Gussie's husband, Robert, died when Bo was little. At about age seven, Bo moved with Gussie, her two daughters and her son to Chicago, to live with an Uncle Herbert and Aunt Janie — the latter a churchgoing woman who took the boy on regular visits to the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Those were the Depression years — "hard times," Bo says — and the family scraped by on occasional stockyard jobs and government relief. When he was about eight, Bo saw a man "dragging a stick across some strings" and decided that he, too, wanted to play the violin. The congregation at Ebenezer Baptist took up a collection to buy him one, and soon he was studying with the church's musical director, Professor O.W. Frederick, from whom he also learned trombone. "I used to read all this funny music, like Tchaikovsky," Bo says. "But then I didn't see too many black dudes playin' no violin."
His nickname, Bo Diddley, was given to him by grammar-school classmates, he says; he has no idea what, if anything, it means. In the early Forties, he taught himself to play guitar the easy way — open tuned — and began performing on street corners with guitarist Earl Hooker, a fellow student at the Foster Vocational High School. Bo wrote his own tunes even then — songs with titles like "Hey, Noxzema" and "Dirty Muthuh Fuh Yuh." He left school at sixteen, and between jobs at a punchboard factory and as an elevator operator at a seat-cover company (along with occasional amateur boxing matches), he continued playing the streets through the end of the Forties with a group that included Little Joe Williams on second guitar, a washtub bassist named Roosevelt and Jerome Green on maracas. ("Jerome couldn't carry a tune in a bag," says Bo, "but that sucker could shake those maracas.") He also married a woman named Ethel Smith, with whom he had two children, Tanya and Anthony.
By the early Fifties, with the now legendary Chicago blues scene exploding all around them — Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf — Bo and his band had moved off the streets and into the city's booming South Side clubs. In 1955, he was signed to Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess, the renowned blues label run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. His classic Checker sides — not just the obvious hits but such terrific nuggets as "Diddley Daddy," "Hush Your Mouth," "Bring It to Jerome" (with Green singing lead) and the moody blues-violin opus "The Clock Strikes Twelve" — revealed Bo to be a raw and powerful talent. There were Latin and even African elements in his music, but his roof-shaking vocals were straight out of the Delta-blues tradition. He was a rock & roll hitmaker before Chuck Berry — a Chess stable mate — had even released his first record.
Along with the classic singles came a series of classic albums: Go Bo Diddley; Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger; Have Guitar, Will Travel. The titles occasionally alluded to transient musical trends — Bo Diddley's a Twister, Surfin' with Bo Diddley — but the music remained, even through the Sixties, inimitably his own. By 1967, however, when he scored his last entry in the pop Top 100 with a song called "Ooh Baby," the glory days were over. He relocated to Los Angeles and then — at the suggestion of his pals the Everly Brothers — to New Mexico. There he settled in a town called Los Lunas and even became a deputy sheriff for Valencia County. By the end of the Seventies, though, he'd moved to Florida, where, when he's not on the road — as he pretty much still is most weeks, flying off to play with pickup bands across the country — he's content to remain.
Bo is a bitter man in many ways — bitter about what he sees as the financial injustices he suffered, first at the hands of Chess Records, then at the hands of the New Jersey-based Sugar Hill label, which bought the Chess catalog in the mid-Seventies. Like many black artists of the Fifties — Chuck Berry, for example, or Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, acts that sacrificed songwriting credits to the white DJs and label executives who helped make them stars — Bo feels he was exploited throughout his career.
Was he? Details are difficult to come by at this remove. Leonard Chess is dead, and his brother, Phil, who lives in Arizona now, was unavailable for comment at press time. According to Marshall Chess — Leonard's son, who grew up around the Chess studios from the mid-Fifties — Bo was "always coming in every three weeks for advances. He was one of those guys who would five-hundred you to death; then, at the end of the year, he'd see a statement where he owed $30,000, and he'd say, 'I don't owe that.'"
Marshall acknowledges that "black artists in that era had a problem" — record-company royalty payments were generally low, from two to four percent and only half that much for foreign sales. But, says Chess, "we never cheated any artists. We weren't that kind of company. I'm sure that Bo got paid on every record sold, minus returns." The Chess catalog was sold in 1967 to GRT, a tape-retailing company that has since gone bankrupt. Sugar Hill Records bought the catalog in 1974, but Joe Robinson, head of Sugar Hill, declined to discuss any Chess-related business while he is embroiled in a civil suit against MCA, the company that entered into a distribution agreement with Sugar Hill in 1983 and now owns the Chess catalog. Bo hopes that MCA, at last, will "do the right thing" and pay him the royalties he feels he's owed. Says an MCA spokesman, "MCA is paying royalties whenever a contract calls for it."
To straighten out his tangled business affairs, Bo has retained the services of the New York-based Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation, which also represents such other dissatisfied Chess acts as Etta James.
In the meantime, Bo continues to crank out albums on his own. One, Ain't It Good to Be Free, has been released on the French New Rose label, but Bo is unable to get a U.S. recording deal. He remains a marvel in performance — as raucously riveting as ever — but he is frustrated by the tastes of today's kids, who, he feels, have never known real rock & roll; they seem to prefer the screaming guitars of modern rock and perceive his music, if at all, as simply old-fashioned. "I feel like I'm bein' led to the slaughterhouse," he says grimly.
But Bo Diddley is a survivor, still the same man who sang, a quarter of a century ago, "You got your radio turned down too low — turn it up!" The message remains the same, and just as salutary, however many people are still able to hear it.