Lady Bo: First Lady of Guitar
As a 17-year-old axe slinging session player, she met with a fate that would inspire her to work straight through her golden years and into the Hall of Fame history books.
Lady Bo was born Peggy Jones on July 19, 1940 in New York’s Sugar Hill section of Upper Manhattan, a neighborhood filled with talented artists. Duke Ellington, the Ronettes and the Cadillac, were just a few of the kids who grew up there.
Encouraged by artistic parents (her mother was a dancer, her father a musician), Jones began studying dance at the age of three. “I figured I was a kid and I’d grow out of it,” she says of her abilities.
She learned everything from tap to ballet and by the time she turned six she had appeared at Carnegie Hall, on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour television show and Ralph Cooper’s radio program Spotlight On Harlem.
At nine she ventured into opera and discovered her four-octave range. In 1952, Jones picked up her first musical instrument, the ukulele. “All of my training, including ukulele when I was eleven or twelve, probably stems from dance,” she says.
Jones won a dance scholarship to New York’s famed LaGuardia Arts, but it was her study of music theory that led to songwriting and arranging. She studied drama and learned to play piano, drums and saxophone. Jones purchased her first guitar and later won an amateur night at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theatre.
After signing a one-shot deal with a major label and forming the Fabulous Jewels, Jones became a hot commodity. Early in 1957 she recorded her first hit single, “Baby”/”So Why” with the Bop Chords.
More records followed and so did session work. Jones planned to study classical music theory at Julliard, but a chance meeting with one of the true architects of rock and roll would change her life forever.
According to one telling of the story, Bo Diddley (née Ellas McDaniel), was standing outside the Apollo when a teenaged Jones, on her way to a session, stopped to check the show times. He asked if she played “that” in the case she carried.
Jones’s New Yorker mindset kicked in, and she responded with attitude. After formally introducing himself, Diddley continued teasing her, but eventually invited Jones backstage to have a bite to eat and meet his band.
After dinner, Diddley, by all accounts, grabbed his guitar and suggested that Jones remove her beloved Supro from the case. She gave him a piece of her mind and from that point, he started taking her seriously.
Between late 1957 and 1962 Jones lived the life of a rock and roller. But life on the road was not easy. “People didn’t have a lot of respect for female players,” she says of those early days.
Audiences believed her playing was nothing more than a gimmick. Some even went as far as to say a tape recorder was playing her parts during live performances.
Jones worked closely with Diddley to develop her style. “He would say, ‘I’m going to show you and then you take it and run with it and create something.’” A standard tuning player at the time, Jones picked up his open tuning style and ran with it.
She had to be a quick study, though. “If you were going to learn something you were going to get it now,” Jones says of Diddley’s instruction. He was glad to show her a few licks, but he did not spend an enormous amount of time on lessons.
There are a few reasons why more people don’t know about Jones’ place in rock and roll history. First, in the 1950s and ‘60s it was not a standard practice for record companies to give written credit to session players.
Second, Jones was a female lead player at a time when guitars were seen solely as a male ego toy. Women simply did not fit into that equation. So, Jones never received credit.
1950s and 1960s session players like Carole Kaye, James Jamerson, and Johnnie Johnson are only now receiving the credit they so richly deserve. So is Lady Bo. In 2003, she was honored with the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame Award and the U.S. Congressional Lifetime Achievement Award.As for the confusion regarding her tenure with Diddley, Jones believes it surfaced between 1962 and 1965. While playing in Nashville, she received a phone call from her father. Her mother was ill and Jones was asked to come home and help out. “Everyone says I left and Duchess came in. No. I was on a leave of absence,” she maintains.
Diddley’s friend (he called her his sister to protect her on the road), Norma-Jean Wofford, also known as The Duchess, received Jones’s Cadillac thunderbolt shaped guitar on loan. From 1962 to 1965 Duchess took over guitar and back-up vocal duties. Her licks can be found on Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley and Company, Bo Diddley’s Beach Party and Surfin’ With Bo Diddley.
Diddley could have easily chosen a male to fill in for Jones, but he specifically sought a female player to continue his tradition of helping women guitar players.
When asked if Diddley’s generosity hindered his career in any way, Jones says, “I do not believe so. He was the first to integrate his band both racially and gender wise. I don’t cop anyone else’s whatever,” she says. “I create. I don’t imitate.”
- Renée Westbrook
Photos courtesy of Lady Bo (black and white photo did not appear in the original article)
"UPDATE: December 6, 2005 In other LADY BO news, an article titled "LADY BO: First Lady of Guitar" written by Renee Westbrook is published in the Fall (November/December) 2005 issue of "ROCKRGRL" magazine, issue #57."