Few figures have cast as big a shadow over rock’n’roll history as that of Bo Diddley.
His eponymous debut single, 1955’s “Bo Diddley”, introduced a whole new rhythmic dimension that would revolutionize the future of popular music. Soon everybody from Elvis Presley (with “His Latest Flame”) to Buddy Holly (with “Not Fade Away”) was mimicking Bo’s patented jungle beat. Over in England, to the groups that emerged from the early ’60s R&B boom – The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Kinks, and not least The Rolling Stones – Diddley was nothing short of a living god.
His influence would extend well into the ‘70s, with The Clash paying tribute by inviting Bo as support on their 1979 tour of America. Even in the ‘80s, the spectre of Bo Diddley lurked within the voodoo shimmer of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” and the back-to-basics clatter of U2’s “Desire”.
Fifty years on, Bo still continues to tour. During his recent visit to the UK, Uncut caught up with one of the few surviving pioneers of rock’n’roll to find out why, at the age of 76, he refuses to quit.
UNCUT: So, the legendary Bo Diddley – you practically invented rock’n’roll. How does that feel?
DIDDLEY: Well, it’s no different from anything else, I guess. I started sumthin’. I just happened to be the first one. And I’m still here, I feel great. But I never thought it would turn into what it did. Somebody had to be first, and it happened to be me.
Did you have any idea rock’n’roll was going to go on for as long as it has?
Man, it ain’t quittin’ yet. It’s been goin’ 50 years already, goin’ on 51.
So why do you think you’ve survived all this time?
Well, a lot of it is the way that I care for myself, and my interests in talkin’ to kids about stayin’ away from drugs, that they should obey their parents, do the right thing, be constructive and not destructive. All these things I was taught as a kid, so I’m tryin’ to pass it on to the youngsters ‘cos it works. It definitely works, I’m livin’ proof that it works. And it don’t matter what colour you is, ’cos when I go on stage I don’t see colours, I see people. That’s the way I’ve always been, and I’ll be that way until there’s no more Diddley…
Yeah, well I ain’t goin’ nowhere!
What do you think of music today – the fact the word ‘R&B’ is used to describe a type of music that is nothing like the ‘R&B’ that described yourself, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters?
No, it’s nothing’ like it. You’re the first one I ever heard that put it that way. It’s nothing like the R&B or the rock’n’roll as we called it. The cats today claim that they’re rock’n’roll with all their screaming geetars and stuff like that. Well that’s not rock’n’roll! That don’t sound like Elvis Presley, that don’t sound like The Beatles… well, The Beatles wasn’t really rock’n’roll. I don’t know what you’d call it but I don’t accept the word rock’n’roll with The Beatles. They don’t belong in the list of rock’n’rollers. They was like, more or less, folk country or sumthin’. I don’t know what it was.
What about The Rolling Stones?
The Rolling Stones is definitely rock’n’roll. They’re right up there with myself, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, all these people. This is sumthin’ we built, and a lot of the cats came along who didn’t know what they were playin’, they tried to sneak in and say “we’re rock’n’rollers”. No way, José!
Is that why you still get on stage, to show people what rock’n’roll really is?
Well I still feel good and I’m able to do it. When you won’t see me no more that means I’m not able. But after fifty years of this, it’s too late to change the horses on the freeway in the middle of the freeway, d’y’understand? You might as well keep rollin’. I built this monster and I have to feed him. Nobody else gonna feed him, so I gotta feed him. I’m 76 years old and I feel great. I try and take care of myself the best I can. No drugs. Never have got involved with that. To all the kids out there in groups I say this – don’t fool wi’ dat mess! It ain’t no good, leave it alone, you don’t need that crap to play. Perform clean and you will be recognised in a clean manner. I refuse to be around anybody that’s doin’ it, and I’m still that way. I used to be a sheriff. I’m not doin’ it now but I still got those police traits. Get out of my face wi’ dat mess! People I work with are all clean ‘cos, boy, if I catch you doin’ sumthin’ in my band, you got to go, real quick. Ain’t no waitin’ till tomorrow cos you’re goin’ home to mama. Grab yer coat and hat. Gudbye!
Your 1959 single “Say Man” was, in a round about way, one of the first rap records?
Uhuh. But it wasn’t called rap, it was called ‘signifyin‘’. But the new kids today on the block call it rap and I guess you could say rap is a good name for it since you can’t understand a damn thing they’re sayin’. I think Eminem is the only one you can understand what he’s saying. Will Smith was really good. Sir Mix-A-Lot, you can understand him. But the rest of ‘em, you can’t understand except that it’s dirty, and I don’t like the dirty lyrics. That’s no good for our youngsters. Let a child be a child until he’s no more a child and then he can listen to what he wants to.
Why the rectangular guitar?
I just decided to design it that way because it’s different. Thought I’d go freak everybody out with a square guitar, heh-heh.
What’s a typical day in the life of Bo Diddley?
You mean what do I do every day? I fool around with old cars and my boat. I’m working on my boat right now. I can’t wait till I get back home to Florida so I can go fishing. Gonna catch me a big one!
What’s Bo Diddley’s secret of happiness. Music? Fishing?
I ain’t decided, man. It’s just everyday livin’. I have nothing special that I wanna do. Everyday livin’ is where it’s at.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Why? Where am I gone? I don’t like that question, sorry. Being remembered, like I’m goin’ out the door any minute…
…well, hopefully not.
Hee! I ain’t goin nowhere, man. I am so superstitious about that, as I am about wills. When you do a will it tells me that you’ve just started descending into neverland. Understand me? That’s my belief. A lot of people say I shouldn’t think that way, but let them do it the way they wanna do it and I’ll do it the way I wanna do it cos I ain’t ready to pull the plug yet. I’m chained to the plug. You could walk around the corner and somebody could say to you “Man, Bo’s just dropped dead”. And you’d probably say “What? You’re full of shit, I was just talkin’ to him two minutes ago”. But that’s the way it is. We never know when we’re gone, and I’m very superstitious about playing around with anything that means I’m out the door for the last time. I’ll talk about anything but that. See, I remember Sam Cooke sayin’ that he was hangin’ up his rock’n’roll shoes and this chick killed him. The chick shot him, man! To me, superstition, that means something. You dig?
In our schematic of our lives, I believe there’s a road map to what road you travel, and you’ll finish when you take that trip. Say you walk in the street and it’s in your schematic to get bumped by a car – not fall out a window, but bumped by a car – it might be one day that you’re careless and you walk out in front of a car. Well, that’s in your schematic. That’s what’s gonna happen to you. I kinda believe that. A lot of people mysteriously gets done that way. We never know when we’re gonna be called. It’s like me, six years ago I got up outta bed, feeling great, sat on the bed, leaning to pick up my socks and broke two discs in my back. I was in hospital, got operated on, and now I’m walking. But I coulda been in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. It still hurts, that’s why I gotta sit down now when I play. But you don’t have to get hit by a truck to end up messed up. I found that out. I thought I was the Rock of Gibraltar and for me to end up injured that easy really freaked me out. The doctors said “Bo, them days of leg wigglin’, them is over”. But I can still play, I can still walk. Bo Diddley’s still here.
Interview by Simon Goddard