“Speaking Freely” show recorded March 25, 2001, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson, joining you today from Nashville. Our guest today is a man whose name and sound are known and respected worldwide. He’s a 1987 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he was the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. We’re pleased to welcome Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley, great to have you here. And you’ve had this amazing career, much of it centered around electric guitar. And yet, it all began with a violin. Is that right?
Bo Diddley: (Laughs) Yeah. I started playing violin. At least I was taught classical music, and I was taught by Professor O.W. Frederick at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, where I was raised up at. And I, when I got to be, I think, about 12 or 13 years old, my sister bought me a guitar because I had heard John Lee Hooker playing. And I made the statement, “If that cat can play, I know I can learn.” (Laughter) And actually, I was being real self-centered to myself then, like, kind of making fun of him. But today John Lee Hooker is a monument. I mean. He is bigger than big, you know. With the way he was doing it, he had a style that was his. There was no copying. He’s got people running around trying to figure out, “What are you doing? How do you do that, you know?” So I decided to try to play like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and all these different blues people. I tried to learn this while my mother went to the A&P. (Laughter) Because she didn’t deal with the guitar, she didn’t like it. She loved that violin, but the guitar was just not the right thing to have in her house. You understand? And she told me many times, “Don’t bring that in here, boy.” And like, she wanted to kill my sister for giving it to me. You know, like, she said that I was going to be worthless. Back then … you’ve got to understand that I wasn’t even allowed to have a funny book in the house. Mama said that was bad news for the brain. And I agree with her. It’s, it’s something, When I should have been learning arithmetic and all, whatever, you know, looking at “Batman” and all this stuff that ain’t nobody can do in the first place … Superman got a friend of mine killed. He jumped out the window with a sheet on him, thinking that he could fly, and broke his neck, you understand me? So Mama was right. She said, “That mess you looking at in that book ain’t no good, boy. Don’t bring that in my house.”
Paulson: So years later, when you become a worldwide famous musician …
Diddley: She still didn’t like it. (Laughter)
Paulson: “When are you going to take up the violin again?” Was that it?
Diddley: She still didn’t like it. Actually, just to straighten out what I’ve just said is, my birth mother didn’t care one way or the other, you know. She would come around and look to see what I was doing. But Mama Gussie, which raised me and which was my mother’s first cousin because … my mother didn’t raise me. My mother had two boys. Back then in 1928, it was kind of hard to feed two rugrats, you know what I’m saying? (Laughs) So she had to let me go with Mama Gussie, which was her first cousin. And that’s why I had the name Ellis Bates McDaniel, you know. So now that’s cleared up and if somebody done read something. My name is not Opa. If you read that in a book someplace, I don’t know where they got that “Opa” from. But somebody decided, “Well, we don’t know what his name is so let’s give him one.” (Laughter)
Paulson: Finally, you are allowed to play the guitar in public. And you come up with a sound that has been mimicked, imitated, stolen from you over the years. And yet every article I’ve read about the Bo Diddley beat, people try and describe it in print and they can’t. They say “chingk-a-chingk-a-chingk,” and they can’t possibly explain it. Do you have a way to explain the Bo Diddley beat?
Diddley: Yeah. It’s mixed with kind of, uh, uh, an African religious chant. That’s what I call it. And also, they tried to say, “Oh, it’s hambone.” And a lot of us, I’m 72 now, and a lot of us remember that old thing that kids used to do with paper and their pants leg and beat on it and holler, “Hambone, hambone, where you been, you know?” It’s not hambone. See, the way that went was, “Hambone, hambone, buh-duh-duh.” Hambone, you know. But Bo Diddley went, “Bo Diddley duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUH, jingka-jingka-jing-ka-jing-JING.”
Paulson: So you took that Bo Diddley beat into Chess Studios, 1954 or ’55.
Diddley: Yeah. I ain’t gonna cut you off, but you want to know how I did that?
Diddley: It was actually a mistake. It was an accident. I was trying to play, “I got spurs, that jingle-jangle-jingle.” (Laughter) That’s — I love country music. I’m a country fanatic, you understand me? I love it. When I’m riding in my car going to the airport to go catch a flight and I turn on the country station to find out what’s going on because the lyrics in country music are so real and you know there’s no dirt involved in them you know. It’s just good. So I was trying to do this and I went, “Bom-ching-ching … ching …” and then, “ … a-ching-ching.” I said, wait a minute. “Ching-ching-ching … ching-ching.” And then I said I went and called the rest of the guys, Jerome and all of them with the maracas. I said, “Hey, man, listen. Can you do this on the drum? Boom-boom-boom … boom-boom.” And Clifton James, my original drummer, he said, “Yeah. He said what is this?” I said, “I don’t know, man, just do it. Then I’m gonna do this.” And we put it together, and I went to Chess Records with it. At first I went to Veejay, I went to Veejay Records because I didn’t even really know that Chess existed, and they were two blocks away from my house. I lived on Langley Avenue in Chicago and they were on Cottage Grove where the streetcar ran up and down. And I used to go through that alley all the time and break bottles up against the wall and stuff like that you know. (Laughter) I was a little boy, too, you know. I liked to see a Coke bottle splatter, you know. So I did it. And so I’m they asked me when I went to Veejay, they asked me “What kind of music is it?” I said, “I don’t know, man. I’m just playing it.” “Well, we don’t know what to do with something like that.” So I left. Tore my little heart down. I mean I was like, I was 26 years old, and I said, “Hm … OK. I’ll go back home.” And I had a little old tape recorder. We used to have a wire tape recorder. This is going way back, had wire on it, you know? And I went back and I said, “I’m gonna make me a tape dub.” Then the lady across the street sold me a Webco disc cutter, used to make 78s. And I didn’t have no money, so I took another record that I had found in the alley and went and bought me some lacquer. Paint lacquer, you know. And I laid it down flat and I took the can and put it on it, and then it dried. And I went I said, “Wow, I’m gonna see if I can cut a record on this stuff.” It looked like the same stuff. So I hooked it up. Sure enough, that needle cut in that lacquer and I played it. And I took it to Chess Records. Now remind me now I ain’t got no money, I didn’t have nothing. And back then if a kid had a nickel, you were rich. You could buy penny bags of candy all day. (Laughter) You know Penny bags, big old bags you know! And Leonard Chess looked at me and he says, “Hey, I believe you got something here.” And they told me, they said “Let’s hear the real lyrics.” So I started reciting the lyrics. And that’s where that Uncle John came in, because that was the lyrics. He says, “We like the music but I don’t think the old folks is gonna go for the lyrics.” I said, “Well, what can we do?” He says, “I tell you what. You go back home and rewrite this thing and come back here.” And I went home and in exactly seven days, I came back with, (Singing) “Bo Diddley bought his baby a diamond ring, a-chungk-a-chungk-a-changk-a-chang-chang.” And that was the beginning of it.
Paulson: And you folks didn’t think you were in for a performance today. (Laughter) So “Jingle Jangle,” was that the Gene Autry record?
Diddley: Yeah. Gene come in — I’m a Western lover. My wife gets mad with me because she can’t never get the TV. You know what I’m saying? Because she got to wait till I go to sleep, then click. Because I’m looking at something you know. And I like the shoot-‘em-ups, you know. They was real entertainers, man.
Paulson: That explains the album cover of “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger.”
Paulson: That’s a great cover. You set that shot up, didn’t you, you set up that photo?
Diddley: Yeah. That horse that you see in that, we had to do this real quick. Because this pony, she was a young filly, she was and she would come to the fence and just look over and then look at the cameraman, and then walk off and turn around and look and then come back and stand where I was at. Like, “If you’re gonna shoot this, I’m getting in it you know.” (Laughter) It just it was amazing that she turned and went that way, and I said, “Man, come on. Hurry up, get it, get the shot!” And they shot it. And that’s why you see her walking down because she was getting ready to turn around and come back.
Paulson: It’s a classic album cover. So you write this song in seven days that changes your world and the world. It goes to number two on the R&B charts and it’s always being heard somewhere in the world today. Flip side is, “I’m a Man.” Both “Uncle John,” the first song you record, and “I’m a Man,” people react to it and say, “Hey, that’s dirty music.” How’d you react to that?
Diddley: Well, first of all, they put ideas in my head when they started saying that. I was wondering, what’s dirty? What did I say? I didn’t say nothing.
Paulson: You did say, in “I’m a Man” … “All you pretty women come along/I just need one hour with you.”
Diddley: “I can make love to you, baby, in an hour’s time.”
Paulson: There’s nothing suggestive about that. (Laughs)
Diddley: Now wait a minute, hold it. There’s nothing suggestive about it. But if you walked in the hallway and you caught some dude and a chick standing up in there, all hooked up kissing, somebody run and holler they was in the hallway making love. They were kissing. Now the other part of it, we won’t go into. (Laughter)
Paulson: So you rewrote “Bo Diddley” but you didn’t have to rewrite “I’m a Man.” They took off, they were huge hits. And this is your first record, the one you kind of made in the kitchen and then in Chess Studios. Do you go, “This is easy?”
Diddley: Yeah. You know the reason why I wrote “I’m a Man?” Muddy Waters had a tune out called he was a honeybee, or something like that. And I said he was a honeybee, a rolling stone or something. And I said, “Hm … I’m a man.” So I went and wrote me a song saying, “M-A-N.” You know. And it went and of course somebody did say something about it. You’re right. Somebody said something about it and they called it devil music. And my mother walked up on me, Gussie, she walked up on me and said, “You ought to get a job.” (Laughter)
Paulson: So now you have this huge hit and everybody wants you on their television show. And along comes the Ed Sullivan show. It was called “Toast of the Town” at that time. And a producer gets this idea, “We’ve got this guy who plays guitar well. Also, there’s a big hit record by Tennessee Ernie Ford called ’16 Tons.’ We’ll just have Bo Diddley do ’16 Tons’ because Tennessee Ernie Ford’s not available.” But things went really badly that day. Can you tell us about that?
Diddley: Yeah, I lived with that lie a lot of years that was told. See, my name, Bo Diddley, and the song “Bo Diddley” got them confused in the program. And whoever printed up the program, they should have put it “Bo Diddley doing ‘Bo Diddley,’ ’16 Tons.’” But they put, “Bo Diddley – 16 Tons.” So I thought I was supposed to do two songs. So I did the one that I was supposed to be there in the first place for, which was “Bo Diddley.” And Ed Sullivan got mad, you know. When I did “16 Tons,” all of them backstage were freaking out trying to get me off the stage. And I’m doing what the program said, you know. (Laughter) So I live with that lie. That — he got real mad with me, told me I would never work nowhere no more, and he’d see to this, that and the other. And I said, “Man, I was driving a truck when I come up here and I’ll go back to driving a truck.” (Laughter) I know too many things, you ain’t gonna shut me down. You might slow me up, but you ain’t gonna shut me off, you know what I’m saying?
Paulson: The other instruction they had for you, though, was when you did “16 Tons” you weren’t supposed to move.
Diddley: No, no. They told me, ‘No wigglin’, no wigglin’.’ (Laughter)
Paulson: In a matter of years, after you’d had a successful career and you’re touring all over and you’re on every major tour and you’re travelling internationally, people in Great Britain begin to hear your music and respond. And suddenly you’ve inspired the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds. Were you a little bit startled when you went to Great Britain and found that you were actually even bigger there than you were in the U.S.?
Diddley: Yeah, a little bit.
Paulson: Did it feel good?
Diddley: Yeah, it felt very good but it was scary you know. How many times can I go to Europe and work and make a living? You know what I’m saying? But America has so much to choose from. We, I remember when we were going to Europe, they only had one radio station and one TV station or something like that. If you weren’t careful, it was on and gone.
Paulson: Your album, “Man Amongst Men,” you’ve got a song about this. And I wanted to share some lyrics. By the way, the first cut on “Man Amongst Men” is “Bo Diddley is Crazy.”
Diddley: Sick. (Laughs)
Paulson: He’s crazy, he’s sick, he’s a lunatic. You were just trying to frighten interviewers, weren’t you, with that? It’s a terrific song.
Diddley: You know what? That was my approach to punk rock. That’s what it was.
Paulson: This is a man who opened for the Clash, the definitive punk rock band. He opened for the Clash.
Diddley: That was my approach to punk rock. And I just wrote a new one called “I’m a Bad Seed.” (Laughs) You understand?
Paulson: Talk about the song called “Kids, Don’t Do It.” It is as close to rap as you’ve come in your career.
Diddley: That was the first one. But we in my neighborhood, in the ghettos, as they all called it the “hood” … today it’s the “hood,” you understand? But in my neighborhood, they called it signifying. You talk about me a while, and I’ll talk about you a while till somebody said something about somebody’s mother. Then it was a fight. (Laughter) You could talk about Daddy all day, nobody would do anything. But don’t say nothin’ about Mama. You might have to fight four or five dudes, you understand what I mean? So I wrote this song called “Kids, Don’t Do It” before we had all this mess that went down in Colorado. And if I can recite the lyrics …
Paulson: Please, please.
Diddley: … it says, “Kids, kids, don’t do it/Kids, kids, don’t do it/I can’t be your mama, I can’t be your dad/But what you kids doin’ is makin’ me mad/You runnin’ in the streets and you runnin’ loose/I wonder if it’s something old Diddley could do/You runnin’ after something that you think is a rabbit/Start to foolin’ with drugs and end up with a habit/Kids, kids, don’t do it, don’t do it/Don’t, don’t, don’t do it/Last night somebody called on the phone/Said little Willie Junior, he ain’t coming home/He dead/Say what?/With a bullet in his head/Now if he had listened what his mama said/Maybe he wouldn’t have that bullet in his head/He’s gone, he was doin’ wrong/When he should have been home/Kids, kids, don’t do it, don’t do it/Don’t, don’t, don’t do it/Somebody said Willie doin’ his thing/Come to find out Willie was running with a gang/Look at him, he ain’t getting his thing/He got a bullet in his brain/Kids, kids, don’t do it, don’t do it/Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t do it/Now if there’s a gun in your home/Be real smart and leave it alone/Don’t take your Mom and Daddy’s gun to school/Because the one that gets shot just might be you/Kids, kids, kids, don’t do it/Don’t do it, don’t, don’t, don’t do it/Listen to Bo Diddley/Stay in school and get your Ph.D./Yo, I’m out of here.”
Paulson: We’ve only got a few minutes left. I want to talk to you about rap music, which you just performed very convincingly. A lot of people credit you with actually inspiring all of it. And yet today, the man who in 1955 was condemned by some for playing dirty records, you’re really down on rap music today for being obscene and violent.
Diddley: You can’t find a record that I’ve ever recorded with one dirty four-letter in it, nowhere. This rap music, guys talking about raping their mama and killing their daddy and their mama and their sisters and all, kids don’t need to hear that garbage you know.
Paulson: So what would you do about it? There are people who think that government should step in and stop it.
Diddley: No, no, we don’t need the government to get into it. People should police themselves. Decency. Decency. These are good entertainers that are doing this and they need to think about what they’re doing. They’re sending the wrong message and we on the streets are dealing with it. And I don’t understand how the FCC can allow that stuff to be put on the air.
Diddley: But if you want to make a record that’s a little bit, sell it round the corner in that shop to an adult. You understand what I mean? I’m not saying if I don’t like it, you can’t listen at it. But I don’t want my kids listening at it, not until they’re old enough to deal with it.
Paulson: On your 70th birthday, people sent greetings from all over the world, musicians and others, posted on your Web site. And so many warm wishes, so many people clearly grateful to you for your music, for influencing their careers. I just want to read, as we close here, a message from Tommy James who said, “All the roads on the rock and roll roadmap lead back to you.” That’s very well said. Thank you so much for being here with us.
Diddley: Thank you for having me here. All right, OK.
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