, , , ,

I recently interviewed Billy Boy Arnold following a show at New York City’s City Winery. This is the second part of that interview. As a solo artist Billy Boy recorded “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You” which were famously covered by the Yardbirds.  (Bo Diddley’s “She’s Fine, She’s Mine” with Billy Boy blowing his harp was the first recording of the song that became “You Don’t Love Me,” recorded as an extended jam by the Allman Brothers and forming the entire second side of “At Fillmore East.”  That story will be in the book The Unbroken Circle.)

There have been many stories told about how Ellas McDaniel became Bo Diddley, including theories that the name derives from the Diddley Bow (essentially a one string guitar, typically a single wire attached to the side of a sharecroppers cabin in the Mississippi Delta.)

Billy Boy was there on the south side of Chicago, and he is very clear on the origins of the name Bo Diddley:

“Me and Ellas McDaniel was playing on a street corner, the first time I started playing with him, and there was a little short guy on the opposite side of the street. The bass player Roosevelt (Roosevelt Jackson, then playing washtub bass with Ellas) says ‘hey Ellas, there goes Bo Diddley.’ It was a little short guy, about four feet something, extremely bow legged, and he was a comedian at the Indiana theater. They used to go and play at the Indiana Theater, at the midnight ramble every Saturday night. They played regular moving pictures all day, regular movies, and on Saturday night they would clear the theater and have a midnight ramble, and they would always feature major blues artists. The major blues artists they would have when I was there would be Big Bill Broonzy or Memphis Minnie, and they had Butterbeans and Suzie, comedians, dancers, and Ellas McDaniel would go up and play. It wasn’t all blues, it was some novelty too, and there was a comedian named Bo Diddley. That’s where I first heard that word. The comedian was the little short guy; his name was Bo Diddley. That’s a stage name. When I first heard that word, I was only 15, I cracked up, I just started laughing, I had never heard that word Bo Diddley before.”

Returning the story to that street corner in Chicago: “This was in 1951 when he was going down the street, and he says ‘there goes Bo Diddley’ the comedian at the Indiana theater.”

A few years later, after honing their music on Maxwell Street, the midnight rambles at the Indiana Theater, and the clubs of Chicago’s south side, Ellas McDaniel and his band “The Hipsters” (Billy Boy, Ellas McDaniel, and Roosevelt Jackson) were ready to record. After being turned down by United Artists and Vee Jay Records, The Hipsters impressed Leonard and Phil Chess with their originality, and were in the studio for their first session. It wasn’t going to be called “Bo Diddley” though, as Billy Boy explains: “You know about the song ‘Bo Diddley,’ don’t you?” asked Billy Boy. “Well we didn’t have no song called Bo Diddley and we didn’t have no band called Bo Diddley.”

The band had recorded “I’m a Man” and was working on the flip side “Uncle John,” but the lyrics were too suggestive for Leonard Chess, so the band was improvising new lyrics in the studio:

“In 1955 when we was getting this record together, he was playing a hambone beat on the guitar, and he said ‘papa going to buy baby a diamond ring’ but he only had a few little things, and so I started throwing in lyrics to the song. About three or four lyrics I threw in, but I didn’t get credit because I was too young. So I said ‘why don’t you say Bo Diddley going to buy baby a diamond ring.’ That was an on the spot thing I suggested to Ellas, I said ‘why don’t you say Bo Diddley’s going to buy baby a diamond ring.’ And Leonard Chess said, wait a minute, hold it, hold it, I don’t want to put nothing on the record that’s going to offend black people.”

Already unhappy with the original lyrics, Leonard had no idea what “Bo Diddley” meant and wanted to make sure there was nothing offensive in the phrase. “I said no, it just means an extreme bow legged guy, Bo Diddley. That’s how the word got in there, that’s how his name as an artist got in there.” Leonard Chess was clearly taken by the unusual name. “I was surprised when the record came out a couple of weeks later, “Bo Diddley” by “Bo Diddley.” If I had a say at that, his record would have came out Ellas McDaniel and the Hipsters. I think the word Bo Diddley helped sensationalize the record, cause it was something different. That’s how it got in.”