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Rock legend Bo is still doing it

Published Sep. 26, 2005

Between gigs, chances are you'll find Bo Diddley tinkering with an eight-door 1978 Mercury Marquis.

"If I'm not in the studio, if I'm not inspired by something to write a new song, I've got to go back out there and tinker," Diddley says.

The rock legend wants to restore the car so he can "ride around in it and get people to say, "What the heck is that?' "

He's 71, but Diddley, who headlines the Heritage Festival in St. Petersburg on Saturday, doesn't have a lot of free time. He couldn't even estimate how many dates he plays a year and says he works almost every weekend.

"If the money's right, you can see me," he said during a phone interview from his home outside Gainesville.

Over the years, the musician has been honored with awards including an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys, but none of those accolades has put any money in his pocket.

Though he says he still likes performing, Diddley doesn't tour for the fun of it. He tours because he has to.

"I never got paid from the sons of b___ that owed me money. The publishing companies and record people were liars and thieves. That's why I'm still working," he says. "I've got bills. I've got to pay people."

Withholding royalties and creative bookkeeping were common practices at small labels in the '50s, when Diddley started his career. Financially, things improved a bit when MCA bought Diddley's song catalog in 1987.

Last month, MCA released a new CD, Best of Bo Diddley _ Millennium.

"I didn't know anything about it until somebody else told me," Diddley says of the new release. "I don't even worry about it. I don't have a problem with MCA. They take care of business."

Diddley has been living in the Gainesville area for eight years, after a stint in New Mexico, where he served as a deputy sheriff in Los Lunas. In total, he has lived in Florida for about 20 years, he estimates.

The practical Diddley chose Florida so he wouldn't have to deal with snow and ice, and the Gainesville area in particular because of its proximity to an airport.

He lives in a triple-wide mobile home with a studio in the back.

"This is a very, very prestigiously built home. It's very well put together," Diddley says. "A lot of people ask me why I want a mobile home, and I say, "Well, if I get tired of staying here I can put some wheels on it and haul butt.' "

The image of Diddley packing up his house and hitting the road might be a surprise. What's even more unexpected, though, is that the man who was a pioneer of the electric guitar and a major influence on rockers from Buddy Holly to Bruce Springsteen regularly listens to country music.

Yep, that's what Diddley likes. "Just about everybody who's out is pretty good, like Garth Brooks," he said.

What doesn't he like?

"The only music that's out there that I really don't like is dirty rap, dirty lyrics and stuff like that," Diddley says. "I call it rap crap. It's just bad news."

But Diddley knows his music will always find an audience.

"Blues and rock 'n' roll will never diminish. It will never go away. It might slow up for a little while, like with all this techno music they got going right now."

So he's willing to adapt.

"I'm not going to lie to you. I'm doing some things that are electronic because that's what the DJs are playing. They won't play something by me," Diddley says. "They're looking for something that's artificial. You can't beat 'em, so you have to join 'em."

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