lady bo, the queen mother of guitar

July 18, 2011
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Bo Diddley is rightfully credited as a true luminary in the history of rock. An innovative guitarist, clever lyricist, and energetic live performer, the legend of Bo Diddley is well deserved. Often overlooked, however are the contributions to his band by one of the most talented women to ever pick up a guitar; Lady Bo.

Words by Nathan Leigh

Peggy Jones, aka Lady Bo grew up in New York City, attending Manhattan’s famed High School for the Performing Arts (of Fame fame) as a singer and dancer. She studied tap and ballet and trained in opera. She had been playing guitar for only 2 years when a chance encounter with Bo Diddley before a show at the legendary Apollo Theatre led to a life-changing gig as Bo Diddley’s lead guitarist. Diddley was awestruck by the sight of a beautiful young woman with a guitar and struck up a conversation. When Jerome Greene (the single luckiest maraca player in the history of music) ran out to tell Bo that dinner was being served in the dressing room, Bo invited Jones in. Jones recounts in an interview with Lea Gilmore:

After a while he opened his guitar, asked me to grab mine and play something. When I opened my case he laughed louder than anyone I’d heard before. I wanted to know what¹s funny? Hysterically he said what is that? He had never seen a Supro guitar. I said, “Now that’s a dumb question! First you probably never saw a girl carrying a guitar down the street before and want to know if I played it, did
you think that was funny?” He said, “NO!” I continued, “then you insult my ax and I listen to Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Charlie Parker and I THINK I’ve heard of you! Do you think that’s funny?” He said, “No, but I like your attitude, let’s play something.” I said OK and the rest is history.

Lady Bo was quickly enlisted in the band as the replacement for Jody Williams who was drafted in1957. Diddley taught Lady Bo his distinctive open tuning and unusual techniques. Diddley would later remark that “she knows every move I make… she is the only one that knows the original ways…” Her unique style which is simultaneously soulful and playful, making prominent use of guitar effects, is highlighted in her composition Aztec on which she plays all guitar parts.

After a year as a session musician for Diddey, Lady Bo was hired as a full time band member. She went on to perform on some of Bo Diddley’s most iconic recordings during her initial 1957-1961 run with the band. Her lead guitar work and backing vocals can be heard on songs like Hey Bo Diddley, Say Man, Say Man Back Again, and Road Runner.

The interplay between her guitar and Bo Diddley’s was integral to the sound of the era. The two switched effortlessly between lead and rhythm parts often within a single verse. Lady Bo herself would later say “you couldn’t tell one guitar from the other unless you were there.”

Throughout her initial run with the Bo Diddley Band, Peggy Jones continued the career as a songwriter and bandleader in her own right she had begun in New York. She released a string of singles with groups like the Bopchords, the Continentals, Les Cooper and the Soul Rockers and her own band the Jewels (also known as the Family Jewel, Lady Bo and the Family Jewel, the Fabulous Jewels, Little Jewel and the Family Jewel, and Lady Bo and the BC Horns…when you’re one of the first ten female blues guitarists, you can change your bands name whenever you please…).

Her solo recordings are tragically increasingly hard to find. For a clip of the Jewels’ first single I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles go here:
Peggy left Bo Diddley’s band in 1961 to focus more on the Jewels, who became one of the top east coast touring acts of the 60’s. She appeared on recordings by Eric Burdin and the Animals, and had a brief stint in James Brown’s backing band (this was of course because of the James Brown Act of 1966 which dictated that all musicians alive during the 60s had to spend at least a week playing with James Brown).

In 1970, Peggy Jones rejoined Bo Diddley after a call from his manager asking her to put together a new backing band for him. She drafted the members of the Family Jewel to be Bo’s backing band and flew out to join him on his tour. The dynamic duo immediately regained their old chemistry, and the elated crowd of their first show together in 8 years began chanting “Lady Bo”over and over when Diddley re-introduced Peggy to the crowd. The nickname stuck.

(Lady Bo is unseen in the clip, her lead guitar work is definitely heard. Also priceless is Diddley’s look of utter confusion at the punks dancing to his music.)

Although Bo Diddley was renowned for his trademark cigar box guitar, Lady Bo has been more willing to experiment throughout her career. A fan primarily of classic Gibson guitars, Lady Bo has also been a proponent of Roland’s guitar synthesizer, an instrument generally reserved for only the proggiest of prog metal bands.

Seeing her play alongside Bo Diddley, him with the same guitar he’s used to 40 years, while Lady Bo weilds the 80iest of all 80s instruments is a perfect microcosm of their long and fruitful friendship. Bo Diddley was a genius and a visionary, but one eternally tied to his late 50’s heyday. Lady Bo meanwhile is an innovator. She pushed boundaries as the first female R&B guitarist, and has never rested on her laurels. 71 years old this month, Lady Bo continues performing regularly with her band Lady Bo and the BC Horns. As she says in her interview with Lea Gilmore:

I am not an entertainer who creates copy nor am I the daughter of someone famous. I’ve walked down the path many light years ago to prove that… Yes, I can do this. Watch me fly!