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A year after his death, remembering Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley performing at the 35th annual Bumbershoot Seattle Arts Festival in 2005.
REUTERS/Anthony P. Bolante
Bo Diddley performing at the 35th annual Bumbershoot Seattle Arts Festival in 2005.

It was a small moment in my life in 1973. I don't often think about it, but when I do, I'm delighted all over again. When I was 19 years old, on a balmy summer evening, in the empty parking lot of the Denver Coliseum, I met one of the inventors of rock and roll: Bo Diddley.

Only halfway through the conversation did I realize that I was talking to the man who took the "shave and a haircut, two bits" beat and wrangled it into rock and roll. That beat that underscored Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," covered by the Rolling Stones on their first album. This is what the Stones cut their teeth on before even thinking of writing a song of their own. Arguably, without Diddley, there would be no "Satisfaction."


Bo Diddley died a year ago this Tuesday, June 2. He would have been 80 now.

The Beatles idolized him, and so did The Clash. They built their own legends on the foundation that Diddley helped lay. You can see/hear him in action here:

He preceded Elvis Presley, who ran away with the fame and the money, as did those stars of the British Invasion of the '60s – all the cute white boys who introduced us American teens to our own indigenous music. Men like Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters made my generation's heartthrobs possible, and we didn't even know it.

Bo Diddley once said, "I was the one who opened the door for these guys, and then I was left holding the knob." He's right; he was overlooked. But that's what gave me those 15 minutes with him in an empty parking lot in 1973. At that time, he was a deputy sheriff in a small town in New Mexico. But occasionally he'd play gigs, like this one at the Denver Coliseum, where he was probably considered a nostalgia act supporting some '70s mega-band whose name I can't remember.

Enjoying a summer evening
My friend Carol and I were there to leaflet the crowd, asking support for the United Farm Workers' boycott of Gallo wine. After everyone had gone in, we were relaxing in the parking lot, enjoying the summer evening.

Over by the stage door, we noticed another person doing the same: a man dressed in black, leaning on a barricade, watching the sun sink toward the mountains. He called out a question: "What are you girls handing out?"

Eager for a convert, we handed him a leaflet and recounted the plight of migrant workers. He listened, and might have nodded, maybe arched an eyebrow. He radiated a quiet self-possession.

I asked, "Are you with one of the bands?"  He answered, simply: "I'm Diddley."

Wow.

Began in Chicago clubs
Fortunately, I knew that Bo Diddley was important. "How did you get your start in music?" I asked. He told us how he'd played in clubs as a kid in Chicago, when he was too young to be a customer. Then he had to go in, and we left.

The next day, Carol and I went to a record store to look at album covers that would show us whether that man was really who he said he was. Sure enough, he was Diddley.

I never could have orchestrated that moment. I was not a writer for Rolling Stone. I was just a girl who grew up with the transistor radio glued to my ear by day and tucked under my pillow at night. So this is the lucky charm I carry – to be remembered, again and again. If you know me at all, at some point I will grab your arm and gasp, I met Bo Diddley!

Barbara Tuttle, a freelance writer, lives in Minneapolis.

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Comments (2)

Hi Barbara!! I loved your article on Bo, and it is certainly marvellous that you did think of writing it, especially given the anniversary, but there’s a couple of things wrong with it, all nicely “wrapped up” in the following paragraph.

“He preceded Elvis Presley, who ran away with the fame and the money, as did those stars of the British Invasion of the '60s – all the cute white boys who introduced us American teens to our own indigenous music. Men like Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters made my generation's heartthrobs possible, and we didn't even know it”

How could Bo Diddley have preceded Elvis Presley, when the former entered the SUN studio, on July 5, 1954, and proceeded to, right there and then, fuse the two most important musical idioms then existent in America, namely R&B and C&W (the two most indigenous styles in America), and creating a new one, called rockabilly ( the single “That’s all right”, backed with “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, the latter recorded the day after, refers), when the latter’s first single was recorded, and released, exactly nine months later, in the spring of 1955. Moreover, Presley and Diddley did not meet, or perform together, until Presley attended Bo Diddley's concert at the Apollo, in New York, by which time he had already recorded and realesed his first three seminal singles for SUN.

That is for starters. As to the “cute little boys who introduced you to our own indigenous music”, they (the brits), in fact helped the cause, but only because it was the direct result of Presley doing so, 7 years earlier, and not in just some “|American Idol” type of competition on, but through singing the songs he loved the most, via records, personal appearances, radio play, jukeboxes and finally, and most importantly, through television.

Cumulative TV viewers drawn to Presley’s appearances for the year 1956, and for his sole appearance in 1957, on January 6, exceeded 320 million, according to TRENDEX, the company which preceded NIELSEN.

During that seminal year for rock, Presley unleashed on the American public no less than 10 R&B, and even gospel classics (old or new, but all written or made famous by African Americans), namely his revved up versions of “Shake Rattle and Roll”, “Flip flop and Fly”, “Tutti frutti”, “I got a woman” and “Baby, let’s play house” )at the CBS Dorsey Show, in pre-prime time), “Hound Dog”, at NBC’s Milton Berle Show, as well as at ABC’s Steve Allen Show, and at CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show (all in primetime, on Sunday night), and “Ready Teddy”, “Don’t be cruel”, “Too Much”, and “Peace in the valley”, the latter four also at Sullivan’s Show.

Let’s be clar about one thing, and that is that Elvis Presley was the first non African American who at the start of his career specially, had the disposition, the time, the will, and the guts to sing what he liked, and not what they, the American public in general, wished to hear at the time. Even Sullivan was against he singing the gospel classic "Peace in the Valley", sang at his third appearance on his show. But Presley's will prevailed.

I enjoyed your memories of Bo. He truly never got the rewards he deserved. I had no idea he was once employed as a deputy sheriff. I'd always assumed he was a full-time musician. Nothing against deputy sheriffs, but that was a waste of talent.