I’ve spent the last few days researching my black female guitar foremothers in an almighty playlist that I’ll share with you all soon. In the process I discovered Lady Bo, lead guitarist in Bo Diddley’s band from 1957-1961. Lady Bo, real name Peggy Jones, was the first female guitarist to be hired by a major act and was a huge influence on Diddley and his sound.
Jones’ life was changed after a chance encounter with Bo Diddley before a gig at the Apollo Theatre. She was carrying her guitar with her; Diddley who was so stunned to see a beautiful woman with a guitar invited her to the dressing room as 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 what’s 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.
Although Jones had only been playing guitar for two years she had shown a talent for music from a young age. Growing up in the Sugar Hill district of Manhattan she enjoyed tap dancing at an early age and studied opera and learnt the ukulele at age nine. She graduated from New York’s High School for Performing Arts studying dance, drama and music theory.
Jones was hired first as a session musician and then full time to replace Jody Williams who was enlisted in 1957. She quickly learnt Diddley’s distinctive open tuning and began to develop her own instinctive way of playing guitar. Her guitar work and backing vocals can be heard on classic hits such as ‘ Hey Bo Diddley’, ‘Roadrunner’ and ‘Crackin Up’.
The interplay between the two guitars was integral to the sound. They switched between lead and rhythm so often that Lady Bo was quoted saying “you couldn’t tell one guitar from the other unless you were there.” Lady Bo’s style can be heard best in her composition ‘Aztec’ in which she plays all the guitar parts.
Lady Bo left Bo Diddley in 1961 to start her own group The Jewels, later known as Lady Bo & the Family Jewels, and had a hit withe northern soul influenced ‘We Have Togetherness’.
Although known as Lady Bo now, she was given her nickname in 1970 when she ran into Bo Diddley before a gig and was invited to play with him onstage. Jones describes the moment she became Lady Bo:
Anyway, midway into the set there was chanting and a dispute going on. It was the crowd of people that attended the Bo Diddley concert in San Francisco, 1970, who proclaimed that I should be called Lady Bo, in honor of Bo Diddley, as a compliment to me and as a title. To settle the fuss that came up when the audience is vocal and wanted to know is she your sister… daughter… old lady? Bo made an announcement. “At this time I would like to introduce to you my guitar player for many years, her name is Peggy. My wife and kids are at home, it was her and me that you hear on all my records and….oh yeah, we are not related!” (Laughter) Then the chanting began: LADY BO! LADY BO! LADY BO! We’re gonna call her Lady Bo! Bo hit a chord then said proudly “Yeah! And I taught her, I’ll be all right now!”
I guess they were not happy with my real name because the true original sound of Bo’s music had just been authenticated. It was evident that the packed house now recognized that the girl guitar player was an integral part of the real rhythm Diddley is famous for especially that night in live performance. The traded guitar licks with telepathic efficiency between Bo and me spoke for itself.
Jones also appeared on recordings by Eric Burdon and the Animals, appeared in James Brown’s backing band and toured extensively with The Jewels. I was shocked to find that despite her place in history alongside Bo Diddley Lady Bo is not well known and does not even have her own Wikipedia page (her replacement Norma-Jean Wofford aka The Duchess only has a small entry).
How to spread the word about her impact and history then? Well write about it, listen to it, remember it and tell others. Too often black women are written out of history. Lady Bo deserves to be remembered.