I helped Bo Diddley find a drummer once.
It was in 1971. I was 19, reading underground comics one sleepy afternoon at Roach Ranch West, a spacious, hippie-stuff shop in Albuquerque, when a black man wearing a big black hat walked in and said: "I'm Bo Diddley."
It was, in the argot of the day, a cosmic moment. Could this really be Bo "47 miles of barbed wire" Diddley stepping out of the blue, announcing his presence in a remote desert city? Was I hallucinating?
No, it really was that founding father of rock 'n' roll. He had relocated his family from Southern California to Los Lunas, New Mexico, after being shaken up by a big earthquake, and he wanted to play a free show.
"Do you know any drummers?" he asked.
It happened that there was a drummer in the Roach Ranch at that very moment—Mike Fleming, who played with a local cover band called Lemon. I pointed him out. They spoke, and Bo Diddley said he'd be back later. Somebody called the local Top 40 station to announce the show.
Bo Diddley played that night to a packed-out back room at Roach Ranch West, with his wife and three daughters singing with him and Mike Fleming on drums. I sat on the floor in front of the improvised stage, close enough for him to sweat on me, studying him as he pulled a variety of sounds out of his cranked-up rhythm guitar to drive the audience wild. He wasn't doing an oldies show, he was doing funky new material. I shouted and shouted for "Who Do You Love." Which, finally, he played.
Ellas McDaniel, professionally known as Bo Diddley, died June 2 at the age of 79. He is remembered above all for his signature rhythm. Tell any drummer, in any bar band anywhere, to play a Bo Diddley beat, and he'll know what to do.
But Bo Diddley was so much more than a beat. He was a transforming figure. After him, music was different. His debut single, "Bo Diddley" (1955), announced that the whole game had changed. He showed how you could build a whole pop record around a rhythm and a rhyme. You didn't even need chord changes.
He put the beat front and center. To make that work, he chose the most compelling beat he could: the two-bar rhythm that Cubans know as clave. All the Chicago blues guys dipped into rumba blues, but this was another take on it. The Latin connection was so strong that Bo Diddley used maracas as a basic component of his sound. But sidekick Jerome Green didn't play maracas like a Cuban, and Bo Diddley didn't play that rhythm like a Cuban; he swung it, like an African-American who'd been playing on street corners in Chicago. And Bo Diddley's way of expressing that two-bar feel, known across a wide swath of Africa, was in turn a fountainhead for the development of rock 'n' roll, which would repeatedly cross Afro-Cuban and Af-rican-American rhythmic sensibilities.