By Lorraine Kay
Lancaster, CA – The legendary rock and roller, Bo Diddley will be on stage at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center with the Debbie Hastings Band for a St. Patrick’s Day treat. Slated to begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday, the man who ”put the rock in rock and roll”, will present many of his classic hits spanning his 50-year career.
Known throughout the world as Bo Diddley, he was born Otha Ellas Bates in 1928, on a small farm in McComb, Mississippi. But as Bo Diddley he was destined to become a rock and roll icon, indelibly stamping his mark on rhythm ‘n’ blues, rock ‘n’ roll and popular music. His innovative trademark rhythm, his electric custom-built guitars, his use of female musicians, his psychedelic guitar sounds, his wild stage shows, and his on-record and on-stage rapping, pre-date all others. His influence on other musicians, both black and white, is immeasurable.
But Diddley’s humble beginnings, first in Mississippi and later on the south side of Chicago, set the stage for a career equal to few others. Soon after moving to Chicago in the 30s, he began to take violin lessons from Professor O.W. Frederick at the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. A gifted musician, he was classically trained on the violin for the next twelve years, composing two concertos for the instrument.
Then a turning point in his musical career happened when his sister Lucille bought him his first guitar, a cheap Harmony acoustic for Christmas in 1940. It was then that for a reason that escapes Diddley himself that he acquired the nickname “Bo Diddley.” “Bo Diddley is me; to tell the truth, I don’t know what it (the name) really is, what it means, or why they called me that,” says Diddley. “The kids at school just started calling me that,” he said referring to his fellow students at Foster Vocational High School in Chicago.
Paying his dues, playing on street corners and in small clubs finally paid off after more than a decade, in the spring of 1955, when he took demo recordings he made of two songs he had written, “Uncle John” and “I’m A Man”, to brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chess Records, with studios located at 4750-2 South Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago. They suggested that he change the title and the lyrics of “Uncle John” to more reflect his own unique personality. The two songs were re-recorded at Bill Putnam’s Universal Recording Studio at 111 East Ontario in Chicago on Wednesday March 2nd 1955, and released as a double A-side disc “Bo Diddley”/”I’m A Man” on the Chess Records subsidiary label Checker Records. It went straight to the top of the rhythm ‘n’ blues charts, establishing Bo Diddley as one of the most exciting and original new talents in American music and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nicknamed the Originator, Diddley has been not only innovative in his style of music but in so many ways. He is known for his pounding and hypnotic Latin-tinged beat. Later he would become known for the “Bo Diddley Beat”, that he created and is recognizable across the planet. According to Diddley, he had long been fascinated by the rhythms that he heard coming from the sanctified churches in his community. A frustrated drummer, he tried to translate the sounds that he heard into his own style. Gradually he began to duplicate what he heard with his violin bow by rapidly flicking his plectrum across his guitar strings. “I play the guitar as if I’m playing the drums….I play drum licks on the guitar,” he explained.
And ‘different’ is putting it lightly in respect to the instruments he has played. His trademark oblong, square, pointed, fur-covered, leather-bound, rocket-tailed, custom-built Gretsch electric guitars are in themselves legendary. Around 1958, Bo Diddley built the world’s first square guitar by taking the neck and the electronics off a Gretsch guitar and putting them onto a square body that he had constructed. Later that year he commissioned Gretsch’s Brooklyn factory to make him another square guitar, which he nicknamed “Big B”. Two decades later, and despite having it rebuilt twice and adding new electronic effects to it, “Big B” had become almost obsolete.
Sometime later he created the first guitar with a built-in drum machine. He continues to commission guitar makers worldwide to build his custom guitars to his specifications. It just seems that there is nothing he can’t do. “I’m an ordinary fellow,” he has said. “But I have to be different in what I do…Because that’s what keeps me in the music business.”
His creativity covers every aspect of his stage shows, from his innovative use of special effects such as reverb, tremolo and distortion to make his guitars talk, mumble and roar like jet engines to his use of female guitarists and musicians, including; Lady Bo, Duchess, Cookie and, most recently, Debby Hastings and Margo Lewis, on stage. And the man himself has set his own individual style with his distinctive all-black outfit complete with hat and over-sized eagle badge.
His stage performances have influenced many other rock greats. He himself was inspired by musicians ranging from Louis Jordan to John Lee Hooker and from Nat “King” Cole to Muddy Waters, His larger than life stage presence – hopping and strutting around the stage, playing his guitars with his teeth, over his head, between his legs, and every which way set a standard for every other guitarist to come. He shaped and defined the sound and presentation of rock music for all time. Artists from Elvis Presley to George Thorogood, from The Rolling Stones to ZZ Top, from The Doors to The Clash, from Buddy Holly to Prince, and from The Everly Brothers to Run DMC, have all acknowledged the unique influences of Bo Diddley upon their styles of music:
Bo Diddley has been a well -respected artist and has even performed for presidents. He played a concert for the President and Jackie Kennedy. He also played at t the Inaugural gala in Washington D. C. for President Bush, and not controlled by politics, he performed at the Democratic National Convention for Bill Clinton. Some of his other accomplishments include being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987; having a star in the sidewalk on the Hollywood Hall of Fame in 1989; and receiving the Lifetime Achievement award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation at the Seventh Annual Pioneer Awards in 1996. And now he is playing for the good people of Antelope Valley.
For anyone who has never seen Diddley in live concert they are indeed in for a treat. Even after 50 years the man still rocks like few others. And he shows no signs of slowing down at 76 years In an exclusive interview he revealed that one new project he has in the works is recording those violin concertos he wrote many years ago. Unable to play violin he says because his fingers are now too large for the instrument, he is recreating the concertos with the use of synthesizers. And to top that off, after the Lancaster performance he is leaving on tour, beginning with four concerts in Austrailia and continuing on to Europe throughout April.
This week he will be joined by The Debby Hastings Band featuring Hastings as bandleader and on bass, Margo Lewis on keyboards, Frank Daley on guitar and Yoshi Shimada on drums. Tickets are still available to see this legend at work, and can be purchased at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center box office or by phone at 661/949-5950.