley's sound was born on the African continent, based on a rhythmic tribal pattern. Such talk doesn't concern him anymore. All he recalls is that he wanted to sound different, stand apart from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker and all the other Chicago bluesmen who were around at the time. He wanted a bigger, badder sound -- something you could dance to, something you'd be afraid of.
"To create something all your own, you gotta not be like somebody else," Diddley says. Though the man is 71, his voice contains barely a hint of a rasp; there's still a great deal of power left in those vocal chords. "You gotta shut your ears and get away from somebody else. Muddy Waters was Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker was John Lee Hooker. They didn't need another John Lee Hooker. They needed somebody else to go along with those bluesmen, so I came up with a rhythm pattern they started calling rhythm and blues, and rhythm and blues ain't nothing but rock and roll.
"I always knew I was different, and it was a hard road, man, for me to break into the business being different, having that different beat -- ya know, that boom boom boom boomboom. It was a hard thing when I came up with that rhythm pattern and that beat. It was a time when everybody was freakin' out. Parents were freakin' out. They even had it in the paper once down in Alabama where they said girls were comin' up pregnant because of the jungle music, and they were talkin' about me. I said, 'Ain't no note ever made anybody pregnant.' But they had to say something, because they didn't understand it. Like they said when I went on The Ed Sullivan Show, I was the dirtiest thing that ever hit the stage. But it was a good feeling, because it shows you don't have to copy somebody else's stuff. I never copied somebody else's thing. I used the same notes, but the way I put it together and the way I played made it different."
For a while, Diddley abhorred his own influence: He has spent the past four decades listening to echoes of his songs reverberate throughout an industry that has paid him pennies on the dollar for use of his material. His songs -- among them "Pretty Thing," "Mona," "Road Runner," "Pills," "You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover," and of course "Bo Diddley" and "I'm a Man" -- have been covered more times than a cheap motel bed. Their riffs have been borrowed, stolen, reworked, and reshaped a million times over, from "Not Fade Away" to "Lust for Life" to "Faith." You can only take so much from a man before he has nothing left to give.
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."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.