Words & Music

Bo Diddley

John with Bo Diddley

Playing drums with Bo Diddley at the Town Pump, 1987

Watching Bo Diddley eat

I played with Bo Diddley in 1987. He was traveling alone, and needed a back-up band for a one-nighter at the Town Pump in Vancouver. The club was one of the city’s great venues, and as Bo was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame that same year, he was getting quite a bit of press. The show was sold out, and absolutely jammed.

We hung out backstage before going on, while he enjoyed his steak and sherry. Not wanting to risk messing up his stage clothes, he took off his shirt and ate in his underwear.

Backing up Bo Diddley

Backing up Bo Diddley

As show time got closer, we asked if he had any specific instructions; keys, songs, etc., but he wanted to tell us about his afternoon, which he had spent checking out local pawn shops. He refused to give any music-related information at all, outside of telling me not – under any circumstances - to play the Bo Diddley beat. Instead, whenever he went into the ‘shave-and-a-haircut, two-bits’ rhythm, I was to play a half-time feel on the kit. I was surprised, figuring the tom tom pattern was the one thing he’d want me to play, but the updated groove sounded great.

Outside of that one specific directive, he had the same answer for pretty much every question. What are we going to open with? "You'll see." What key? "You'll see."

Sure enough, once we get on stage, he just started playing, with the band holding on for dear life, listening for keys and cues. He’d do a four-bar intro, and in that time we’d try to figure out the key, groove, and everything else.

Bo Diddley drums out the stragglers

Bo knows how to get rid of the stragglers

Having to rely on your instincts, with no chance for second guessing, is an exhilarating experience, and it certainly brought out the best in us that night.

After the first encore, we headed to the dressing room. The audience kept calling for more, and we were brought back again. This time, before hitting the stage, Bo told us he had a trick for getting rid of them - the audience - and proceeded to take over my kit, playing a drum solo. It was decidedly second rate, but that was intentional. People began filing out, and the man was pleased as could be.

We hung out for quite a while after the show; Bo entertained us with incredible tales of rock when it was in its infancy, getting ripped off by record labels, and his then-current life as a part-time inventor and honorary Sherriff back home in Florida.

When he came through Vancouver the following year, he requested the same players, but unfortunately, I was on the road, and couldn’t make the gig. Too bad; I would have loved to have done it again.

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