Bo Didley Dies at 79
[Recently retired Washington Post music writer Richard Harrington recalls a fateful encounter with Bo Diddley....and the night he and WAMA head Mike Schreibman saved Bo's life....]
When Bo Diddley and I talked in November of 2006 for a Washington Post Weekend feature-the then-77-year old rock and roll icon was giving a concert at the Music Center at Strathmore-we talked about the obvious things: his creating that chunky "Bo Diddley beat," one of most identifiable, instantly recognizable syncopated rhythms in rock history (think "shave and a haircut-two bits"); the trademark custom built "cigar box" electric guitar he'd dubbed "the mean machine."
We also talked about his eight year Washington residency (1957 to 1966) during which he discovered Billy Stewart and the Jewels, briefly had Bobby Parker as his guitarist and recorded 1960's classic "Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger" in the basement of his Rhode Island Avenue house in NE after creating one of the first DIY home recording studios (basically a Presto taper machine).
And of course a subject very close to Bo's heart: the injustices of the music business, from unpaid royalties for the cornerstone, incessantly covered rock standards he'd written (much less the desired-but-legally-unattainable royalties from dozens of hits built on his bedrock beat, starting with Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away") to a lack of historic recognition for all those contributions.
He was, he insisted, The Originator, one of rock and roll's founding fathers, a chemist who'd changed the very sound and substance of the electric guitar. Yet for decades, he'd been pretty much abandoned by his progeny.
"They don't know who I am," Diddley complained bitterly. "Somebody's got to tell the stories before I'm dead and gone. I want to be in the history books for what I really did." A lot of rock history will undoubtedly be recalled now that Diddley has passed away at the age of 79 from heart failure. He'd suffered a heart attack last August, a stroke three months before that. The Bo Diddley Beat will go on though its architect won't.
This particular story isn't in the books, even George White's exhaustively researched 1995 bio, "Bo Diddley: Living Legend." [Well, Bo's version of it is, but...]
It's about the night Bo almost lost his life in Washington and how, fortunately, me and Mike ended up giving him another 37 years on the planet.
"I remember that," Diddley guffawed heartily when I brought it up. "You know, that shit's still affecting me-there should be a law against that bullshit."
Diddley was recalling early May, 1970, just a few days after the shooting deaths of four students on the campus of Kent State University during an anti-war protest. Diddley and fellow founding father Chuck Berry were at G.W.U.'s Lisner Auditorium, a date scheduled long before the nationwide campus unrest following Kent State. Promoter Schreibman had had to turn it into a free concert in an effort to get protesting students-many from out of town--off the streets and away from burning cars and tear gas hanging in the air after intense student-police confrontations around the GW campus. Diddley had kept a wary eye on the police outside Lisner that night: at one point, he was at the stage door, mock-singing "'Hey pig, get off my back/you don't protect, you only attack."[Ironically, a year later, Diddley himself became a deputy sheriff in Los Lunas , New Mexico.]
About halway through the show, the chief of police came into Lisner and told Mike to clear the building. Mike pointed out that if he did that, the kids would just be tear-gassed outside. The chief said if Mike cleared the building, the police would stop their tear-gassing. So with that promise, Mike ended the concert and cleared the building--and the departing concert goers were promply tear-gassed by the police anyways.
Almost 40 years later, the chaotic scene at Lisner was still fresh in Diddley's mind.
"The police was acting like it was in Nazi Germany or a third world country and this is supposed to be America, the land of the brave and the home of the free! I ain't free and we ain't free until people can actually say a few things without anybody saying anything against them," he grumped. "I used to be a cop and you don't have to be that way because you have authority."
After dealing with Chuck Berry's demands for added cash for all the folks let in for free, Mike and I (still seven years away from my first Post review) offered Bo a ride back to his motel in Arlington. Not noticing the car was coated with tear gas, we rolled down the windows and stuck our heads out as we drove off; we didn't realize the tear gas dust was blowing directly into our faces. By the time we were getting onto the Whitehurst Freeway, we were all blind and the car was headed directly into the concrete dividing barrier-until I opened my eyes--barely--saw what loomed ahead and screamed a warning that allowed Mike to swerve back onto the freeway at the last minute. Getting across Key Bridge, we found a gas station, hoping to wash off the car and maybe wash out our eyes. But after being confronted by several white men with baseball bats and very bad attitudes, we opted for a hasty exit.
We eventually ended up at a nearby restaurant and Bo, Mike and I went in, still hoping to wash the tear gas out of our eyes. But even though it was 1970, multiracial (and obviously radical!) groups were not particularly welcome even in Northern Virginia, just across the bridge--and the manager let us know that in no uncertain terms.
"What freaked them out was a black dude and two white dudes running into this restaurant that was supposed to be segregated, running to the basement to try and put some water in our eyes-that was the worst thing in the world we coulda did," Bo recalled with a laugh. "Things worked out OK and I hope that old man that was raising hell is resting in peace if his ass is dead."
Thankfully, we managed to wash our eyes out just enough to get back in the car and deliver Bo to his hotel.
Oddly, in White's book, Bo remembers getting gassed, but not the circumstances, and some of his details are a little curious--neither Mike or I remember a can of tear gas going off under the car while we were in it, or "whites this way, blacks this way" signs in the restaurant--nothing so blatant. And in Bo's version, the police chief shows up as "a big tall dude dressed in black leather with a helmet over his face an' a big stick, an' a riot gun over his shoulder. The cat acted just like a German stormtrooper."
Come to think of it, it's a great story, like one of Bo's songs. Really, all it needed was a great beat.