The name Bo Diddley graced the music world in the mid-fifties as a founder of ‘real’ Rock and Roll with his infectious guitar playing style known as the ‘Bo Diddley beat’ (more on that later), with others like Chuck Berry, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters and Little Richard setting the world ablaze with this new thing called Rock n Roll whose splash then still ripples today, influencing the likes of names from U2 to the Rolling Stones or the Smiths with hundreds of others trying to emulate his spectacular way of playing guitar.
Born Otha Ellas Bates December 30, 1928 in McComb Mississippi, he grew up under the influence of John Lee Hooker, honing his craft based on rhythm using an open E tuning, but infused his material with a clear connection to his African roots. As we mentioned in these Guitars Exchange pages in earlier, “there are guitarists that need hundreds of notes to make you notice them, Bo Diddley can do that with just one chord. For Diddley everything is in the rhythm and the guitar becomes a percussion tool that stays etched in memory.”
Today marking the birthday of this Rock n Roll giant we take a look at his 1958 debut album, simply called Bo Diddley (Chess Records). Ranked #216 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, it houses 12 gems that put his ‘Bo Diddley Beat’ on full display. The style comes from the “hambone” traditions of street buskers who play out the beat by slapping their arms, legs and chest while chanting rhymes, resembling what is called the “shave and a haircut, two bits” beat. Experts have also linked it to the ‘clave rhythm’, found in Sub-Saharan African music traditions; what white audiences new to this sound called “jungle music”.
The record opens with the title hit single Bo Diddley, which went straight to the R&B charts and stayed at #1 for two weeks. Considered the first RnR song to feature the aforementioned clave rhythm. The B side I’m a Man also charted, and the record was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry (2012) as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”. The song has been covered by such names as Buddy Holly, The Shadows, Bob Seger, Janis Joplin, Carl Perkins, Warren Zevon, and Robert Randolph over the years. Also in the set is one of Diddley’s enduring numbers Who Do You Love, described by his biographer George R. White as “a stunning display of voodooesque braggadocio...spine-chilling, [with] murky vocals, eerie---almost surreal lyrics”. It relies less on the Diddley beat and more on a “modified cut shuffle beat”. You’ll no doubt have heard covers of it by heavies like George Thorogood and the Destroyers (1978), Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, (1963) and Quicksilver Messenger Service (1967).
His lineup for the recording session included several players including Jerome Green/vocals and maracas, Otis Spann/piano, Willie Dixon/bass, Jody Williams/guitar and vocals, harmonica wizards Billy Boy Arnold (I’m a Man), Little Walter (Diddley Daddy), Lester Davenport (Pretty Thing and Bring It to Jerome), and Little Willy Smith (Diddy Wah Diddy), to name a few, and the album cover art was designed by Chuck Stewart, with a shot of Diddley holding his Gretsch G6131T Jet.
This splendid album was given 5/5 stars by AllMusic’s Matthew Greenwald who said the 12 tracks represent the essential Bo Diddley beat to a note, “This is one of the greatest rock sounds that you’re likely to hear, and it’s all on this one record too”.
Bo Diddley passed away 10 years ago but he certainly got his wish, “I used to get mad about people recording my things, now I got a new thing going...I don’t get mad about them recording my material because they keep me alive”. (Pop Chronicles interview, ‘69).
The master is certainly alive and well here with numbers just as fresh as the day the were put to vinyl.