Bo Diddley: His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection

TO PARAPHRASE the titles of two of the 20 Bo Diddley nuggets contained on His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection , you can’t judge a book by its cover but you sure can tell something about how important a musician is by the artists who do cover versions of his songs.

That’s not to imply that Bo Diddley’s legacy rests solely on the interpretations of his music by others. The rich body of work contained here offers ample testament to the multiple talents–as singer, songwriter, guitarist and creator of one of the archetypal rock rhythms–the man born Ellas McDaniels displayed on over 20 Chess albums.

But it’s also impossible to overlook the impact of both his songs and the trademark Diddley beat on the ’60s British rock explosion, from kingpins like the Stones and Yardbirds down to U.K.-legends-but-U.S.-unknowns like Johnny Kidd & The Pirates and the Pretty Things (who took their name from Bo’s song). In the U.S., the Doors, Creedence and Quicksilver were only three of the late ’60s luminaries who raided the Diddley songbook and one of the figureheads of an entirely different counter-culture–the New York Dolls–did the same a few years later.

But the indirect influence of Diddley’s rhythmic imprint–those thundering tom-toms laying down a variant on the old ‘shave-and-a-hair-cut-six-bits’ hambone rhythm that also cuts close to the clave rhythmic core of Latin music–was even more widespread. Follow the rock ‘n’ roll timeline from his ’50s peers (Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away,’ Johnny Otis’ ‘Willie & the Hand Jive’) through ’60s and ’70s icons (the Who’s ‘Magic Bus,’ Bruce Springsteen’s ‘She’s The One’) on to the ’80s (the decidedly odd couple of George Thorogood’s frat-house anthem ‘Bad To The Bone’ and Brit popsters the Smiths) and mid-’90s (Iggy Pop’s mid-’70s ‘Lust For Life’ in the memorable opening sequence of the film Trainspotting), and you’ll find the Diddley Daddy’s been in the house and on your CD player for four decades.

But for a man whose name has become synonymous with a particular rhythm sound, that big, thundering Bo Diddley beat actually turns up pretty infrequently on His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection. The drummers on ‘Who Do You Love’ and ‘You Can’t Judge A Book (By Its Cover),’ probably Bo’s two most enduring legacies to the bar bands of the world, both laid down a straight backbeat. But make no mistake, Bo Diddley played body rock–his musical sights were set on the listener’s hips from the git-go.

Where the rhythmic emphasis always shines through is in his guitar playing, grounded in right-hand rhythm chops that makes his six-string thing a crucial link in the chain that would later include slews of brilliant soul and funk guitarists. His biggest pop hit, ‘Say Man,’ found Diddley talking the talk in the street game of verbal insults known as ‘signifying or’ ‘the dozens’ that looked forward to hip-hop even as he walked the macho bravado walk of Bo’s blues peers Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Ironically, Bo Diddley–Bo of the heavy-rimmed black glasses that’d probably get him called a nerd today, Bo of the tartan plaid and black leather gunslinger suits, Bo of the self-made square guitar and sonic noises, Bo the unlikeliest of teen idols–was the rocker who brought the deep blues to white America. While Chuck Berry seduced it with rollicking piano, fluid guitar solos and teenage American dream themes, Bo Diddley was the bridge to the guitar/harmonica sound and hoodoo the voodoo chants of Chicago/Mississippi blues their virgin ears weren’t ready for in their undiluted form just yet.

“I’m what you call a black Frenchman, a Creole,” Diddley related to Pete Welding on the liner notes to his 1973 compilation Got My Own Bag Of Tricks. “All my people are from New Orleans, the bayou country–French, African, Indian, all mixed up. That’s where my music comes from, all that mixture.”

It makes perfect sense, Bo Diddley and New Orleans–the most Caribbean city of the U.S. and the one place where African drumming survived during and after the slavery era. It was also the home of what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Latin tinge” and a brass band tradition that spawned generations of drummers whose second-line rhythm fueled early rock ‘n’ roll and isn’t exactly far removed from what everyone now knows as the Diddley beat.

But New Orleans couldn’t have exerted a strong direct influence, aside from the blood kinfolk ties, since Ellas McDaniels was whisked away from his birthplace of McComb, Mississippi (just over the Louisiana border) to the bright lights of the big city, Chicago, with his mother’s first cousin when he was 7 or 8. Diddley didn’t lack for a varied musical environment growing up in Chicago. He took formal violin lessons for several years but he was also sneaking off to Baptist churches to hear, live and direct, the “shout mode” that Bo himself referred to as the foundation of his music in Bo Diddley: The Chess Box.

His early musical influences displayed a broad range, too–the suave crooner Nat ‘King’ Cole, the raucous, humorous jump blues of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan, and the down-to-the-bone Delta sound of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillun.’ And when Bo put together a street band originally called the Hipsters and later the Langley Avenue Jive Cats around 1945, the group that was too young to play in clubs at first couldn’t ignore the full throttle sounds of electric Chicago blues filtering out to the sidewalks.

Bo and company, by now including soon-to-be-world’s-most-famous-maracas player Jerome Green, Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica and Clifton James on drums, had graduated to the club level by 1954. Bo and Billy Boy made a 2-song demo they shopped along Chicago’s Record Row with legendary results–run out of Vee Jay, they popped across the street to Chess and straight into a record deal. A week later, Bo Diddley strode into Chess Studios on March 3, 1955 to record his first pair of songs and, as they say, the rest was history.

“There are things–like ‘Back In the USA,’ ‘I’m A Man,’ and ‘Mojo’–that you know are classics when you cut them,” recalled Chess engineer Malcolm Chisholm 10 years ago.

‘Bo Diddley/I’m A Man’ has to rank as one of the most influential, two-sided debut singles in history. The namesake A-side (technically) began building the Bo myth and introduced the trademark beat as Bo rode Frank Kirkland’s tom toms and the maracas to the #1 R&B chart position within two months. ‘I’m A Man’ was no less explosive, coming straight out of mid-’50s electric Chicago blues with a quintessential coming-of-age boast and archetypal riff flavored by Billy Boy Arnold’s harmonica.

And its impact didn’t just register on the sales charts–it reverberated around the Chess studios as well. By the end of April, 1955, Little Walter had recorded Diddley’s ‘Roller Coaster’ as a scorching instrumental with Bo on guitar. During that summer, Muddy Waters laid down his thinly thinly-veiled homage to ‘I’m A Man,’ ‘Mannish Boy,’ and upped the macho ante by positioning himself as a 5-minute lovemaker compared to Bo’s 60-minute man.

Little Walter also adapted the core riff of Diddley’s ‘You Don’t Love Me’ for his ‘Hate To See You Go’ in August and Bo’s prototype here shows how deeply connected he was to the electric Chicago blues of the time. Arnold’s harmonica again took the lead, Diddley’s guitar dug down deep into Muddy-esque rhythm patterns, Otis Spann contributed a rollicking piano solo and Kirkland pushed this no-nonsense, big boogie like Chess mainstay Fred Below.

But it was Bo’s rhythm thing that caught the public ear–witness the #4 R&B chart success of ‘Pretty Thing’ early in 1956, as the harmonica melded into the arrangement to create one solid wall of Diddley beat. ‘Bring It To Jerome’ shifted the focus–Bo’s electrifying vocal entrance played off Green’s chorus chant before downshifting to a more lightly textured sound featuring Arnold’s harmonica. ‘Diddley Daddy’ had already hit #11 on the R&B charts six months before, reinforcing the Bo myth with the Moonglows’ backing vocals and a hypnotic guitar drone.

Surprisingly, Bo’s chart success stopped then for three year–mysteriously, too, because Diddley cut some of his most memorable tunes between 1957-1959. ‘I’m Looking For A Woman’ returned to classic blues territory with a high-stepping rhythm anchored by straight rockin’ drums as Bo plays the country mouse in search of the big-city woman.

With ‘Who Do You Love?,’ Bo crafted an enduring lyric archetype on the order of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’–except this time Mississippi hoodoo was transplanted to the Southwest with 47 miles of barbed wire, cobra snake neckties and whips made out of rattlesnake hide. ‘Hey Bo Diddley’ maintains the Western motif with its dude (in every sense of the word) ranch fantasy boast supported by great backing vocals (probably the Moonglows, maybe with a very young Marvin Gaye).

The mix on ‘Bo Diddley’ heavily favored drums over guitar, a sonic scenario reversed on ‘Mona’ with Bo’s right hand trills dominating and a new lyrical stance–Bo the pleading lover, laying out naked emotions–that was the flip side of his usual stud fantasies. That plaintive side also pervaded ‘Before You Accuse Me’–its spare arrangement accentuated Bo’s bluesy soloing and a street-level take on ‘Let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone.’

But it was entirely different lyrical approach that brought Bo back for his biggest pop chart success. Reaching #20 pop and #3 R&B in mid-’59, ‘Say Man’ was all street-corner goofing between Bo and Jerome over an arrangement that clearly brought the profound Latin music influence at the core of Diddley’ rhythm trip to the fore. It showed up particularly strongly in Lafayette Leake’s piano both here and ‘Dearest Darling,’ with Bo back in his pleading mode again on the latter.

The chart stage had been set for ‘Say Man’ earlier that year when the Caribbean-flavored ‘Crackin’ Up,’ sporting a more complex arrangement wth dip-dipping backing vocals and rippling guitar melody, reached #14 R&B and #62 pop. ‘The Story Of Bo Diddley’ found Bo goofin’ again, this time on his own self-created mythology (‘I’m a killer diller’) with a few good-humored “signifying” jabs at his friendly rival Chuck Berry thrown in.

‘Road Runner’ transferred his usual macho bravado to Berry’s home turf as Bo took off down the highway with a motorvating riff augmented by guitar sounds. It reached number #20 R&B and #75 pop early in 1960, and it’s certainly not inconceivable that its ‘beep beep’ backing vocals inspired the creation of a famed cartoon character who regularly battled it out with one Wily E. Coyote.

Those who first heard ‘Pills’ via the New York Dolls exuberant cover during the drugs & decadence-crazed glitter rock era will probably be surprised to find that Bo’s original sounded more like a complaint than a celebration of the rock ‘n’ roll nurse’s tender ministrations. And the way Diddley’s rhythm chops countered the bass melody of ‘I Can Tell’ hit home far harder in England than the U.S.–it was a hit for the pre-Stones bad boys of British rock, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, and was resurrected by the lean, mean Dr. Feelgood machine just before punk exploded in the U.K.

Custom-tailored for Diddley by Willie Dixon, ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’ played right into Bo’s boaster mode while his right hand chords and the jet-propelled bass guitar lines walking up and down the scales drove the song to #21 R&B and #48 pop in mid-1962. Diddley chalked up his final chart single when ‘Ooh Baby’ peaked at #17 R&B, #88 pop in January, 1967. It was a fitting finale, including some Bo violin, a female chorus testifying to Bo the lover and the spurned Bo-man tossing off some vocal asides that could easily have slipped into Jimi Hendrix’s trick bag.

Diddley continued recording with Chess until 1974–even courting the new rock crowd with his own London Sessions LP–but was largely relegated to the rock ‘n’ roll oldies or blues festival circuit through the ’70s and ’80s. Not that you could always keep Bo down on the farm (filled with women or not)–he opened one of the Clash’s early U.S. tours in the late ’70s and Stones Keith Richards and Ron Wood have rolled around for occasional recordings and gigs since then.

While Diddley never matched the commercial success or recognition of Chuck Berry, he joined his Chess mate as a charter inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and later added the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection stands as the definitive collection of the creative achievements of the performer, songwriter, and sonic architect who greatly expanded the rhythmic dimension of early rock ‘n’ roll in fundamental, enduring ways.

© Don Snowden, 1997

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