The rhythm of rock & roll

By Sergio Ariza

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. Few can do so much with so little, he is the only guitarist with a beat linked to his name, the ‘Bo Diddley beat’, as fundamental to the history of rock as his friend Chuck Berrys intros. From Buddy Holly to U2, through the Rolling Stones or the Smiths, hundreds of artists have fallen under that influence to which Johnny Marr called “the mother of all riffs

Perhaps Bo Diddley never had Chuck Berry’s success, but his work resists comparison with his. And by drawing a parallel with one of his songs “you can’t judge a book by its cover, neither can you judge an artist by his popular success, and the footprint he left on rock is much bigger than his time spent on the charts. His way of playing the guitar was absolutely revolutionary and Diddley was also a remarkable composer who had a huge influence on British groups.  You couldn’t understand the British Invasion without the musical ascent of Bo Diddley. The Stones borrowed his ‘beat’ for Not Fade Away, they ‘stole’ his I’m Alright and made a version Mona, the Pretty Things were called like that after another one of his songs and on their debut they included three of his numbers, the Animals made The Story of Bo Diddley, the Yardbirds and The Who, I’m a Man, Manfred Mann Bring it to Jerome, the Kinks Cadillac, and in the Beatles German shows, they always played Road Runner.

However, his footprint didn’t end there, when the American garage bands started copying the Brits, Diddley’s material became an important part of their repertoire and even at the end of the decade when new groups were looking for new sounds, they also looked into his work, such as Quicksilver Messenger Service with Who Do You Love, or Creedence Clearwater Revival with Before You Accuse Me. And let’s not forget the importance of the man who most clearly showed the connection between rock & roll and the continent that gave it its rhythm, Africa.

Otha Ellas Bates was born December 30, 1928 in McComb, Mississippi, and was raised by his mother’s cousin Gussie McDaniel, a name he took when he moved to Chicago. Music came easy to him from an young age, he played the violin early on, but after seeing John Lee Hooker play he decided to switch to guitar and focus on rhythm, using mainly an open E tuning with a capo.

In his first bands, mid-40s, one of the fundamental men in his career showed up, Jerome Green, the man who complimented his sound with his maracas. In 1951, his band was one of the most popular in Chicago, by then promising guitarist Jody Williams, whom he had taught how to play with his special tuning had already joined it . During one of his club performances he fell while jumping on stage with his Gibson L5, and was hurt, which made him start to design his own models, which were smaller and with strange shapes.  

At the end of 1954 he signed onto the biggest label in the city, Chess Records, the same one his idol Muddy Waters
recorded with. He had perfected his style by then and was ready to rock the world. On March 2 he recorded Bo Diddley, the song where he introduced his famous riff into the rock & roll lexicon and gave him a name. It was the first recording to introduce African rhythm in rock, having the tremolo sound in front, possibly using a DeArmond Tremolo that would become so characteristic on his first Chess recordings. The song became a hit and he became one of the first black artists to appear on the popular Ed Sullivan Show.     

When rock & roll became a big threat to white fathers and they started calling it “jungle music, it was Bo Diddley and his rhythm they were referring to. Although by then there was nobody going to stop the revolution. His next singles in ‘55, Diddy Daddy and Pretty Thing, also found success on the R&B charts and the guitarist’s career took off for good. But, when in ’56 the final rock & roll explosion took place, Diddley never managed to make the pop charts despite delivering some of the best songs of his career like Diddy Wah Diddy and Who Do You Love. On the latter, Jody Williams returned the favour to his mentor by ripping one of the most searing solos in history on just one chord that Bo repeats insistently using his ‘beat’.  That same year, on the back of Williams’ guitar riff, Diddley composed and recorded Love Is Strange, a song that became one of the songs that defined an era, in the version by Mickey & Sylvia released some months later.

In 1957 Buddy Holly, another great rock star of the time, borrowed Bo Diddley’s ‘beat’ for his Not Fade Away, which proved his influence was far greater than his sales. That same year Williams was drafted and Diddley replaced him with Peggy Jones, one of the first female guitarists in the history of rock. She would become known as Lady Bo
and would leave a mark on some of the classics yet to come such as Hey Bo Diddley, Say Man, Crackin' Up and Road Runner. Diddley was so delighted with her work that in 1961 she played all the guitars in the recording of one of her compositions, Aztec.

By the end of the 50s he decided to get in touch with somebody from Gretsch, the brand he normally used (preferably a Jet Firebird, as you can see on the album covers of his first two fundamental records) so that they could make his own three legendary models, the Cigar Box (which was rectangular), the Jupiter Thunderbird (which, after giving it to Billy Gibbons, became known as the Billy Bo) and the Cadillac. As if the new guitars gave him more energy, 1959 was his best year commercially, Say Man was his only ‘Top 20’ in the pop charts (despite becoming a distant precursor of rap with his funny exchange of insults with Jerome Green) and Crackin’ Up and I’m Sorry which also made some noise. The 60s opened with his spectacular Roadrunner, years later, John Lennon would compose the riff on I Feel Fine based on that. It is further evidence of the impact it had in the early 60s in Britain. His record Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger made the top 20. It was at that moment when Lady Bo quit the band and decided to go it alone. The public demanded a new female figure so Diddley signed Norma-Jean Wolford, who became the Duchess, another key figure in his career.

In 1962 Bo Diddley was released, which included You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, and went to #11 on the British charts. Suddenly he was an absolute star in England, and a new generation of musicians were getting a guitar to do the Bo Diddley beat. In ‘63 he did a successful tour accompanied by Little Richard, the Everly Brothers and a local band called The Rolling Stones, who at that time didn’t have a single hit. Years later Keith Richards would admit he learned a couple of things about the wild rock style of life on that tour. And that’s without mentioning the music, if you listen to this remarkable live 1963 record Bo Diddley Beach Party, it’s easy to hear a lot of the Stones on it. To the point where their first hit record came with his ‘beat’ and their live shows always had Diddley’s I’m Alright on the song list, although they called it their own. His influence would prove lasting when in 1966 they ripped his riff in Let Me Pass on 19th Nervous Breakdown.

But in an ironic twist of fate, when those groups landed in the US, taking his music back to the charts, he disappeared forever from them. It wasn’t because he didn’t have good material, in 1965 he released 500% More Man, a great record full of great songs like the title cut, Let Me Pass, and Let the Kids Dance. The next year the Duchess left the band to get married, and Diddley’s career started to slump. Chess tried to restart it all by joining the new ‘supergroup’ trend and so Superblues and The Super Super Blues Band appeared together with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

The late 60s and early 70s saw a small resurgence in his career, now framed as old glory to play his old hits, so he appeared in the Sweet Toronto Peace Festival, along with John Lennon in 1969, in 1972 with The Grateful Dead or, in the same year, in the London Rock and Roll Show held at Wembley Stadium with his contemporaries like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry.

That’s how he went on with the rest of his career, but his influence was still felt any time rock got back to its roots and was injected with energy, in 1972 Johnny Thunders New York Dolls took his Pills to breathe life into their influential debut album. Yet the most evident connection to punk came in ‘79 when The Clash brought him aboard as the supporting act. They were recording their majestic London Calling, and their time together with Diddley is clear in songs like Hateful.

The seed planted by Bo Diddley would continue bearing fruit over the years, for example in the 80s as seen in How Soon is Now? by the Smiths and in Desire by U2, and his music became a breeding ground for many more genres as in the said punk and hip hop. His use of African rhythms (the ‘hambone’) and his masterful ‘beat’ (Is there anyone else with a beat called after their name?) make him the foundation popular music was built in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Don’t look for his name among the bestsellers but if you want to know who put the rhythm in blues to turn it into rock & roll, immerse yourself into the work of this giant.