A girl's best friend is her guitar
“Norma-Jean was my first sidekick. We did everything together.” – Bo Diddley, 2005
One of the first female rock ‘n’ roll guitarists was a tall, stunning black woman with a towering bouffant hairdo, a skintight gold lame dress (or black leather pants), high heels, and a custom Gretsch electric guitar, designed by the man usually standing next to her onstage, Bo Diddley.
Technically Norma-Jean Wofford, nicknamed “The Duchess” by Bo, was the second female guitarist in Diddley’s backing band. She replaced “Lady Bo” (Peggy Jones) in 1962, with Bo hiring her first and then teaching her how to play rhythm guitar. Lady Bo had been Bo’s lead guitar player from 1957 to 1961, leaving to form her own group The Jewel, later called Lady Bo and The Family Jewels, and work as a session musician. Bo’s audiences’ disappointment in not seeing Lady Bo with the band prompted him to hire Norma-Jean.
Having a woman in a rock ‘n’ roll/R&B band who was not simply a back-up singer was unheard of at the time. The Duchess, originally from Pittsburgh, was said to be Bo’s sister or half-sister, a rumor he started himself, partly because he considered her close enough to qualify as family but also because he didn’t want the other band members to make a move on her. He told his biographer, “Part of the reason I decided to go with that little lie was that it put me in a better position to protect her when we were on the road.”.
The Duchess recorded and toured with Bo for four years and was the band member he entrusted with his money. She sang back-up with the Bo-dettes (then comprised of Gloria Morgan and Lily Jamieson, a.k.a. “Bee Bee”), managing simultaneously to sing with them, play rhythm guitar, and not miss a single dance move. The Duchess appeared on several of Bo’s albums, recorded for Leonard Chess’s Checkers label, such as Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley and Company, Bo Diddley’s Beach Party (a live album recorded at the Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina), Hey! Good Lookin’, 500% More Man, and The Originator.
Wofford was on Diddley’s first tour of England that featured the Everly Brothers, Rolling Stones, and Little Richard in 1963. Audiences went wild for The Duchess’s curve-hugging stage clothes. When a British journalist asked her how she managed to get into her tight dress, the Duchess held up a large shoe horn.
Eric Burdon paid tribute to The Duchess in the Animals’ song, “The Story of Bo Diddley” in 1964.
“We were playing at the Club A Go-Go in Newcastle, our home town
And the doors opened one night and to our surprise
Walked in the man himself, Bo Diddley
Along with him was Jerome Green, his maraca man,
And the Duchess, his gorgeous sister…
He turned around the Duchess
And he said, “Hey Duchess,
what do you think of these young guys
Doin’ our material?”
She said, “I don’t know. I only came across here
To see the changin’ of the guards and all that jazz.”
The Duchess left Bo Diddley’s band in 1966 to get married and raise a family in Florida. She was replaced by Cornelia “Cookie” Redmond and later Debby Hastings, who remained in Bo’s band from 1982 to 2007. Lady Bo returned to Bo’s band to play several concerts in 1993 and the Duchess showed up at a Bo Diddley concert to say hello to her old friend in July 2004 in California, where she was then living. She died the following year in Fontana, California. Bo Diddley passed away in 2008.
Bo and The Duchess played identical Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbirds, Cadillacs, and Cigar Boxes, which he had helped design. All three models had unusual rectangular shapes, which he said made them easier to play. Decades later Bo gave one of his Jupiter Thunderbirds to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, who helped Gretsch recreate the model, renamed the G6199 Billy-Bo Jupiter Thunderbird.
Below, even while overshadowed by Bo and his energetic guitar playing, The Duchess was still pretty hard to miss during their appearances on television shows like Shindig! and the concert film The Big T.N.T. Show /T.A.M.I.-T.N.T. Show (1966).