Drummer Man

On June 2, 2008, 79-year-old Bo Diddley suffered heart failure and passed away in his Archer, Florida, home. One night in Fresno about ten years ago, I was his drummer. Bo was on tour, and rather than travel with an entire band, he had opted to play with local blues musicians.

He arrived a few hours before the gig to do a sound check and to eat. Wearing that black Stetson hat and thick-rimmed glasses, he looked to me like an offbeat villain from some late-’70s spaghetti Western; part gunfighter, part Cab Calloway.

Perhaps it was that he’d been a boxer and knew how to carry himself. Or maybe it was just the weight of his accomplishments. Either way, I felt a bit uneasy when he turned to me and said, “Drummer man, play the beat.”

And so I did, with his eyes boring down on every thwack of the floor-tom. Then, one by one, my fellow musicians joined in, each receiving instructions on what to do and, mostly, what not to do. Then Bo walked over to the drum kit and pointed to my ride cymbal. “See that thing,” he said, “just don’t ever hit that fucking thing and you’ll do fine.” I removed it immediately.

Bo loved the drums. Other than his trademark rectangular guitar, a thumping rhythm defined his sound. He just didn’t seem to like crashing cymbals…not mine, anyway.

After sound check, we all sat together and ate tri-tip (Bo traveled with his own barbecue sauce). We drank beer and ate and listened to him tell stories and jokes. The one I still remember was “the magic dick.”

The gig was great: “Who Do You Love,” “Mona,” “Road Runner”…we played all the classics. And he had this little handheld drum machine, which he said he had picked up on tour in Japan. We did a drum solo together, and the crowd loved it. Then he came back and sat behind my kit and played.

After the gig, I asked him to sign my snare head. He did. Then he shook my hand and told me that I had done a fine job – definitely one of the highlights of my musical life.

– Kevin McHatten

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