Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hey, Bo Diddley

If Chuck Berry is rock and roll's storyteller/comic, and Little Richard its acrobat/ecstatic, then Bo Diddley was its eccentric folklorist. His music was like an anthopology class with a wicked backbeat: instantly recognizeable as something you have heard before, somewhere (on a playground, probably) -- but reconfigured and revitalized in a unique, addictive way.

It's common now to say that punk was invented to get back to the spirit of early rock and roll (after the combined "excesses" (not my term) of disco and, uh, Led Zeppelin). Maybe that's true, but in any case it's worth pointing out that, even in the context of early rock and roll, BD was "punk." For him, the guitar was a kind of drum (in fact, if you're feeling ambitious, perhaps you could argue that he presaged not only the punks but the modern-day percussive guitarists like Kaki King). The result was stripped-down, drone-based, fluid music that succeeded on the strength of its pulse -- though the occasional punctuation of weird effects didn't hurt any.

Okay, I'll just say it: in the end I always felt Bo Diddley was aesthetically closer to the master bluesman John Lee Hooker than he was to any of his fellow rockers. (Maybe that's why he fit in so well at the Long Beach Blues festival when I saw him there back in the 90s.)

And by the way, "Mr. Diddley" (as the NYT so politely calls him) also has the distinction of being the first rocker to hire female guitarists -- perhaps the best-known being Peggy Jones, aka "Lady Bo" (who worked with him primarily between 1956 and 1962, and appears on all of his classic recordings from this period, including "Hey, Bo Diddley", "Mona", "The Story of Bo Diddley", and "Road Runner") and Norma-Jean Wofford, aka "the Duchess" (who appears in the clip above, and was in the band until 1966). Given the "testicular fortitude" that is often associated with rock and roll, this openness to having a "chick in the band" (prominently) is a not insignificant detail of the man's biography.

* * * * *

Here are a few (a very few) of the other rock/pop tunes that use the so-called "Bo Diddley Beat," the rhythm of which is helpfully transcribed in DJA's tribute.

Need more evidence of the man's influence? Here are the Strangeloves doing "I Want Candy" in 1965 (with a surprise appearance from Sammy Davis Jr. at the end):

(That's an insipid imitation, I know.)

Of course, at some point it can be hard to follow the trajectories of artistic influence / overlap. Here, the inimitable Dr. John demonstrates a contemporaneous instance of the "BD beat" (i.e., Sugar Boy Crawford's "Jock-a-Mo" -- aka "IKO IKO" -- originally released in 1954):

Sometimes stuff is just in the air, ya know?

Anyway: rest in peace (and thank you), Ellas McDaniel.


DJA said...

If Chuck Berry is rock and roll's storyteller/comic, and Little Richard its acrobat/ecstatic, then Bo Diddley was its eccentric folklorist.

Hi Andrew,

That's a good way of putting it, although I would emphasize that of the early rock and roll pioneers, Bo Diddley is the only one whose music still sounds raw and dangerous to modern ears. Bo Diddley is a gunslinger. He does use a cobra snake for a necktie. His tombstone hand and graveyard mind are for real -- you believe him when he says these things.

The John Lee Hooker comparison is apt -- obviously, there's that one-chord drone and they're both Mississippi children, and Bo said John Lee Hooker is the cat who inspired him to pick up the guitar. But Diddley was born further south, closer to New Orleans, and then his family moved to Chicago when he was seven. I think John Lee always sounded like a country boy, while Bo's music had that urban bite and a real sense of urgency to it. And also a deliberate, chosen primitivism -- Bo did not lack formal musical training. He started on violin! It's not like he didn't know that you could write songs with more than one chord in them.

It's easy to hear why the punks loved him, especially The Clash.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for your comment, Darcy!

Bo Diddley is the only one whose music still sounds raw and dangerous to modern ears

Yes! That's what I meant when I said he was "punk" in the context of early rock and roll -- he was punk before there was punk! And he's still punk now that punk is dead.

The John Lee Hooker comparison is apt

Thanks, but I'm glad you teased out some of the details. You're right that there are important distinctions: Hooker had the swamp/Delta feel going on, a seemingly greater interest in minor keys, and so on. My argument was just that, when it comes to musical insistence (and yes, I'd even say "urgency"), these guys were kindred spirits. Whereas, using the same criteria, Bo and (say) Chuck Berry (whose music I also love) were on different planets.

Oh yeah, and something we both forgot to mention, but which is clear on the video clip you included -- BD could dance like a motherfucker.

Steve Lawson said...

Hey Andrew,

Great post. I've met Peggy a few times, she's been to a few of my gigs, and is an amazing talent and remarkable woman. That Bo had the presence of mind to include her in his band at that time shows a level of independent thought rare in much of what was going on.

He'll be missed,