Bo Diddley's Top 10 Songs

By Sergio Ariza

The great Ellas McDaniel, known to the world as Bo Diddley, said that you can't judge a book by its cover, well, you can't judge his tremendous figure by the success in the charts that his songs had (only one reached the Billboard Top 20) but by the huge influence that they had, with thousands of covers by bands like the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, the Animals, the Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead and the New York Dolls. Bo Diddley's DNA and his music is everywhere in rock & roll, as these 10 gigantic songs attest. 

Bo Diddley (1955)

On March 2, 1955, rock and roll found its rhythm. That was the day Bo Diddley recorded Bo Diddley - for goodness sake - the first song that put his well-known riff or beat (the Bo Diddley beat) into the vocabulary of rock and roll. African rhythms, and the guitar used as a percussive element, crept into a lot of new music, creating a sound with a lot of tremolo, possibly with a DeArmond Tremolo, which would become another feature of his early Chess recordings. The song, despite not making the official Billboard chart, was a hit on the R&B charts and made Diddley one of the first black artists to appear on Ed Sullivan's popular show. 

Other great releases: Buddy Holly, The Animals 


I'm a Man (1955)

Muddy Waters
was his great idol and that's why he had always wanted to sign with Chess, but once they were in the same label respect was mixed with competitiveness and Waters and Diddley found themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war, with a number of songs to do. In 1955 Diddley was inspired by Hoochie Coochie Man to make this wonderful blues that appeared as the B-side of Bo Diddley. Waters decided to answer his disciple and in May of that same year he recorded Mannish Boy in which he played with the age difference between the two. Of course, Bo Diddley appears as co-author of the song and both would prove that there was no bad blood between them when they recorded Diddley's version together in 1967 on the Super Blues album.

Other great versions: The Yardbirds  


Who Do You Love? (1956)

In 1956 rock & roll had become the great threat to white parents and the repressive McCarthyian society: when these sectors began to talk about "jungle music" it was Bo Diddley and his beat that they were thinking about. Who Do You Love? is the most perfect example of Diddley's rhythm, whether it was made with his characteristic guitar in the form of a cigar box or a Gretsch Jet Firebird, this was the song that best defines his style, becoming the rock on which people like Ronnie Hawkins and Quicksilver Messenger Service built their careers. The icing on the cake of the original recording is the solo by Jody Williams, the guitarist that Diddley himself had taught to play.

Other great versions: Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, Quicksilver Messenger Service, George Thorogood and the Destroyers 


Hey! Bo Diddley (1957)

Bo Diddley loved to refer to himself in his songs, from the iconic Bo Diddley to The Story Of Bo Diddley, to this wonderful Hey! Bo Diddley, in which his well-known 'beat' is once again omnipresent. Recorded in 1957, Diddley would cover it again on his remarkable live album, Bo Diddley's Beach Party, which would be a great success in the UK and would inspire dozens of bands that would star in the 'British Invasion'.

Other great versions: The Moody Blues, The Grateful Dead, The Temptations 


Mona (1957)

Buddy Holly
was one of Diddley's biggest fans, doing several covers of his songs and even appropriating its famous beat for his Stratocaster in one of his most legendary songs, Not Fade Away. Well, of all Diddley's songs, this was the one that inspired that song, a song dedicated to an exotic dancer whom Diddley desired, and it was understandable that other loving disciples of McDaniel, The Rolling Stones, decided to cover it for their own debut album.

Other great versions: The Rolling Stones, The Troggs 


Before You Accuse Me (1957)

One of his best blues, it appeared in 1957 as the B-side of Say Bossman and was later included on his seminal debut album, released in 1958. Along with Diddley and Jody Williams on guitars, we can hear the great Willie Dixon on bass. Creedence Clearwater Revival would made an excelent cover on their masterpiece, Cosmo's Factory.

Other great versions: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Eric Clapton 


Crackin' Up (1959)

Normally Diddley's best songs revolve around rhythm, but here he slows down the tempo and achieves one of the most beautiful songs of his career, making his particular version of one of his most popular songs, Love Is Strange, which Mickey & Silvia would take to the top of the charts, copying Jody Williams' guitar work in Billy's Blues by Billy Stewart. Although at this time Williams was no longer with him, he was replaced by Peggy Jones, one of the first female guitarists in the history of rock, who would be known as Lady Bo and used the same guitars that Diddley had commissioned Gretsch to make, the Cigar Box (rectanguar), the Jupiter Thunderbird (which, after giving it to
Billy Gibbons, would become known as Billy Bo) and the Cadillac.

Other great versions: The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney 


Road Runner (1960)

From the time that Diddley ran up and down the neck with his pick, to the explosion of that wonderful riff, to those 'Beep, beeps' copied for the Roadrunner cartoons, this is one of the most explosive songs in his repertoire. Recorded in 1960, it showed that Diddley still had great ideas for the new decade. Four years later John Lennon would use this riff to compose the I Feel Fine riff, including that intro which many say is the first appearance of feedback on a rock recording.

Other great versions: The Pretty Things, The Zombies, The Animals, The Who 


Pills (1961)

With a very 'twangy' guitar Diddley continues to demonstrate that the 60s didn't do him any harm at all. Pills is a great song in which he plays around with the idea of the use and abuse of pills by the American private health care system. Of course, when in 1973, the New York Dolls did their magnificent version, they certainly didn't care that much about how pills were being used...

Other great versions: New York Dolls 


You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover (1962)

In 1962 Bo Diddley had disappeared from the American charts altogether but was a star in Britain. You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover, recorded the same year the Beatles released Love Me Do, proves that the British were right to put him on a pedestal. Composed by Willie Dixon, but imitating Diddley's style, the tributee was delighted and in the original recording decided to break the fourth wall and tell all listeners to turn up the volume on their record players, and listen to him… because it's that good.

Other great versions: Shadows of Knight, Cactus, Tom Rush