Bo Diddley must have felt as if he had just won the Heavyweight Championship of the World. I don't know if he ever before had faced an audience 20,000-strong, but even if he had, I couldn't imagine him ever achieving a triumph as spectacular as the one he scored with his performance at Richard Nader's rock and roll revival on this particular night. The date of this show was October 11, 1971 and I couldn't imagine anyone ever getting onstage to work harder than Bo did.
Backstage in his dressing room, Bo took off his yellow shirt, dripping with sweat, and, as he looked up blankly through the convex of his eyeglass lenses at the shit-eating smiles of the admirers surrounding him, his eyes were dull and hollow lights at the ends of deep and dark tunnels. Those admirers included doubters who hadn't believed he could do it, but Bo had been performing like this since before some of these kids were born. Forty-two now, Bo had amazed his 20,000 onlookers by turning into a human dynamo when he got up onstage. I'd overheard some of those sitting in the audience near me say that they hoped Bo wouldn't have a heart attack right in front of everybody because he was working so hard.
"I find it ironic," Bo told me in his dressing room afterwards, "that I'm not in a star role."
Chuck Berry was billed as the headliner. Rick Nelson, in his very first New York appearance ever, was billed as an "Extra Added Attraction." Richard Nader already had produced six rock and roll revivals before this one and they all had been sellouts. After Nader's first three shows had packed Madison Square Garden's Felt
The son of Ozzie and Harriet wanted to be billed as 'Rick,' not 'Ricky,' and he refused to play if the show was called a 'revival'
Forum, which seats about 4,500, Nader had felt emboldened enough to stage his next three shows in the Garden's 20,000-seat arena. This show was supposed to be "Volume Seven" of Nader's revival series, except that Rick Nelson refused to appear in it if Nader called it a "revival." Rick didn't think he and his career were so D.O.A. that they needed to be "revived" and Rick also had insisted that Nader bill him as Rick, not Ricky, as he had been known when he was growing up in TV's Ozzie and Harriet family. Not only had Ricky never before performed in New York but he also never before had performed as part of a "package" show, which is what the music industry calls a rock extravaganza featuring an entire array of star performers. From the time Ricky first became a teenage idol as the scion of the Ozzie and Harriet show, Ricky had never performed in an event which featured any headliner other than himself. If Richard Nader wanted Ricky Nelson on this bill, Nader would have to call it something else, but not a "revival." Nader ended up calling it a "Rock and Roll Spectacular."
Rick would later write a song called Garden Party about this particular night. Garden Party would tell about the frustration Rick felt as he kept running into audiences which demanded to hear his old hits from the Ozzie and Harriet era at a time when Rick really wanted to sing his new songs. Months later, Garden Party eventually would become a hit for Rick, giving his waning career a shot in the arm before he would end up dead in a plane crash. But Bo Diddley's career was the one which got the shot in the arm from this particular Garden party. Some four months earlier, Bo had electrified the Garden with his performance in Volume Six of Nader's Rock and Roll Revival series and so Nader brought him back again for this show.
Richard's Rock and Roll revivals had become the equivalent of religious bench-walking exercises for aging die-hard fans from the Duck's Ass generation and everybody knew this was going to be a big night from the start. John and Yoko had ordered a bunch of tickets for themselves and for the gang at Apple. There were even rumors that Beatle George would be there, too. Channel Seven sent a news crew. All the beautiful people were present, including Mick Jagger. I went with Bob Dylan. In the favored seats were only the hippest reviewers. Not only was the rock press there in force but so were squads of the music industry's big shots. Nader's Rock and Roll Revivals had finally caught on. We all knew when we walked into the Garden that this was going to be AN EVENT .
Even the audience was different from Nader's customary clientele. The '50s crowd had become balding and bloated now, with some chomping on cigars as they arrived to relive the ardor of their days of knocking over police barricades and rioting through America's downtowns. These '50s revivalists now appeared to be a minority amidst an audience of mostly young college kids more accustomed to patronizing venues like the Fillmore East. Their dedication was to Dylan and to the Beatles and to the Rolling Stones, not to old timers like Ricky Nelson. This was an audience of FM listeners and record buyers who had created a new generation of rock stars. But they were not too busy discovering James Taylors and Elton Johns to rediscover Bo.
The show was well on its way to turning out to be a bomb, a bust, a flop, until Bo stepped onstage. By the intermission, Ricky Nelson had drawn a blank. He was dressed in purple, a shade from the past, and the audience didn't believe him any more. You could hear boos when Bobby Rydell sang Volare as an encore. Instead of a revival, this party was turning into a funeral. Then, just after the intermission, Bo came onto the arena stage, with the house band playing in the pit behind him. Bo was dressed in wet-look trousers, a black leather vest and his inevitable hat, and as soon as the spotlights focused on him, the Garden audience revived. We all couldn't help but feel good. There was a great cheer and a rush toward the stage and then Bo hit his first note on his cigar-box guitar, and the Garden really started partying. Bo sang the songs he's been singing for years, songs some had dismissed as self-indulgent and egotistical, songs that were mostly about himself, songs such as Bo Diddley and Hey, Bo Diddley! and The Bo Diddley Chant . He could have sung Son of Bo Diddley ], The Return of Bo Diddley and ]Bo Diddley Revisited and still the audience would have wanted more. After all these years, the crowd had finally heard Bo.
The Shirelles went on after Bo and then there was Chuck Berry, billed as the star of the night. By the end of Chuck's set, there was such a crush against the stage that a phalanx of cops had to surround it. This isn't to say that Chuck didn't deliver the way he always has, but he fell short of rousing the same excitement Bo Diddley had sparked. Years later, Nader himself was to remember that Bo must have made the Garden floor bounce at least eight inches.
In his dressing room afterwards, Bo didn't seem accustomed to all the attention he was now getting, but he let it be known that he thought the attention was long overdue.
"I've gotten very bitter about it," he said. "It's time I said something. You see guys get onstage drunk and dirty and it looks like the rowdier you are, the more you're uplifted. I refuse to be rowdy. I'm a clean dude. I don't
Mick Jagger and
The Rolling Stones
always gave him credit, Bo says
know if I'm burying myself in cleanness, but I opened the door and everybody ran through it and I'm still only holding a dollar. I mean I was one of the first! I started Rock 'n' Roll!"
Bo began talking about some unnamed performers who had stolen his stuff whole and made a mint on it. I asked if he was talking about the Rolling Stones.
"No," Bo said, "Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, they always gave me credit. I owe a whole lot of thanks to them for keeping my name alive. The only thing I'm really mad about---well, everybody functions on the almighty dollar bill. If I could get away with playing for the people for nothing and still feed my family, I'd be glad to do it. But I don't have a dime. All I ever made was just enough to get by."
A TV reporter poked a microphone in Bo's face just as Bo was starting to change and Bo joked about how the wet-look pants he was pulling off snagged and ran like nylon hose.
"I try to give the people something for their money," he said. "I'm bitter about it, really. From the '50s on up through the '60s, I did favors for the DJs. Some kept their word, but the ones who were really important, I don't know what happened to 'em. I'm a very religious person. All my life, I been going to church to learn how to treat people and get along. And me being 42 and catching hell and everybody thinking, 'This guy got googobs of money.'
"I been ripped off in the bathroom, under the table and up against the wall. I don't trust nobody. But the kids are really beginning to find out where this stuff started from. It's a new thing to them. They called me a has-been, but from what I did out there tonight, do I look like a has-been? See, I came from a time if another black called me black, man, that was war! Today, black is a fine word. I got confused for a while. Then there was black people who said I had put them back 50 years.
"It was my folks said that. That's when I started to fade into the ofay bag as a white act. I was going to skid row when I was playing for blacks. Now the younger blacks are coming around and saying, 'You're doing great things!' But the whole time I knew one thing. If I just keep playing, everybody will remember me." ##
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