Hello and welcome to Deep Tracks in Rock History, the show where you are given the entirety of rock’s story through weekly, podcast-sized chunks that simultaneously taste great and are less filling. I am your salubrious host, Doug “Is-It-a-Teaspoon-or-Tablespoon?” McCulloch.

I need to take a moment and do some boasting. My daughter is currently downstairs at the piano working out how to play “Major Tom” by David Bowie, which, can I just say as a father, I feel like I did something right.

Okay, moving on. Some of you may have noticed this episode came a day later than my usual release timetable. Part of the reason for that is I’ve been under-the-weather. Another reason for it being late is, I realized that, seven episodes into this podcast, I've been using the term "slave" rather than "enslaved person," and I had to stop and go back in and edit this episode to change the language. I am not sure if I will ever get around to editing my past episodes, but either way, my apologies to everyone out there. I try to be thoughtful with my language in this show and that one obviously slipped through the cracks. But an even bigger factor for why this episode is late is that my work and personal life haven’t allowed me to stay as far ahead of my publication schedule as I had hoped, which means that in a couple episodes from now, I may have to take a small break in the show in order to get caught up again on my research and writing. I hadn’t really planned on doing “seasons” for this show, but with my current situation, that is looking more and more like a necessity. So, whatever the case, I will endeavor to keep everyone posted, and the best way to stay informed about the latest news and info on this show is to follow it on Instagram

That being said, I do want to take a moment and once again thank everyone for the wonderful, positive reviews that you’ve left on iTunes and Spotify, and encourage people to keep leaving reviews on the show if you haven’t done so already, not to mention the power of “word of mouth” is a great tool in getting the show out there, bringing in more listeners, and feeding into my insatiable ego. Okay, maybe scratch that last part about my ego. But everything else is truly, deeply appreciated. I love doing this podcast and it’s nice to know that I can share what I love with so many other people.

All right, mushy stuff aside, let’s move on. Today’s “Ludicrous Lyrics” come from your mom! Okay, not really. In addition to being employed at a college, I work with middle school students, and their influence has slowly worn down any last vestiges of maturity I once had, which is obviously creeping into this show. Anyway, today’s “Ludicrous Lyrics” really come from Tori in San Diego, and one of the founders of Level1 Geek (which you can check out at or follow on Instagram @level1geek). Regarding the song “Apologize” by One Republic, she said, “A friend of mind thought the chorus was ‘it’s too late for the jive.’” [clip] “Which,” she goes on to say, “to be fair, if it’s too late to apologize then it’s also probably too late for the jive.” [clip from “Airplane”]

I think I might make that into a bumper sticker: “If it’s too late to apologize, then it’s also probably too late for the jive.”

All right! In this thrilling episode we’re going to talk about two of the “Tony Starks” of rhythm & blues: Elmore James and Bo Diddley. I call them “Tony Starks” because both men were known for doing a lot of their own MacGyvering with their equipment. Now, if you don’t know who Tony Stark is, you’re probably over 80. If you don’t know who MacGyver is, you’re probably under 30. Although, I will add that when I type in MacGyvering or MacGyvered into my Word doc, neither one gets the little red squiggly line underneath, so apparently even Microsoft recognizes the evolution of an ‘80s TV icon into a verb.

Anyway, let’s talk about Elmore James first. His career ran alongside Bo Diddley’s, but he got a little bit earlier start than Diddley did. (hehe, “diddley did”)

To introduce Elmore James, I’m going to play the audio from an Instagram reel I posted a couple months ago—on January 27th, 2023—that I think will provide a handy overview for his life and career:

[reel audio]

So, as I mentioned in the reel, there’s a documentary called “It Might Get Loud” that features Jack White, Jimmy Page, and the Edge—three iconic rock guitarists who, in this documentary, give this sort of love letter to the guitar. And as I also mentioned in the reel, the documentary begins with footage of Jack White assembling what is called a “diddley bow.”

Of course, since it was an Instagram reel, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to go into the history or mechanics of what a diddley bow is. All I could do was flash a couple pictures of it as I gave my narration. And as an aside, if you’d like to check out this reel, you can follow me on Instagram at @yourmom. Okay, oh my gosh, I did it again, I’m sorry. My real Instagram is @deeptrackspodcast. But basically, a diddley bow is when someone fastens a string—usually bailing wire—onto a wooden board or even on the side of a shed, then wedges some sort of implement under one end where the string is fastened—as a sort of makeshift bridge—and then uses another implement of some kind as a slide over that string while they pluck it. In Jack White’s case, he used a glass Coke bottle for a bridge and, for a slide, it’s either a legit guitar slide that he’s holding, or, what appears to be a socket—like from a socket wrench—it was hard to tell exactly from the footage.

The diddley bow has an interesting history. I’m not going to dive too deep into it here and now but it is believed to have come from traditional African musical instruments, the concept of which might’ve come over with enslaved people through the Atlantic slave trade. You see, the general term for an instrument that is essentially a flat board with strings pulled across it is a “zither.” The term “zither” can apply to a specific instrument or a whole family of instruments. In the general sense, zithers pop up all over the place in many different music cultures. A zither in Japanese traditional court music would be the koto. Or in Korean traditional court music there’s the gayageum. In Chinese traditional music you have the zheng—or guzheng. In European musical traditions you have things like the dulcimer or the autoharp. My point is, it’s a near-ubiquitous approach to musical instruments. Some examples of traditional zithers from Western and Central Africa would be the ngombi harp, which is used by the Mitsogho of Gabon for many of their ceremonies, or a Congolese example would be the kundi arched harp.

But whatever its origin story, the diddley bow was traditionally used as a sort of “starter” instrument for kids, and Elmore James built his own diddley bow when he was about 12 years old. But by his teen years he was playing shows.

As was also mentioned in my reel, he spent some time in the Navy, and upon returning to civilian life, he ended up in Canton, Mississippi, working in an electronics repair shop owned by his adopted brother, Robert Holston. In fact, on YouTube you can find an interview with Elmore’s nephew, Leon Holston—Robert’s son—in which he talks about this a little bit. I’ll play a clip of that interview. I’ll warn you ahead of time that the audio is terrible and I tried to improve it as much as I could but I think this is about as good as it gets. So, anyway, here’s a clip of that interview:

[clip 4:45-5:47]

As you may have heard, Elmore’s job was essentially checking stuff in and out at the shop, all the while learning how to work with electronics from Robert, but then the interviewer inferred that Elmore was then playing shows on the weekends, and Leon added to that saying that Elmore was also playing at the shop whenever nobody else was there.

And this is where Elmore began fooling around with his amplifier. You see, you might remember in our episodes about Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf that they were using guitar amplifiers in order to be heard over the crowd in those nightclubs. Well, apparently Elmore didn’t think even those amps were loud enough. He wanted more. So he began fooling around with his guitar’s amp and essentially created an amp on steroids. He was able to get a bigger, beefier sound out of that thing than anyone else had gotten out of an amp ever before. It makes me picture that opening scene to “Back to the Future” where Marty McFly plugs into that massive, wall-sized amp and plays that first chord on his electric guitar that then launches him back into the wall behind him.

Anyway, he began recording with Trumpet Records in 1951, which is where, in 1952, he had his first notable hit—a song called “Dust My Broom” that had actually originally been recorded under the title “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” by Robert Johnson back in 1936—and had only received a tepid response—but was then covered by Elmore in this 1952 version that would breathe new life into the song and become, really, the version that later artists would refer back to. Matt Marshall did a great article on the history of this song on American Blues Scene, which I’ll link in the show notes. But for now I’m am going to play the original Robert Johnson version, so you can hear the “O.G.” source material, but then I want to play the Elmore James version, which, in terms of genre, was and is still considered rhythm & blues, but man it seriously feels like it’s clawing through that boundary into what would soon become known as “rock ‘n’ roll.” Here’s Johnson’s version: [clip] And here’s Elmore’s version: [clip]

And just to give you an idea of how this song has continued to live on in rock memory, I am going to play of clip of ZZ Top’s cover of it, and then Fleetwood Mac’s cover. Here’s ZZ Top: [clip] And here’s Fleetwood Mac’s: [clip]

Now, I think by now you all know that I am a huge Robert Johnson fan. I am also a fan of some of ZZ Top’s stuff, as well as a lot of Fleetwood Mac’s stuff, but of all those versions, I still love Elmore James’s version the most. It just has the most energy, the most drive, the most power, and most grit. That dude could rock before there were any rockers.

This song brought him and his band enough notoriety that his backing musicians became known as the “Broomdusters.” It also brought him to the attention of a talent scout who would essentially “poach” him away from Trumpet Records and bring him over to sign with the Bihari Brothers at Modern Records. The name of this talent scout? Ike Turner!

You may remember from last episode—on Howlin’ Wolf—that Ike Turner was the husband of Tina Turner. He was a pivotal figure in the history of early rock. He discovered or helped launch the careers of many transitional and/or early rock artists. He’s a complicated figure in history, though. He was certainly a musical genius and brought a lot more to the table than just being a talent scout. He was an accomplished musician himself and even performed on many of the early recordings that Elmore James did for Modern Records. Those in my listening audience who are of a more “seasoned” age bracket might remember that during the 1960s and ‘70s there was a musical duo act known as “Ike and Tina”—or more formally they were known as the “Ike & Tina Turner Revue.” They were backed by Ike’s band who were known as the “Kings of Rhythm” (remember that name) and were actively playing shows and releasing recordings from 1960 through 1976. Unfortunately, Ike developed a cocaine habit—like just about everyone else in the music industry at that time—which contributed to his increasingly brutal abusiveness, culminating in a physical altercation with his wife at the Statler Hilton hotel in Dallas, Texas, in which Tina fled to the nearby Ramada Inn, covered in blood and bruises, where she hid for a while until she could be taken in by friends who could then continue to hide her and protect her while she filed for divorce. This would mark the end of their act, obviously.

Years later both she and Ike would release autobiographies. Hers is entitled “I, Tina: My Life Story,” and his is entitled, “Takin’ Back My Name: The Confessions of Ike Turner.” Hers was the source material for the movie I also mentioned last episode, “What’s Love Got to do With It,” while his book was written in large part as a response to that movie. As he tells the story, the people at Disney/Touchstone had approached him with a contract to basically get permission to portray him in a film, but didn’t say how he would be portrayed, and something he didn’t realize about the agreement was that it basically protected Disney/Touchstone from any legal retribution on his part if he claimed it was libelous or whatnot. So, when the movie came out and Ike saw that—despite having the honor of his role being played by Laurence Fishburne—he was portrayed as, well, a monster, he of course wanted to take action. That was when he realized he could do nothing to Disney/Touchstone and the only recourse left to him was to write a book of his own, essentially telling his side of the story.

I know that’s sort of a large tangent—and it’s the second major tangent we’ve had on Ike and Tina Turner in as many episodes—but their story is an interesting one and there’s really not going to be any other place I’ll be able to talk about it in depth. However, we will be intersecting with both Ike and Tina off and on throughout the first three decades or so of rock history, so it’s worth it to spend a little time on them because they’re both going to be recurring characters in rock’s story, even after their careers take them in a direction that would be seen as increasingly distant from rock as a genre.

So, let’s get back to Elmore. Once he moved over to Modern Records, he released a moderate hit known as “I Believe,” which I’ll play a clip of here: [clip]

You can hear some similarities in there with “Dust My Broom” with those high, wailing electric guitar tones. I’ll point out, a lot of the time he’s not playing full chords, but is shredding high on the fretboard on a single string—not unlike how one would play a diddley bow. Elmore James had a distinct sound. He was known as the “King of the Slide Guitar.” So, the use of a guitar slide was, of course, part of that distinct sound. But you also may or may not remember in episode two that I mentioned that during the development of the slide guitar in Hawaii, that they came up with their own tuning system known as “slack-key guitar,” which worked better with slide guitar. Elmore James did essentially the same thing in which he would use a special tuning for slide guitar.

And it would be his single-string technique that would go on to influence later artists like Chuck Berry (play clip of “Johnny B. Goode”), Jimi Hendrix (clip of “All Along the Watchtower”) Brian Jones (guitar break from “I Wanna Be Your Man”) and even Frank Zappa (clip of “Black Beauty”).

In fact, there’s a famous quote by Frank Zappa about Elmore James in which he said, “Even though Elmore tended to play the same famous lick on every record, I got the feeling that he meant it.”

Indeed, Elmore’s influence would even find itself in a Beatles song (clip of “For You Blue”).

And there’s a whole story to that song as well but I am going to save that for when we do finally cover the “Fab Four.” But to wrap things up with Elmore James, he released a few more hits in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but then his career was cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1963—right before he was about to tour Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. Phil Walden, from Capricorn Records, raised money to have a granite headstone made to mark his grave. It has a bronze relief of Elmore playing the guitar, and below it are the words, “Elmore James: King of the Slide Guitar.”

But now let’s shift gears and talk about Bo Diddley [play clip of Nike commercial].

That clip comes from a Nike commercial in the 1980s, during the heyday of Bo Jackson’s career—the crossover athlete who’d made a name for himself in both professional baseball and professional football—when it was a cliché to say “Bo knows.” In that commercial they’re showing all kinds of athletes saying all the different sports that Bo knows, until it shows Bo Jackson trying to play guitar and failing completely and that’s when Bo Diddley says, “Bo, you don’t know diddley.” And that was actually Bo Diddley’s music that you heard in the background of that commercial.

His birth name was Ellas Bates. The origins of the nickname “Bo Diddley” are actually murkier than you may have expected. I’m assuming that at least one person listening to this episode is thinking, “He must have been named after the diddley bow.” But, while that is a distinct possibility, like with Howlin’ Wolf, there are a number of different origin stories to his nickname. Unlike with Howlin’ Wolf, I’m not going to go into all of them. I’m only going to read an excerpt from an interview in the book “Off the Record,” by Joe Smith. And for the record, “Off the Record” has 221 interviews with artists in the popular music industry, so I’ll be referring back to it quite a bit throughout this podcast because it’s a gold mine of primary source material. Anyway, in his interview, here is what Bo Diddley said about his nickname’s origins:

“Kids gave me the name Bo Diddley in school. I got the nickname because I took up for little guys who couldn’t defend themselves. I was raised in Chicago and you either had to learn how to be a fast runner after school, or either be fast with your hands. Be fast on your feet, or have a good gift of gab. Later, when I got old enough to go into the gym, I started hanging around and learning boxing. We’d all beat up on each other, and it was good. Anyway, they started calling me Bo Diddley. Don’t ask me why.”

So, there you go. Straight from the source.

The interesting thing about Bo Diddley is that he had classical training. I’ll play a clip from an interview in which he talks briefly about that:


As he put it in his interview with Joe Smith, “I was playing guitar on the street corners at twelve, thirteen years old. I played violin mostly in church, classical music. But you never found any black people playing violins, and that kind of worried me a bit.”

His performing career really took off in 1951 when he got a regular spot at the 708 Club on Chicago’s South Side, but it would be a couple of demos that he recorded in 1954 that would really put him on the map and would provide the material from which many later artists would attribute their influence. These demos were “I’m a Man” and “Bo Diddley.” With these demos, he was able to approach the Chess brothers at Chess Records, and get a recording deal. He re-recorded both songs with Chess and I’ll play a clip of “I’m a Man” right now [clip]

And now I’ll play a clip of “Bo Diddley.” I want you to pay particular attention to the rhythm in this song: [clip]

That rhythm in that song is actually known as “the Bo Diddley rhythm.” Like, the YouTube channel for DRUM! Magazine even has a whole video lesson on how to do the Bo Diddley beat [play clip of video].

The rhythm is essentially a clave rhythm,—and I’ll talk about clave, as a whole, in a later episode—and is very similar to, and possibly even derived from, a rhythm known as “hambone.” Hambone was associated with something called the “Juba Dance,” which was a dance that enslaved people would do that involved clapping, slapping your arms and legs—basically it was Bobby McFerron’s body percussion before there was a Bobby McFerron. There was actually a song released in 1952 by jazz band leader Red Saunders entitled “Hambone” that features body percussion similar to the Bo Diddley rhythm. [clip]

Red Saunders will come up again when we discuss other artists like Rosetta Tharpe and Sugar Chile Robinson, but let’s get back to the hambone rhythm and the Juba Dance.

The point of the Juba Dance was to keep beat for other dancers in something that was called a “walkaround.” It comes from musical traditions of central Africa, though back in the motherland they could use actual instruments for their percussion. For the Juba Dance, however, that was not an option. In fact, the reason why they had to use their bodies as percussion instruments is an interesting story all in itself. You see, many plantation owners had outlawed access to or use of percussion instruments by their slaves because they believed those enslaved people could use them to pass secret messages. Now, of course, as we learned in Episode One, this didn’t stop enslaved people from passing secret messages at all. But it’s interesting that what had been a music tradition from Africa that was repurposed and retooled for slave life in the Americas would be passed down through time to become the basis for a seminal song in popular music history that still shapes music even to this day. I’ll show you. Here are just three other songs that use the Bo Diddley beat:

“Not Fade Away,” a 1957 release by Buddy Holly [clip]

“Who Do You Love,” a 1978 release by George Thorogood [clip]

“I Want Candy,” a 1982 release by Bow Wow Wow [clip]

Now, to be clear, Bo Diddley said in more than one interview that he came up with the rhythm on his own, rather than simply using something he’d picked up from some sort of musical tradition. In fact, in an interview with Vintage Guitar, the interviewer said, “…one profile I read speculated [the rhythm] was something you picked up on in Mississippi and ‘refined’ once you moved to Chicago,” to which Bo Diddley replied, “That’s not what happened. I was a very small child when I left Mississippi, and I came up with the beat by beating and banging on a guitar when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I was trying to come up with something that I wanted to hear on drums.” There’s another account that I read that said he came up with it while trying to learn how to play Gene Autrey’s “I Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle.”

Pulling once again from the interview with Joe Smith in “Off the Record”:

“When I made the record ‘Bo Diddley’ in 1955, it turned the whole music scene around. It was just three of us originally—Roosevelt Jackson, Jerome Green, and me. Later we added Clifton James on drums. He was the man who did the original Bo Diddley beat on drums.

“We went to Chess Records and they liked it, but they didn’t like the original title, which was ‘Uncle John.’ In Chicago at that time, they couldn’t deal with words like that, so we changed the title to my name.

“Muddy Waters had everything all sewn up, man. If you couldn’t play like Muddy Waters, you might as well put yourself back in the rack. Muddy was an idol of mine. I loved what he was doing, but I couldn’t play blues. And Muddy couldn’t do what I did, which was that real sanctified rhythm. …

“It was like I did the ‘Bo Diddley’ song by accident. I just started beating and banging on my guitar. And then I fooled around and got it syncopated right, … And then it just seemed to fall right into place.

“Then I put maracas in there, because at the time we didn’t have a drummer, so we needed something that sounded like drums. First we started out with just two great big old shopping bags. I mean, a guy would just sit there and slap on these bags.”

I know that was a rather lengthy quote, but it’s a great, first-hand account of not only how an iconic song came to be, but also about one artist’s view of the blues scene in Chicago during the early ‘50s.

There is a lot more from this interview that I want to use, but I am going to save it for a later episode. And in fact, there is a ton more from Bo Diddley’s life that we’ll be covering later on. Like Ike and Tina, he’s going to be cropping up off and on throughout our story of rock’s history. There is one last thing I want to talk about regarding Bo Diddley before I wrap this episode up, however, and that is his guitar.

One of the most iconic things about Bo Diddley was his goofy-looking, square-shaped guitar, which he dubbed his “Twang Machine.” And this is where I’ll draw from that Vintage Guitar interview again:

The interviewer asked, “Of the guitars you’ve designed over the years, which style came first?”

And here’s Diddley’s response: “The square guitar. I made one when I was a teenager; its pickup was the part of a Victrola record player where the needle went in. I clamped it to the metal tailpiece to pick up the vibrations. I wasn’t able to buy electric guitars back then, so I built them, and they worked pretty good. Somebody stole the guitar I built, but in 1958 Gretsch made me one with DeArmond pickups. They only made one authorized square guitar, but I’ve seen other unauthorized models out there. I’m not sure how that happened; maybe it had something to do with the times when the Gretsch company was closed up.

“I thought my manager had copyrighted all my designs, but that wasn’t the case. One teardrop-style I designed looked a lot like an Ovation model that came out a while back.”

The interview goes on to talk about other guitars he designed, and I’ll link it in the show notes for anyone who would like to read about them. Bo Diddley passed away back in 2008 at his home in Archer Florida. He died from heart failure. He was 79 years old. But he had a long career that, as I said before, will have him popping up here and there in our survey of rock’s history. He is definitely one of the unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll history, and he was also innovative in more ways than just guitar designs. For example, he frequently featured female lead guitarists in his backing band in an age when that was almost completely unheard of—and we will definitely be spending some time in future episodes on the complicated history between rock music and women. He performed at numerous benefit concerts—not the least of which was Live AID—and played guitar on the albums of countless other artists, including even the New York Dolls.

Okay, we will stop there for now. This brings us to the end of what I guess you could call “Unit 1” or “Season 1” of this podcast. We have covered much of the landscape of how things looked before rock’s birth, and the fact that there is still disagreement to this day about whether Bo Diddley should be considered an early rock artist or simply a transitional rhythm & blues artist makes him the perfect person to end our so-called “Pre-rock” unit; because, the truth is, he was both. Bo Diddley inhabits both worlds equally well, and we will find that that will be the case with many of these early rock artists. The reason for this is that rock itself was a strange hybrid creature that for a long time defied classification.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To wrap up “Unit 1”—which, in my History of Rock class that I teach is titled “Earth, B.R.,” with the B.R. standing for “Before Rock”—I am going to release a sort of overview in my next episode. It will essentially take all of the music we’ve looked at so far and string it all together, back-to-back, with minimal commentary, so give a “bird’s eye” view of the evolution of the music to where we are now. After that, we will dive into the artists who are traditionally and undisputedly seen as the first generation of true rock artists. And because many of them are such huge pillars within the industry even to this day, we may spend entire episodes—or even several episodes—on just a single artist. Elvis and Little Richard are two immediate examples I can name off the top of my head right now.

So, buckle up, because things are about to get crazy up in here…

Show Notes