What’s the right time for Bo Diddley? Any time, and thanks for asking. For those more familiar with the sui generis rock ‘n’ roll architect’s colorful legend then with the undying grandeur of his music, may I suggest starting at square one? That would be 1958’s Bo Diddley, which stands as one of the finest debuts in the history of the whole r ’n’ r shebang.
In rock terms, the enormous figure that is the late Ellas McDaniel né Bo Diddley is basically inescapable. Of course fans of the wild ‘50s explosion that kick started it all know his stuff up close and personal, but partisans of subsequent musical developments often interact with him more through association. British invasion nuts are familiar with him via covers from The Rolling Stones, Kinks, Pretty Things and Yardbirds. By extension blues-rockers name check the man through tributes from Eric Clapton and George Thorogood. Haight-Ashbury trippers recognize the dude’s presence on Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails, where the band indulged in not only a cover of “Mona,” but also a side-long expansion of “Who Do You Love?” Likewise, glam-punkers very likely realize just where “Pills” from New York Dolls originates. And it’s not just cover songs; the instantly identifiable Bo Diddley Beat turns up not only in “I Want Candy” by The Strangeloves (or Bow Wow Wow’s cover of said tune) and Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”, but less expectedly in George Michael’s “Faith” and The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?”
But detailing the man’s full credentials would take up a lot more space. As a guitar player, Diddley’s influence continues to touch bands and indeed whole movements in rock’s constant evolution, often unconsciously and even when the connection doesn’t immediately strike a Bo-like chord. Chord? Well, part of Diddley’s everlasting appeal is that many of his tunes featured one sustained harmony for the guitar, and if the unshakable template established by one Chuck Berry proves too difficult for some upstart garage band guitarists, reverting to Bo’s splendid simplicity is a consistently reliable maneuver.
Now, Berry and Diddley are often spoken of in the same context, and for numerous reasons. Beside the fact that they both recorded for Chicago’s Chess Records, the pair were also rock ‘n’ roll guitarists whose crucial innovations developed directly out of blues and R&B rather than simply borrowing or attempting to approximate them. Little Richard was similar, but he was a piano man, and history clearly chose the guitar as rock’s dominant lead voice. But one huge difference between Chuck and Bo is the former’s double-LP calling card The Great Twenty-Eight, a justly ubiquitous compilation and one of 20th century music’s most essential documents. While Diddley has an assload of comps to his name, consumers often acquire one or two of them out of impulse, nagging curiosity or just a sense of obligation to include the work of The Originator in their personal collections.
If Berry’s Twenty-Eight sits on home shelves looking lean and eternally distinguished, Diddley’s representation is often far more lackluster; a second hand cassette that spent two years underneath the passenger side seat of a Chevy Cavalier, a shoddily manufactured compact disc that oozes a motivation on the part of its producers that’s purely mercantile, or a handful of downloaded tracks residing on a hard drive waiting perpetually to be queued up and shake some action. Sure, MCA did an unusually admirable job over the years in boxing up a bunch of his indispensible early material, with my own discovery coming through The Chess Box, a 2CD/3LP monster released back in 1990. These releases all presented various starting points, but in comparison to Berry, Elvis, Holly, and Diddley’s Chess blues brethren, they can’t help but give off the aura of a road too seldom traveled, the fruits of an artist that’s taken for granted far more than he’s appropriately celebrated.
Part of this stems from the ridiculous misapprehension held by some that he’s a transitory innovator responsible for one great idea that his bands then proceeded to run into the ground. That he wasn’t a hit machine only adds to this erroneous assumption. Plus, albums with titles like Surfin’ With Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger undeniably give off a decidedly opportunistic vibe. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Any of those abovementioned MCA comps will show just how robust a player Bo actually was, and in fact his debut album also rounded-up twelve tracks that had already appeared as singles. It serves as a flawless introduction to this legend’s houserocking magnificence, and as it plays any lingering arguments over Diddley as a one-trick pony will be settled tout de suite.
Inevitably, it begins with his most famous tune. A number one R&B smash in 1955, “Bo Diddley” is rightfully considered an archetypal rock ‘n’ roll single, but it also instantly set him apart. Much has already been said about how its insistent, unflagging beat provided a direct link to rhythms of African origin, but the child’s playground chant of its lyrics also registers like a cleaned-up version of old-time hokum. Early rock music was largely about the blending of cultures separated by segregation and amplified by the friction of generations, and Diddley clearly stands somewhat apart from this, feeling more like a weird extension of the kind of stuff heard on street corners, night clubs, and jook joints in the first half of the century. This obviously played a huge part in his limited chart success. Unlike Berry, Diddley’s very rarely if ever addressed the concerns of teenagers. His music spoke directly to their hips but only mildly addressed their emotions.
“Bo Diddley”’s flipside greatly magnifies this difference in intent. “I’m a Man” is a straight slice of undiluted Chicago blues featuring Otis Spann on piano, Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica, and Willie Dixon on drums. If not exactly mature, its boasting is unmistakably adult in intent. And if the doo-wop flavored “Say Boss Man” feels initially similar to the tomfoolery of The Coasters, it’s not about class clowns, parental authority or the heroes of TV westerns. Instead, it humorously details a guy with nineteen children pleading to his boss for a raise. Kids might laugh, but they wouldn’t really relate, not like they would to say The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job”.
The braggadocio of “I’m a Man” is expanded upon in the tough as nails “Who Do You Love?”, a rock standard and a legitimate prototype for rap. Its themes contrast well with the relaxed Jimmy Reed-like lope of “Before You Accuse Me” (later covered by Clapton). “Diddy Wah Diddy” (the source of Captain Beefheart’s first single) is a fine hybrid of Windy City blues and doo-wop, and “Hush Your Mouth” tackles Bo’s signature beat with the manic intensity of a group Benzedrine binge. Or maybe it was just really strong coffee; I’ve heard it said that Leonard Chess could brew a mean cup.
Over the years Diddley employed a bunch of fine players, but none better than occasional vocalist and master of maracas Jerome Green. “Bring it to Jerome” is an early showcase for his cohort in rhythm, and it’s as incessantly grooving a tune as Bo ever waxed, with Lester Davenport’s booming harmonica making feel like something Little Walter might’ve cut if he’d made a serious run for the rock ‘n’ roll market. Elsewhere, “Diddley Daddy” and “Dearest Darling” both show just how much could be made from one seemingly reductive idea, and if “Hey Bo Diddley” is an obvious attempt to recapture some chart magic, it varies enough from its model to go down a storm. The guitar playing throughout the LP makes it abundantly clear why so many other players have hailed him as a master; it’s all there in album closer “Pretty Thing,” cascading like spirit waves that transcend all attempts at rationalization. And that unstoppable beat is far more than just fodder for garage, punk and blues units. The roots of Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker reside right here.
If you’re looking for an original copy of Bo Diddley, it won’t come cheap. But a shadowy concern known as Rumble Records has pressed up affordable reissues of this and his equally swank second record Go Bo Diddley, so those that don’t require a first pressing can rejoice. Now, if only some label would hurry up and reissue Bo Diddley’s Beach Party, things would really take a turn for the better. Summer’s coming, y’know?
Graded on a Curve: A+