I was first introduced to Bo Diddley‘s work from George Thorogood‘s cover of his thumping blues standard “Who Do You Love.” Bo Diddley was nicknamed the “Originator” because he is credited as a major influence in the birth of rock from the blues. He shared the stage with many of the giants of rock & roll and influenced the rest.
This was a big break for me very early in my career, Rolling Stone Magazinecommissioned me to photograph him in conjunction for his upcoming induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Bo was playing a wedding in Encinitas, California and I thought it would be great to photograph him at such a small venue. His management told me I couldn’t crash the wedding (understandable) and that Bo would prefer to do the shoot at his hotel before his gig. I assumed he would be at something like the Ritz so I called to book a ballroom to use as a makeshift studio as I was asked to shoot on a seamless background. As it turned out he was staying at a small roadside motel and the biggest room I could get was a standard room with two double beds. As Arnold Newman is credited as saying “Photography is 1 percent talent and 99 percent moving furniture” so we got to work emptying the room, hanging the seamless, wedging lights against the 8 foot ceiling, etc.
When we were supposed to start the session I was informed by Bo’s manager that he was at lunch. About an hour later I saw Bo walking back to the hotel from a diner across the street. As I introduced myself and gave him the room number where we were set-up I realized this was going to be an uphill battle. His policy was to say “No” to even my most benign requests. He refused the grooming, he refused to change his shirt (which he had spilled gravy on it at lunch), he didn’t want to hold his signature cigar-box guitar, he refused to wear his signature hat (which he was already wearing). I started negotiating with his manager, I would give up the grooming for the guitar, the shirt for the hat, etc. when Bo said “Choose one.” I could have a clean shirt, the guitar or the hat but not all three. Then he insisted we do the shoot in his room.
At this point I had to figure out what his motivation was since he needed to get dressed for his gig anyway. Was he just having a bad day? Was he bored and just having fun screwing with me? Was he trying to kill the shoot all together? Was there a sign on my back that said “Kick Me”?
I needed to determine which would be worse, to walk away without anything for my client or deliver work that my client couldn’t use? I realized that his additional demand of shooting in his room gave me another bargaining chip and we eventually negotiated a compromise where we would shoot in his room without changing his shirt, in exchange I would get the hat and the guitar and send the make-up artist packing. I assumed that the guitar would cover the stain on the shirt but what I hadn’t considered was that he was booked in the smallest room in the motel. By the time the terms were agreed upon I was told we had 40 minutes before he had to leave for the wedding and he would need some of that time to get dressed after our shoot for the show.
We couldn’t rearrange his room because of his personal items and our time constraints. The room was so small that we had to cut off a section of the background and tape it to the back wall and have Bo sit on a camera case on top of the bed while I had to stand outside and shoot through an open window. Seriously. By the time we were ready to start shooting he noticed it was just starting to rain and said “Probably should have taken the room over the guitar.” As I took my position in the rain he dropped the bomb that he was counting and would sit for only one roll of film and since I was shooting with a Hasselbald he knew that meant 12 frames. I shot 4 frames in black & white and 9 in color, with the day I was having 13 seemed a more appropriate number.
After I exposed my last frame and went into the room to start breaking-down gear he struck up a casual conversation like we were old friends. Bo became a different guy and for the first time we had a real conversation, he handed me his guitar “The Mean Machine” and told me that he had it custom made in Australia. Then as we broke down the gear he went in and shaved, changed for his performance came out looking picture perfect and said “Lock the door when you leave”. As he reached out his famously massive hand and I saw mine disappear as we shook goodbye, he looked me in the eye, smiled and said “This was fun, let’s do it again sometime.” It was like hearing a dentist say that after a botched root canal.
As I made the long drive in the rain back to L.A. I realized something that I would remember the rest of my life. Every shoot is it’s own entity with the photograph as it’s physical embodiment and the experience of making it as it’s soul. Thanks Bo for teaching me early-on to expect the unexpected and that with every session comes a lesson.