‘I ain’t through yet’
Still rockin’ at 77, Diddley as feisty, original as ever
Some call him a bluesman; some say R&B. Bo Diddley has no truck with that.
“I’m rock ‘n’ roll,” he said in a phone interview from his Florida home.
Appearing with Alvin Youngblood Hart and Ruthie Foster, and still playing his signature rectangular guitar, the 77-year-old rocker, known for such hits as “Who Do You Love?” and “Road Runner,” as well as his many eponymous songs, will perform at The Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin today.
In a very real sense, Diddley is rock ‘n’ roll. Certainly, he’s its beginning — “The Originator,” as he likes to be called.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the release of his first single for Chicago’s Chess Records, “Bo Diddley/I’m a Man.” Diddley’s percussive, boastful style immediately captured the music world’s attention.
When Cleveland, Ohio, disc jockey Alan Freed coined the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll,” Diddley was the first musician he named.“He said, ‘Here’s a man with an original sound, an original beat that’s gonna rock ‘n’ roll you right out of your seat,” Diddley said.
Musician after musician has paid tribute to the artist, whose namesake bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp-bomp “Bo Diddley beat” has been one of the fundamental rhythms of rock music. In 1987, Diddley was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Some of music’s biggest names, including Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, have played Diddley’s tunes. Other artists have released some 1,800 recordings of songs originally played by Diddley. His characteristic African- and Latin-edged syncopated beat shows up in everything from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” to The Who’s “Magic Bus” and U2’s “Desire.”
“There is no one we admire in the whole world more than Mr. Bo Diddley,” Tom Petty once said. “If Bo Diddley was English, I think he should be knighted. Actually, this country should build a monument in every state to Bo Diddley. Elvis is King. But Diddley is Daddy.”
Diddley gets a little riled about Presley.
“I’m sick of everybody talking about Elvis,” he said. “It was me and Chuck Berry that started rock ‘n’ roll.”
His name is a pair of nonsense words even he doesn’t know the meaning of, bestowed on him by grammar-school friends in Chicago. Born Ellas Bates McDaniel on Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Miss., Diddley came to Chicago at age 9, and grew up in the Bronzeville neighborhood today recalled as Chicago’s Black Metropolis. In Chicago, Diddley studied classical violin. But after a dozen years, he switched to guitar when his sister gave him an instrument.
“I wanted to do something else,” he said.
Whether he knows what it means or not, Diddley definitely likes the sound of his own name. From his first “Bo Diddley,” he went on to record titles like “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Bo’s a Lumberjack,” “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger,” “Bo Diddley is a Lover,” “Bo Diddley is Loose,” “Bo Diddley is Crazy” and “Bo Meets the Monster.”
“I write like that,” he said. “I like myself.”
More than 40 of Diddley’s songs are about Bo Diddley. But that number is dwarfed by at least 120 recordings by other artists paying homage to Diddley, including “The New Bo Diddley” by Johnny Otis, “I’m Goin’ Back (Bo Diddley Rocker)” by Bruce Springsteen and “Bo Diddley is Jesus” by The Jesus and Mary Chain.
The septuagenarian said he has no plans to retire.
“I’m going out to reinvent Bo Diddley,” he said. “We’ve got the new kid on the block and I’ve got to let him know that I’m out there.
“I’m ready. And I want them to be ready for me. I ain’t through yet.”
Bo Diddley and Friends
Where: The Hemmens Cultural Center, 45 Symphony Way, Elgin
When: 8 p.m. today
Info: (847) 931-5900 or www.hemmens.org