Bo Diddleys Basement

Bo Diddley's Basement

Jay Boersma

What seems like centuries ago, when I was just out of high school, I played guitar in a band that, as often as not, had trouble finding practice spaces. One of my band-mates, a drummer who tended to disappear for months at a time, suggested that he could arrange for us to practice in Bo Diddley's basement and, though I had serious doubts about the drummer's credibility, we all knew immediately that we had to give it a try because, well, it was Bo Diddley's basement.

This was before nostalgia rock had become big business and none of us had heard much about Bo Diddley for years (beyond a cut we enjoyed on an Animals album called The Story of Bo Diddley). Regardless, late one summer afternoon the four of us squeezed ourselves and our instruments into a couple of cars and headed for Chicago's south side. When we pulled up to the address, a large old home on a street of large old homes, a big man wearing a sweatband and huge black rubber boots was cleaning the driveway with a bright green garden hose. "Go on in," he said, "Studio's downstairs."

The studio was sparsely furnished. At one end of it was a neglected mixing board stacked with junk. Hanging on the walls were some of Bo Diddley's remarkable rectangular, triangular and other-anglular guitars. Some had strings on them, some did not. We set up our equipment and began to practice. (Somewhat embarrassing to admit but) we were working on a cover of Donovan Leitch's Season of the Witch when I saw the black rubber boots coming down the stairway.

Bo Diddley stood at the base of the stairs, listening to us with his hands on his hips. After taking it in for a while, he walked up to the lead singer/guitarist and said, "You play pretty good. Try doing this." And he made a ch-ch-chuh, cha-ch-ch-chuh sound with his mouth while flicking the strings of an imaginary guitar with his fingers. Then he went to the drummer and gave similar instructions with boomp-chabomps replacing the ch-ch-chuhs. To me, the least proficient musician present, he said, "Just follow with the chords." We began to play as instructed and Bo Diddley stood back and listened, a faint smile coming to his face. He nodded. Season of the Witch now sounded exactly like a Bo Diddley song.

We practiced for a few more hours, pausing at one point to discuss how to address our host. "Mr. Diddley" sounded absurd. "Bo" sounded too familiar. We settled on "Sir."

Shortly afterwards we wrapped what wound up being the one and only time we practiced in that location. As we packed the cars, Bo Diddley again walked up to us and offered this bit of professional advice, "Make sure you know more than one song before you get a hit record."

Apparently he had not done this and it created a problem early in his career.