If you find yourself bopping to a bouncy, syncopated, and insanely catchy rock ‘n’ roll beat, its creator is likely Bo Diddley, born Otha Ellas Bates on December 30, 1928, in McComb, Mississippi. His nickname “the Originator” stems from the beat he calls “that freight train sound,” played on his signature rectangular guitar he designed and built while at Foster Vocational School in 1945.
In 1955, signed to the Checker label, Diddley was the first African-American to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, but was subsequently banned for playing his self-titled debut hit “Bo Diddley” rather than the agreed-upon “Sixteen Tons.” The B-side, “I’m A Man,” supposedly propelled rival Muddy Waters to answer with “Mannish Boy.”
Diddley found less commercial success in the U.S than in England. The Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, and the Animals all covered his songs and made obvious his importance to rock ‘n’ roll.
He has played with many high-profile acts such as the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, and—perhaps surprisingly—opened for the Clash. Diddley’s status has been widely recognized with numerous industry awards, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll, Blues, and Rockabilly Halls of Fame, and received both the Grammy and the R&B Lifetime Achievement Awards.
In 2005, he toured North America, Europe, and Australia celebrating his 50th anniversary in the music industry, and headlined a 2006 benefit concert for Katrina-ravaged Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Bo is currently working on “Old Folks Rap” and is also involved politically, with a project called “Bo Diddley Speaks,” offering his opinions on issues ranging from preventing violence against women to the war in Iraq. As Bo said, “I’m 78 years old and I’ve got to talk about some of this shit . . . excuse me . . . some of this stuff before I’m too old to remember it.”
Sometimes called “the Jimi Hendrix of the pedal steel,” Robert Randolph displays his influences, but treasures individuality, leaving his stamp on every performance. He heads up the very funky and very rockin’ Robert Randolph & the Family Band, composed of Robert (guitars and vocals), Marcus Randolph (drums), Danyel Morgan (bass), and Jason Crosby (organ).
Robert Randolph was trained as a pedal steel guitarist in the House of God Church, in Orange, NJ, and brings the instrument to life. The first Robert Randolph & the Family Band album, Live at the Wetlands, was released in 2002, and Unclassified, in 2003, attracted the attention of Eric Clapton, with whom they have toured extensively. On the band’s latest album, Colorblind, you’ll hear a searing version of “Jesus Is Just Alright,” with Randolph and Clapton trading guitar licks and vocals (see Elmore’s “On the Record” in this issue). Before releasing albums with the Family Band, Randolph was selected by avant-jazz organist John Medeski to join him and the North Mississippi Allstars on their 2001 jam project, The Word.
Now headlining festivals, Robert Randolph is well on his way. Clapton once thought he’d see the beginning and the end of rock ‘n’ roll in his lifetime, but changed his mind when he met Robert. Listening to Randolph jam with Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and John Medeski of Medeski, Martin, and Wood at a live show will make you a believer too —there is no doubt. E
Elmore: What are you listening to right now?
Bo Diddley: I listen mostly to country music. I like Vince Gill. In fact, all of them out there, from Dolly Parton on down. I haven’t heard Vince’s new CD yet.
Robert Randolph: I listen to a lot of older music. Aside from the new Red Hot Chili Peppers’ record, I listen to a lot of Sly Stone, a lot of Zeppelin, a lot of old Derek and the Dominoes stuff just to keep me fresh. When I listen to that stuff I’m listening to how those guys look for originality in what they were doing. I’m not trying to copy anything. I’m trying to remain original and keep that kind of side to it.
EM: What was the first record you ever bought?
BD: I don’t buy records. I might have bought twenty in my whole life. They used to turn me loose in the stock room. I figure in the music industry it’s a disaster. Electronics has ruined everything. No more . . . you don’t have any people learning instruments any more. It’s all push a button and the damn machines do everything. It’s a recipe for disaster.
RR: The first record I ever bought was Michael Jackson’s Thriller years and years and years ago. I didn’t buy it. They bought it for me ’cause I wanted it when I was a young, young kid.
EM: Where do you buy your music?
BD: I don’t buy records.
RR: Now I get it off my iTunes. I got no patience for record stores so I get it off my iTunes, go and download a bunch of stuff.
EM: What’s your favorite album of all time?
BD: I have no idea what my favorite album is. There are so many out there. I can’t pick one. I’m in this kind of political type thing now that I talk about. A lot of times I get tired of talking about rock ‘n’ roll because I’ve been out here for 52 years. I’m a broken record. They ask me the same thing over and over all the time. I’d like for the readers to know that I think about other things just like they do.
RR: Favorite album of all time has gotta be Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It’s either that or it’s Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Greatest Hits. Not a week that don’t go by that I don’t listen to that.
EM: What was the first instrument you played?
BD: The first instrument I played was the violin. I got 12 years of classical music. That’s something people don’t know about me. I was about 11 or 12 when I picked up the guitar. My mother wasn’t too happy about it. She did not like that thing. I played in the church and I was in the Ebenezer Baptist Congress Orchestra and the band. I played trombone in the band, and I played the second violin in the orchestra. I was playing guitar around my house when she didn’t chase me. I’ll say this much, she didn’t catch me.
RR: The first instrument I played was drums. Started out playing for the church youth choir (slight chuckle).
EM: What brought you to the instrument you now play?
BD: My sister bought me my first guitar. And my mother liked to kill her. ‘Why did you buy that thing for that boy? That’s devil music.’ She never changed her mind.
RR: In church, I grew up watching some of my older guys from the Sacred Steel movement, guys like Calvin Cooke and Ted Beard and Glenn Lee. That’s where I got it from, being in the House of God Church just watching those guys play.
EM: What musician influenced you most?
BD: Nobody influenced me as a musician. Nobody. I’m self-made. Everybody tries to sound like me. I don’t know what I did, but whatever it was, it worked. I had no idea I was going to do what I’m doing. I really had no idea. My brother is a minister in Biloxi, Mississippi. I didn’t want to be a preacher, but he does his thing and I do mine. I never had the idea that I was going to be worldwide known. I’m serious. I never thought I’d make a living at this. It scared the hell out of me.
RR: Ah, on the mainstream level I would say Stevie Ray Vaughan. On the not mainstream level I would say it’s a guy named Ted Beard from my church, who is one of the forefathers of the Sacred Steel pedal steel sound.
EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?
BD: I didn’t necessarily want to do this, but I found out I could make a living at it, so I hung on to it. It beats driving a truck. I wrote “Love is Strange” under somebody else’s name because the person it’s named under is my ex-wife, Ebba Smith. I didn’t know how the business worked then. So I put it under my ex-wife’s name.
RR: Watching an episode of Austin City Limits when it was a rerun, the second time that Stevie Ray Vaughan had done it. That’s what made me want to be a musician.
EM: Who would you like in your rock and roll heaven band?
BD: I have somebody I would use, a dude who’s in New York. Sandy who is a drummer, I don’t know Sandy’s last name. I have another drummer that between the two of them, I would use one of them. Yoshi is a Japanese friend of mine. Yoshi’s last name I can’t think of. I don’t really have anybody who’s around today that I would have. I wouldn’t put Ray Charles on the keyboard. He doesn’t fit what I do. He could, but I would have somebody like Otis Spann. He’s deceased. Somebody on keyboard like him. “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing” . . . I think he just died. Billy Preston. He does my kind of stuff. Maybe Willie Dixon on bass. I have a daughter who kicks ass on drums – Tammi Deanne. I don’t know too many horn players who still play today.
RR: Rock and roll heaven band —I would say it would be Carlos Santana, it would be Carter Beauford on drums from the Dave Matthews Band, I would say the horn section from the Conan O’Brien Show, and bass player would be my own bass player Danyel [Morgan] on the bass, with John Medeski on organ.