Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Innovator

Recently, two movies about Leonard Chessman and his highly influential Chess and Checker Records labels have been filmed in New Orleans. As many people know, New Orleans and Louisiana have become hot spots for filming independent and major studio films due to legislation that offers state tax credits to productions that shoot a significant portion of their schedules in the state and hire local union members in the process. These state tax credits are typically sold at 80 cents on the dollar to savvy speculators who in turn sell them to large taxpayers. It's a system that has been highly successful and has resulted in major pictures being filmed here like the Academy Award winner "Ray," Denzel Washington's "Deja Vu" and the upcoming Brad Pitt release "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." On the downside of this progress there have been allegations of abuse levied at some producers who, having snagged the tax credits, never finished or released their productions. These cheaters are guilty of bilking millions of dollars from the state treasury, but it is very difficult to force producers to finish their movies or videos in order to remove the specter of suspicion from them. Regardless, though, the fact is two movies on the very historically important Chess Records will be in theaters within the next year, one by a major studio and the other an independent release. Unfortunately, one of the great stars of Chess Records will not be able to view these films. That man was simply known as "The Innovator," the one and only Bo Diddley, 79, who died yesterday of heart failure in Florida. With his unique rectangular guitar and playing style, Diddley became a mainstay for true lovers of rock and roll who loved his simple and joyous way of playing and singing. His charming stage presence often belied his well-earned position as a true pioneer. But a pioneer he was. Diddley, whose real name was Elias Bates and later Elias McDaniel after a cousin adopted him, claimed he never received his fair share of receipts throughout his career. "A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun," he bemoaned once. That may very well be true, but that never stopped him from playing his guitar and singing his songs up until about a year ago when he suffered a stroke in Iowa. The recovering musician was later hit with a heart attack last August from which he never fully recovered. Diddley, who may have taken his name from a diddle bow, a rustic instrument oftentimes made from square pieces of wood or cigar boxes, inspired scores of well-known musicians with his simple "shave and a haircut" staccato rock melodies. Buddy Holly, who in turn went on to inspire the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was a disciple of Diddley's infectious backbeat and soulful singing. Latter day rock heroes like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello were, likewise, endeared to Diddley's style and were among many others who credited him with legendary stature in the rock and roll world. Both Diddley and another Chess star, Chuck Berry, were credited with making electric guitar play a necessary component of rock and roll music. Diddley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the second year ceremonies were held. He had a star on the venerated Hollywood Walk of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1999. Not bad for a poor kid from McComb, Mississippi (about an hour and a half drive from New Orleans) who was raised in the streets of Chicago and didn't start playing guitar (a gift from his sister) until he was ten. Bo Diddley recaptured some of his earlier fame when he appeared in the "Bo Knows" campaign for Nike featuring another well-known namesake, Bo Jackson. In that ad, the guitar player grimaced and made the comment: "He don't know diddley." Bo Diddley knew a lot about music and some of his major hits like his self-titled 1955 "Bo Diddley," "Say Man" and "Who Do You Love?" will be with us for many years to remind us of his genius and his great gift of music to the nation and the world.

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