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Q & A with BO DIDDLEY : He's Fighting Mad and Mad That He Has to Fight

February 27, 1996|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bo Diddley is one of the pillars of rock 'n' roll, and one of the few rock artists whose name is attached to a musical signature--the distinctive, syncopated "Bo Diddley beat" that resonates through the ages, from his first record, 1955's "Bo Diddley," through Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" to Bruce Springsteen's "She's the One" to David Bowie's "Sound and Vision."

Diddley (real name, Ellas McDaniel) was born in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago, where he joined Chuck Berry on Chess Records at the dawn of rock. Like many of his peers, he was shortchanged on his earnings, a situation that the Washington-based Rhythm & Blues Foundation seeks to rectify through a program of financial grants. The nonprofit organization will present Diddley with its 1996 Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Pioneer Awards ceremonies on Thursday at the Hollywood Palladium.

During a recent phone interview from his home in Archer, Fla., the colorful Diddley looked back at the beginnings and lamented the inequities that followed.

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Question: Many of the rock 'n' roll pioneers originally wanted to be more conventional kinds of performers--Chuck Berry's model was Nat King Cole, for instance. What about you?

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Answer: No, I didn't even have that on my mind. I wanted to be an auto mechanic or a doctor. But I wouldn't go to school. . . . I had no idea I was gonna be who I am when I made the record in 1955. I thought I'd be out here for six months and I'd be back out drivin' a truck. It never dawned on me who I wanted to pattern after. I didn't copy after nobody. It was one Muddy Waters, one John Lee Hooker and one Bo Diddley. That's enough.

Q: What were you trying to capture on "Bo Diddley" and your other early records?

A: It's real. Nothing phony, and nothing dirty. Clean all the way through. And I will continue to record clean records whether they get played or not. I just feel like America is slipping away from the first things that we did. All our music is going overseas and thrown back at us and we eat it up, you dig? And I don't feel that that's right.

Q: Are you talking about the English bands that picked up on rock 'n' roll in the '60s?

A: They made money and I didn't. . . . I don't really get the credit that I'm due. And it hurts.

Q: It sounds as if you're still bitter.

A: Why shouldn't I be bitter? I'm 67 years old and got to work. It ain't a thing where I can work if I want to. I got to get out there, because I've been ripped off. It's wrong the way we were done. As entertainers, all we thought about was playing and making people happy. We had other people that was supposed to be taking care of the business. "We play and you work the figures. Now I'm gonna give you so much for workin' the figures. Now you take yours and leave mine." Instead, they take theirs and add a little bit of mine to it and I never did see the part that was supposed to be mine. So this is what we were dealin' with.

Q: What about being named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and this award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation? Doesn't that make you feel you're getting some credit?

A: That doesn't take away my bitterness about what happened to me. To me it's all the same. Recognition without finance is a nuisance. Don't give me a bunch of gold records, which I got and I thought I was raisin' hell--but there was supposed to have been some dollars along with 'em.

The R&B Foundation is recognizing me, and it's an honor to be recognized for the part that I played and the years that I served and the music that I've done for America and all over the world. But they can never take away the mistreatment that was done. We've been had, man. They ripped off a lot of us. It's just not right. I'm into that thing now trying to catch crooks to get what's due me.

Q: Is there legal action under way?

A: Yeah, I'm gettin' into it. A lot of these people is still doin' stuff under different names. They run around talkin' about statute of limitations. Statute of limitations is for crooks. If he can hide behind this statute of limitations, this only lets him go do somebody else the same way and hope like hell he never gets caught. So the system helps him to be a good thief as far as I'm concerned.

Q: Can you tell us whom you're talking about?

A: No, I ain't gonna tell you that. If I'm after you, I'm not gonna tell you I got a stack of bricks I'm gonna throw at you. 'Cause you'll know it when you see 'em coming.

Q: Let's get back to the music. The Clash took you on tour as their opening act during the punk-rock era. What was that like?

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