According to Bo Diddley’s biography on I-tunes, “He only had a few hits in the 1950s and early ’60s, but just as Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,” you can’t judge an artist by his chart success either, and Diddley produced greater and more influential music than all but a handful of the best early rockers. The Bo Diddley beat is one of the early bedrock rhythms, showing up in the work of Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, and even pop-garage knockoffs like the Strangeloves’ 1965 hit “I Want Candy.” Diddley’s hypnotic rhythmic attack and declamatory, boasting vocals stretched back to Africa for their roots and looked as far into the future as rap. His trademark otherworldly vibrating, fuzzy guitar style did much to expand the instrument’s power and range. But even more important, Bo’s bounce was fun and irresistibly rocking, with a wisecracking, jiving tone that epitomized Rock n’ Roll at its most humorously outlandish and freewheeling.”
When I was a budding teenager of thirteen, I loved Bo Diddley’s music. I just couldn’t get enough. On November 20, 1955, Bo appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a popular television variety show, where he infuriated Ed. “I did two songs, and he got mad,” Bo Diddley later recalled. “Ed Sullivan said I was one of the first “colored” boys ever to double-cross him. Ed Sullivan said I wouldn’t last six months.” The show had requested that he sing the Merle Travis-penned Tennessee Ernie Ford hit “Sixteen Tons,” but he sang “Bo Diddley” instead when he appeared on stage. This substitution resulted in his being banned from further appearances on that influential TV show. Bo was an excellent storyteller whose stories varied from time to time; however, Diddley contended to friends and family that he was not trying to double-cross Sullivan and attributed the “misunderstanding” to the fact that; when he saw “Bo Diddley” on a cue card, he was under the impression he was to perform two songs, “Bo Diddley” and “Sixteen Tons.”
In 1958, I asked my father to take my friends and me to see him perform at the Brooklyn Paramount?” “Yes, of course,” my dad said. I could hardly eat as the date approached. The excitement and anticipation of seeing and hearing Bo in person went to my gut. I think that performance was my first time attending a Rock n’Roll show. My dad, myself, and two girlfriends arrived at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater along with thousands of enthusiastic concertgoers. According to Wikipedia, “The Paramount Theatre, built in 1928, was designed by the Chicago theater architect team Rapp and Rapp. A sister Paramount Theatre was in Times Square, Manhattan. The rococo-designed theater had 4,084 seats covered in burgundy velvet with a white ceiling. A 60-foot stage curtain was decorated with satin-embroidered pheasants, huge chandeliers, and fountains with goldfish.” By 1958, Bo was a true star and could quickly fill up this elegant theater.
As Bo warmed up and the audience responded, it was almost impossible to stay in my seat. All that screaming and singing along with him gave us sore throats by the end of the evening. During this utterly intense roller coaster ride, laughing and crying with my two girlfriends, clutching each other’s arms, must have given my father something to ponder. Dad probably remembered that when Frank Sinatra started, he attracted that generation’s screaming teenagers.
In the early 80s, I was recently divorced and had custody of my four-year-old son, Aaron. I had just completed some substitute teaching jobs in an elementary school in Hawthorne, FL. This small country town is a twenty-minute drive south of Gainesville, FL, which the University of Florida calls home. While working as a “nanny” for a motherless family with three teenagers, I met Michael, a Vietnam Vet from West Virginia. He helped me to see that those kids didn’t kill each other or themselves.
I felt vulnerable financially and scared enough to ask my family for some help. I called my parents, not knowing what could ensue. After catching up on my whereabouts, I asked, “Mom, I need $1,500 to buy a small travel trailer for Aaron and me to live in while I am substitute teaching. Can you and Dad help me out?” My mother said, “Jill, you need just to come back to Miami, where you can get a job and put Aaron in daycare.” I needed more time and a year to bond with Aaron during this tough divorce and a significant financial struggle. Finally, after a day or so of them hashing things out, they did call to tell me that they had sent me a check. I called them immediately. “Mom, Dad, thank you so much. I appreciate your generosity,” I said in a moment of great relief. “I promise I will be back in Miami a year from now.” My “Baroque Period” has never been forgotten.
I invested the money in a small used seventeen-foot travel trailer. It was perfect for my needs at that time. It had two comfortable places to sleep and a table that opened into a bed. There was a small kitchen with a refrigerator, propane stove, and some storage. The best deal was an all-in-one toilet and a shower. Of course, these facilities would only work if I had water and electricity hook-up. Hey, a roof over our heads was the main deal here. I still pee in the woods on regular occasions. You never know when these modern fixtures might not work.
When the school year came to an end, the custodian at the school, Mr. Hutchinson, who I had befriended during my time there, said to me, “Jill, if you need a place to live for the summer, I can take your travel trailer to my property and put it on the back forty.” Being from Long Island and Westchester, NY suburbs, I was unaccustomed to hearing the expression “back forty.” According to the Random House Dictionary, it means “a remote, usually uncultivated acreage on a large piece of land as on a farm or ranch, apparently because forty acres was a typical size for such a piece of land.”
I was thrilled and touched by such generosity. I said, “Mr. Hutchinson, I thank you so much for helping me at this time in my life.” He said, “Well, Jill, you need a place for yourself and your son to be safe, and my family would like to help you.” My eyes welled up, and I couldn’t even speak. His generosity was so sincere. Mr. Hutchinson was the Deacon of the local Baptist Church and the custodian at the local school where I was substituting.
He said, “I know there is no running water, but there is a lake where you and Aaron can clean up.” Having lived in Florida for some time, I also knew that there would be alligators in that lake, but at that moment, I was happy to know that there was a place for Aaron and me to live and the alligator details would be figured out later.
That afternoon Mr. Hutchinson honked his truck’s horn in the driveway of the house where I lived and proceeded to pull my trailer onto his back forty. Aaron sat between Deacon Hutchinson and me in the trunk. The piney woods, with their substantial live oak trees rooted in the soft sandy soil, greeted us with their natural aromas. I felt at ease in these woods and fields. The sounds of the wind rustling the leaves and the earthy smell after a short rain brought me great pleasure. I had a big grin as we got out of the truck while Mr. Hutchinson was unhitching the trailer from his pick-up truck.
“So, Jill and Aaron, welcome to your new home for the summer,” he said. I knew that it wasn’t the best living situation, but I also knew that it wasn’t the worst. Aaron and I began an adventure of living with the Hutchinson family in the scrub and hammock backwoods of North Central Florida, a world away from city life.
Having been “raised up” by Benoulia Thompson, my African American housekeeper, who lived with my family for ten years, from two years until I was twelve, enabled me to feel a close connection with the Hutchinson family and their extended community. Even my history with Florida goes way back. My parents would drive to Florida from New York during our Christmas vacations as a youngster. Before Interstate I-95, you drove about 40 miles per hour at the most and slower through small cities and towns. I loved looking out the window at the cows and horses. I was not too young to notice bathrooms and water fountain signs saying, “For Whites only.”
A few weeks after settling into my “summer home” on the lake, Mr. Hutchinson said, “Jill, why don’t you come to church with us next Sunday and bring your guitar? You can play a couple of songs that we all will know.” I said, “Thank you so much. That will be fun.” “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside.” I rehearsed some songs I learned in the trailer that day. The gospel music was simple and rich with feelings. That Sunday, I was excited and a bit nervous. Every entertainer gets some butterflies just before going on stage. Aaron and I sat up front with the family. I don’t remember what I wore, not that it would matter since we stood out no matter what. Deacon Hutchinson introduced me to some friends and extended family. There was lots of faith floating in the air, and it felt great to be breathing it in. The church shook on its foundation during the choir’s upbeat songs. When it was my turn to perform, Deacon Hutchinson looked at me and said, “Jill, will you sing a couple of songs?” I allowed a flowing feeling to engulf me, taking me back into the deep roots of my early childhood and bringing me into the present time with great passion. “Hallelujah,” I said aloud as I walked up to the stage. I meant it. When you’ve got Chutzpah, you’ve got it all. I don’t remember anything about my performance, but I felt so welcome at this church. Yes, I have had a colorful life!
I am culturally Jewish. I never had a Bat Mitzvah; my brother, who is older, did. He hated Hebrew School. I’m mostly thankful for the humor and bagels with lox and cream cheese, but my parents never spoke of God. Bea didn’t have to talk about God; she lived in that presence.
In 1973, I became a follower of a Teacher called Maharaji, traveling to India, where I met him when he was fifteen. My experiential desire needed to see, hear, feel, and taste an infinite encounter. I truly know that I’m living in the infinite church, and each breath brings gratefulness that I don’t need to memorize. If a breath comes in, I’m good to go.
A few weeks later, it seemed that word got out in this African American community about a Jewish woman with a little boy singing in the Baptist Church. My life has been a series of experiences that I know have manifested by the Grace of God. So, why should this not be part of that same divine trajectory?
Michael, my Vietnam Vet friend, told me that Mr. Bo Diddley lived with his family on seventy acres in a large log mansion in this same community. This had to be karmic, and a divine appointment was about to unfold. The next day Michael pulled up and said, “Jill, Bo would like to meet you and Aaron.” Not that I ever waste a moment, but you never saw a mother scoop up her four-year-old and jump in the front seat of Michael’s truck quite as quickly as I did that day. Life certainly gives us opportunities for our dreams to manifest.
We arrived at the long gravel circular driveway leading to the log mansion a few miles down the country road. There were a couple of bug-covered Black Cadillacs in the driveway with some people around them. Michael mentioned that Bo had just returned from California. His manager, Marty, drove one of the Cadillacs with his wife, Lila and Bo drove the other car with his wife, Kay.
Bo, 53 years old at that time, with his broad shoulders and thick glasses, stood there in the driveway underneath a canopy of massive live oaks, looking at me and saying, “Are you the Jewish woman who’s living on the Hutchinson’s family land and singing in the church?” Marty, Bo’s Manager, and his wife, Lila, also happened to be Jewish. Bo gave them a look. I said, “Yes, Bo, that’s me. It’s so nice to meet you and Kay.” I turned to shake hands with Marty and Lila as well. His family and friends were gathered around him. His wife, Kay, a beautiful Southern belle from Albany, GA, was smiling. “That was a long ride from California,” she said in her charming southern drawl. “Let’s all go inside and get out of this awful heat.” Scarlet O’Hara, of a modern-day sort, I’m with you.
Bo looked at me and said, “Jill, what are you doing living on those black folk’s property?” I answered, “I was substitute teaching in Hawthorne, and then summertime came, and Aaron and I needed a place to live since there was no work.” Without hesitation, Bo said, “Jill, how about if I give you a job and then put your trailer on my back forty?” “Yes, Bo, that sounds like a great idea,” I managed to blurt out. I was ready for anything at this point in my life. I thought, “I have just been fucking saved by Bo Diddley.” Sorry, but the thrill and excitement of it all have never quite worn off and never will.
In 1981, when we met that warm summer day, Bo was still humbly traveling around the country and the world. It was a good living, but not easy. Bo performed in major American cities with Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry, and some venues organized by Dick Clark. He traveled alone in the UK, Germany, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Japan, picking up a band wherever he performed. Every rock musician knew Bo’s distinctive rhythm, sound, and famous songs.
Bo and Kay had two daughters. At this time in 1981, Terry, age twenty, played the keyboard and sang, and Tammy, age eighteen, was a phenomenal drummer and singer. They were jumping on the bandwagon, busy rehearsing in the barn and recording their album. Their group was called Offspring. Tammy and Terry had grown up in LA as very young children. A few years later, Bo and Kay moved the whole family to a small town near Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he volunteered as a Deputy Sheriff when he wasn’t on the road. The girls went to school there and were also junior rodeo riders, entering contests for barrel racing on quarter horses. Bo and Kay knew Los Angeles would not be a healthy atmosphere for their girls.
I didn’t mind Bo putting my trailer on his back forty, but I was concerned about living in it after the first night. Aaron and I slept in the trailer, and when we awakened, he said, “Mom, I feel the trailer shaking?” “Let’s take a look outside,” I responded. I looked out of one of the small windows of the trailer and said, “We have some cow friends grazing on the grass right outside of our trailer. One of the cows is using our trailer to scratch his tush.” We laughed and got ready to walk over to the log mansion. As soon as the coast was clear of cows, we opened the door and walked carefully through the prairie grass to the large log mansion, where Bo’s family would be waiting for us. Bo’s youngest daughter, Tammy, was kind and made us feel completely at home. She said, “Jill, you can eat anything you find in the kitchen for yourself and Aaron.” “When you are finished, I want to show you around the house,” Tammy said.
We walked around the property and the grand house for the next half hour. Tammy showed us her room, Terry’s room, the primary bedroom, the bathrooms, the extra room for her grandmother, and the kitchen and the living room. The log mansion was formally decorated with traditional furniture and many antiques. Kay, a proper southern debutante from Georgia, and a descendant of Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, ran away with Bo at eighteen. The town of Albany, Georgia, is probably still reeling from Kay and Bo’s wild dance.
My job description of being a housekeeper did involve cleaning, doing laundry, washing dishes, answering the phone, helping Bo in the studio, and whatever else would come up. I knew how to be a housekeeper “maid” since I had been brought up with Bea, our divine housekeeper for ten years. The other job description was using my Massage Therapy and Barefoot Shiatsu skills. When Bo returned from a weekend gig, he would say, “Jill, can you please mash on me as he lowered himself on the lavender living room carpet?” Everybody witnessed me stepping on this very broad-shouldered man. I used a chair or two for balance in those days. I still do this form of bodywork. But a few years after I met Bo, I found an orthopedic walker in a thrift store, which I still use for balancing myself while doing my fancy footwork on my clients.
Kay had a collection of antique porcelain figurines protected in a large glass case that took up one entire wall in their bedroom. She mentioned, “Jill, please be extra careful with these figurines when you clean here.” I was intimidated by these precious items. I could see that if you touched them, they would easily break. I would blow on them and then dust around them.
Within two weeks, Terry asked, “Jill, will you play and sing for my wedding next week?” How can I ever forget these moments in my life, from seeing Bo when I was thirteen to performing a couple of my original love songs for his daughter’s wedding? My favorite story was the first outing to the local junkyard, where Bo picked out an old red Pinto station wagon for me to have some “wheels.” I ended up not knowing how far this automobile would be able to go. One day, Aaron asked, Mommy, where are we going? I wasn’t sure we would get to the Quik Stop a mile away, so I said, “Aaron, we are just going down the road.” I wrote a song with the title “Goin’ Down the Road.” It was the first song I recorded with Offspring in Bo’s studio. So exciting! After mixing it, Bo handed me the cassette tape and told me to listen to it in my car. I love reminiscing as I recall this part of my life.
It wasn’t easy to be a daughter of a world-famous musician. One day, Bo’s younger daughter, Tammy, took me into her room and gifted me an authentic beaded Navaho necklace, which I still wear and cherish. She also told me she had never trusted anyone until she met me. I was not starstruck and didn’t seek to have a friendship with her because of her famous father.
Mr. Bo Diddley, the remarkable musician/entertainer of the 1950s, invented a rhythm called Rock n’ Roll. According to Rock Cellar Magazine, Frank Mastropold said, “Today’s rappers have nothing on Bo, who name-checked himself back on Hey, Bo Diddley, still my favorite of all Bo’s hits. The song introduced the world to the infectious Diddley Beat and Bo’s distorted guitar tremolo; it quickly became an R&B hit. Predictably, cover versions by white singers appeared within weeks of its release, which established a pattern: the Bo Diddley Beat has been borrowed, adapted, modified, and ripped off by rockers ever since. Diddley long complained about artists who would add new lyrics to his song without credit or compensation: “Bo Diddley is not just a beat; it’s a melody and a rhythm pattern.” The Beatles, Stones, Guns and Roses, and Bono are just a few of the artists who benefited from the musical inventions of Bo Diddley.
When John Lennon came to this country for the first time, a reporter asked him, “John, what do you plan to do while you are here in the US?” John said, “I’m going to see Bo Diddley.” I heard this at Bo’s funeral from Bob Gruen, a well-known celebrity photographer from those days. Learn more.