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Bo Diddley Influencing Generations of Rockers


With his rectangular guitar, Bo Diddley reshaped rock and roll. He died yesterday of heart failure at the age of 79. Born Ellas Otha Bates in Mississippi in 1928, Diddley influenced musicians like Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones.

We've got music blogger and marketing executive, Rob Fields, to talk about Bo Diddley's contribution to American music. Rob blogs about black rock at Thanks for coming on.

Mr. ROB FIELDS (Blogger, Thanks for having me, again, Farai. How are you today?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So, people like Bo Diddley and Little Richard and Chuck Berry are royalty in the rock music world. And some people forget that African-Americans were the original pioneers of rock and roll. Why was Bo Diddley important?

Mr. FIELDS: Bo Diddley was important because he did something that was completely unheard of at the time, and that was, he used his guitar as a percussion instrument, not as melody or color, but as something that was an extension of what drums would be doing.

So, his famous Bo Diddley beat, that bomp a bomp a bomp, bomp, bomp, you know, has been used for music throughout the last 40 years. And it has been in songs as diverse as, you know, "Not Fade Away" by Buddy Holly on up to "I Want Candy" by the Strangeloves to the Stoogies 1969 to "Faith" by George Michael, to U2's "Desire." I mean the list goes on.

CHIDEYA: I actually want to play you a little bit of Led Zeppelin because, recently, we talked on our show about the ways that that group appropriated blues and early black rock.

Mr. FIELDS: Mmm hmm.

(Soundbite of song "Talk About Love")

LED ZEPPELIN (singing): Talk about love. Talk about love. Talk about...

CHIDEYA: So, you know, Led Zeppelin added a little bit of - there was a heavy bottom and, you know, a fullness to Led Zeppelin's sound...

Mr. FIELDS: Mmm hmm. Right.

CHIDEYA: But, you know, how do you think a group like that, you mentioned so many already, and now I have "I Want Candy" stuck in my brain...

Mr. FIELDS: Right. Exactly.

CHIDEYA: But how do you think Bo Diddley influenced Led Zeppelin?

Mr. FIELDS: I mean, I think that that whole, I mean, part of the Led Zeppelin mystique was sort of Robert Plant's front man status, and Bo Diddley's also known for his sort of larger than life personality, his braggadocio, his, what shall we call this? Self-mythologizing. I mean, you see it today in artists like Kanye West.

So, but he was this kind of dangerous guy and that was his persona. I mean, he's a nice guy, but his on stage persona was dangerous and, sort of, full of sexual come on, and, you know, that was a lot of the Led Zeppelin mystique.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of the sexuality, how do you think that was perceived culturally, during the era when, you know, really, African-Americans created and ruled rock and roll and, yet, were so popular with a multi-racial audience?

Mr. FIELDS: It really, I think, hurt him because what was more palatable to white audiences was sort of the more sexually ambiguous artists. You know, sort of like, you know, Little Richard, I mean, Little Richard was not sort of this threatening black man. You know, he was sort of flamboyant and sort of, more of a show man kind of thing.

But that really hurt him and, in fact, there's one story where Bo Diddley almost got into a fight with Ed Sullivan because of some misunderstandings on the "Ed Sullivan Show" about what song he was supposed to play. Ed Sullivan wanted him to play one song, but he wanted to do his "Bo Diddley" song, so that's what he did. And Ed Sullivan ended up calling him, boy, and said, boy, first time a black boy's double crossed me. Imean, they had to pull Bo Diddley out of there because he was about to jump on Ed Sullivan.

CHIDEYA: Wow. Well, you know, we've talked about how Bo Diddley affected the paths of white musicians, but, also, there's a black rock movement. It was started really in the 1980s with the black rock coalition. You helped play a role in its creation. And, now, we've seen something where there are new black rock acts emerging.

Spoken word artist and actor Saul Williams' CD "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!" is getting critical acclaim.

(Soundbite of song "Bloody Sunday")

Mr. SAUL WILLIAMS: (Singing) We can be as one tonight. Broken bottles under children's feet.

CHIDEYA: Now, that's his rendition of the U2 classic, "Bloody Sunday." So, do you see things kind of going in full circle right now with the evolution of rock out of the African-American community and kind of a reclaiming of it?

Mr. FIELDS: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that, you know, we are in the midst of this huge cultural shift right now. And, you know, Barack Obama's only the largest and most visible aspect of that, but one of the things that Bo Diddley represented was this artist who was very clear from the beginning that he wanted to do his own thing and have his own sound. He was clear that he did not want to sound like anyone else.

And what you're finding now, particularly amongst black rock artists and black audiences, is that they want artists to be individuals and create a new sound. And they don't want them to be cookie cutter.

And that's what black rock artists in the larger sense of the term have always been about, sort of exploring their own personal taste, but filtering it certainly through, you know, a black cultural sensitivity, but, you know, really embracing the fullness of American music and international music and just being themselves.

CHIDEYA: Give me a quick hit on how you think the internet and iPods are changing the game?

Mr. FIELDS: Oh, my god! I mean, this cultural shift is being driven by the internet, by broadband connections, by the fact that, you know, you can find and more easily discover music today than at any point in the past.

Certainly, it's also being driven by, you know, these, what we call the millennial generation, folks in their 20s, who have much different attitudes than the boomers did about race and gender and sexuality, and just their whole attitude is sort of beginning to be felt.

And so, that's opening up areas of experimentation, of music discovery from one person to another on an individual basis. It's happening even as we speak.

CHIDEYA: And you can get yourself a little Bo Diddley while you're at it. Rob, thanks.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Rob Field is a marketing executive. He also blogs about black rock at He joined us from our NPR studios in New York City.

(Soundbite of song "Road Runner")

Mr. BO DIDDLEY: (Singing) Oh, yeah. How am I doing? Oh, beep beep. Take my hand, baby. I want to prove to you that I'm a...

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our website To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at

News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.