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American Routes Shortcuts: Bo Diddley

Bo_Diddley_(1957_publicity_portrait).jpg
Bo Diddley

This is American Routes, where we’re about to meet one of our heroes. The late Ellas McDaniel was born not too far from New Orleans in McComb, MS and as a child moved with his family to Chicago, where he earned the nickname Bo Diddley. Bo wrote and recorded a stream of classic songs for Chess Records in the 1950s. He was one of the inventors of rock and roll. I spoke with Bo Diddley on a 2002 tour stop in New Orleans. I asked Bo how childhood had shaped his approach to 50 years in music.

BD: In my house, you didn’t talk back to your parents because immediately somebody would ask you, “You got a problem, boy? Come here, let me help you with it.” And that meant you were fixing to get what we called “tuned up” because my mother would say, “Ellas, you’re out of tune, and you need tuning up.”

[music]

NS: So how did your mother feel about all the music you made?

BD: Well I was what you call, I don’t know, I guess I was the Epsom salt in the family.

NS: Now what does that mean?

BD: Go get you a spoonful of Epsom salt and drink it in some water, you’ll find out what it means.

NS: Well why did you want to get onstage to begin with?

BD: Well I didn’t know, it was an accident. I’ve always wanted to be a clown, you know, and that’s the reason why my act that I do, some of it is serious and some of it is clowning to make people laugh, you know. There’s two or three sides to me when I’m on the stage.

NS: Would you mind telling me a little about the very song itself, “Bo Diddley,” how you got that song together?

BD: Only thing I’ll tell you is that it wasn’t called “Bo Diddley” at first. It was called “Uncle John.” And the lyrics were a little bit rough. And back in the ’50s, uh uh, no no. So I rewrote it. They were calling me Bo Diddley as a nickname, and I used it, and it clicked.

[music]

NS: Where did that nickname come from?

BD: Grammar school in Chicago. Don’t ask me what it means because I haven’t the slightest idea.

[music]

NS: The beat. I know you’ve been around the beat a long time. Where does the beat come from?

BD: I was trying to play “I Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle” by Gene Autry and stumbled up on that beat. I don’t think it’s gonna ever die!

NS: The beat will be here in a hundred years?

BD: I would think so.

[music]

NS: Tell me about “Who Do You Love?”

BD: I wrote that from some little kids that were signifying with each other, and I cleaned it up and changed the whole thing and used the kind of halfway melody that they were using. But they were in the alley cursing one another, and oh they were rough! Little bitty dudes. And I was in the hotel, and I heard them, you know, and they were going back and forth with at other–this was in Kansas City, Missouri.

[music]

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.