Clifton James

Bo Diddley's drummer


Clifton James, drummer: born Chicago 2 October 1936; married (one son, five daughters); died Chicago 16 February 2006.

One of the stars of early rock'n'roll, Bo Diddley recorded several of the genre's defining songs and influenced everyone from Buddy Holly to the White Stripes via the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. The drummer Clifton James provided the primal beat and criss-cross rhythms on nearly all of the singles and album tracks Diddley recorded for the Chess label between 1955 and 1970.

Not content with backing Diddley on sides such as "I'm a Man", "Diddley Daddy", "Road Runner", "Who Do You Love", "Cops & Robbers" and "Mona", and, alternating with Frank Kirkland, on tour, James was a mainstay with Chess Records. In that capacity, he toured and recorded with Willie Dixon, the Flamingos, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf.

Born in Chicago in 1936, Clifton James drove his mother and 13 siblings crazy with his drumming. "I first started learning to play drums on chair bottoms, tin cans, and anything you know, I could find to beat on - even a few heads," he told Mick Vernon on a UK visit to appear with Bo Diddley on Ready Steady Go in 1965. As a teenager, he played with Memphis Slim and Elmore James. He met Diddley in 1953.

James's drumming fitted the percussive nature of Diddley's music perfectly. Having moved from Mississippi to Illinois as a child, Diddley had been playing in Maxwell Street, Chicago, with Jerome Green shaking a primitive type of maracas - actually ballcocks filled with black-eyed beans - and Roosevelt Jackson on washtub bass. He recalled,

It was just the three of us originally - Roosevelt Jackson, Jerome Green and me. I play the guitar as

if I'm playing the drums, I play drum licks on the guitar. Later we added Clifton James on drums. He was the man who did the original Bo Diddley beat on the drums. When I made the record "Bo Diddley" in 1955, it turned the whole music scene around."

Recorded on 2 March 1955, "Bo Diddley" and its other side, "I'm a Man", received much airplay and helped the 45 reach No 2 on the rhythm'n'blues charts.

James played drums with Diddley for the singer's historic television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in November 1955. Off air, the host argued with his guest, who had performed "Bo Diddley" rather than the less primal "Sixteen Tons", the Tennessee Ernie Ford song which had been requested by the presenter. When Sullivan called him "a coloured boy", Diddley thumped him.

In 1956, James made an important contribution to the much-covered "Who Do You Love" when he suggested the "for a necktie" lyric to complete the "I walk 47 miles of barbed wire, use a cobra snake . . ." opening line. He also played on "Say Man", Diddley's biggest US hit, in 1959, as well as his belated 1963 UK chart entries, "Hey Good Looking" and "Pretty Thing" - one of many Diddley tracks which inspired the names of British groups in the Sixties - and the albums Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger, Bo Diddley Rides Again and Bo Diddley's Beach Party.

In January, James took part in an event to launch the book TV-a-Go-Go: rock on TV from American Bandstand to American Idol in Chicago. He watched the clip of his appearance with Bo Diddley on The Ed Sullivan Show with great amusement before accepting an award.

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