In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are featuring early pioneers who disrupted narratives and gave voice to musicians around the world.
Every hero needs an origin story, even guitar heroes.
Peggy Jones’ is this: It’s 1957. Jones is walking outside of the Apollo Theater. There’s a guitar case slung over her back, an instrument she’d taken up a few years earlier. Bo Diddley was appearing there that day, and spotted her.
“He wanted to know if I played that in the case?” Jones told an interviewer in 2000. “I wanted to know why. What’s it to you? Do you think I’d be carrying this around for looks?” By the next year, Peggy, or Lady Bo as she’d later be known, was a member of Diddley’s band, and one of the first women lead guitarists in rock.
She was just sixteen when she met Diddley, but she wasn’t new to this; she was a well-seasoned performer. First as a dancer, where by age nine, she was gracing the stage at Carnegie Hall, and then later when she took up the ukulele. “I thought it was kind of stupid to go into entertainment with the ukulele,” Jones told author Gillian G. Gaar in the book She’s a Rebel: A History of Women in Rock & Roll “That’s why I switched over to something I thought someone could accept.”
Maybe people were more willing to accept guitar music over ukulele. Music was changing. R&B and blues were fusing into this whole new form, and the guitar helped usher in that sound. The problem wasn’t the instrument, though. It was the player. “[B]eing a guitarist, that didn’t set too good with a lot of people,” Jones told Gaar. “A lot of people felt that a guitar is a male instrument.”
Jones didn’t care. When Diddley caught up to her outside of the Apollo, he invited her backstage to play for him so he could have a listen at just what this guitar-slinging girl could really do. He became a mentor for Jones, helping her hone her playing and incorporate elements of his style into her own. “The hardest thing in the world for me at that time was the rhythm, that Bo Diddley rhythm. That alone would make your toes curl up,” she told Gaar. That training eventually earned her a spot in Diddley’s band. “He asked me to be in the band [because] I was beginning to sound so much like him he wanted to see how I turned out.”
It was a good fit. So good, in fact, that people thought she wasn’t really playing, that she was just going through the motions while a tape recorder put in the real work. “It’s a disappointment to see the lengths that people go through because they don’t want to admit that black women were very involved in the rock scene,” says Laina Dawes, music critic and author of the book What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. “If you don’t fit the aesthetic, people discount what you’re trying to do.” Jones appeared on several well-known Diddley tracks including “Road Runner” and “Hey Bo Diddley” as both a guitarist and vocalist.
The same year she’d met Diddley, she also recorded her first single with her group The Bop Chords. “We couldn’t seem to find a guy, [Jones] sang first tenor,” recalled Bop Chords singer Kenneth “Butch” Hamilton in a 2011 Goldmine interview. She was also starting to do session work around the city. “I was the third guitar player on a lot of sessions,” Jones told Gaar. “I wanted to get into as many things as I could.”
She was also working on her own music with singer Gregory Carroll, which they later released as Greg and Peg. And if that wasn’t enough, she was also working with Bobby Bakersfield for recordings that would be released as Bob and Peggy. Her work with Bakersfield was also a chance for Jones to work on her composition and production skills. “That was was one of my first singles that I produced and wrote both tunes,” Jones said of the Bob and Peggy single. “I did the arrangements and I said ‘I would like to have some strings in this section . . . how do we write for violins?’ It was really a challenge for me.” She later went on to form the R&B band the Jewels with Bakersfield. She left Diddley’s band in the early 60s to play with the Jewels full-time, and was replaced by another notable player—Norma-Jean Wofford.
Jones’ story is often left out of music history: “I emerged at a time when there were no other female lead guitarists,” Jones recalled. “Had I been treated as a serious artist then, maybe my career would be different today.” She died in 2015, after a long career with not just Diddley, but James Brown, Eric Burdon and The Animals, and her own bands, among others. “It’s really important to find out if people like Jones are being noted,” Dawes says. “A lot of black women have been erased [in rock history] and it’s important to unearth and archive her story.”