“My music has a little bit of a spiritual taste, but it’s also primitive. I play the guitar as if I was playing drums.”
A musician doesn’t beat a drum, he plays a drum. He coaxes multiple rhythms from that drum, in an effort to tell his story and to support others contributing to that story. Therefore, to appreciate the profound impact of Bo Diddley, you have to digest the full implications of that quote. It doesn’t simply explain his distinctive, percussive sound, it helps explain the critical difference between rhythm and blues and pop music as they each evolved through the 20th century. It’s a difference as stark as, well, black and white, and no one in the postwar R&B era brought more ‘R’ to the table than Bo Diddley. His catalog is an encyclopedia of rhythmic jukes, jives, and divebombs that, unfortunately, has been reduced in the collective consciousness to the “Bo Diddley Beat.”
The Bo Diddley sound wasn’t a beat, it was a philosophy of orchestrated rhythm whose lineage began with West African drums, came up through the Caribbean and American South via hand-clapping and foot-stamping in ring shouts and sanctified church services, migrated to American cities like Chicago and Detroit with the primal drone of the blues, and stood on the American street corner doing the dozens. Bo Diddley turned all of these rhythmic influences into one of the 20th century’s most profound musical legacies.
“The very concept of the ‘Bo Diddley beat’ is inadequate; what Bo came up with was a comprehensive theory of rhythmic orchestration. The traditional rhythms he picked up were merely raw materials. Neither the exact rhythm patterns nor the way these patterns are parceled out among the various instruments remain constant from song to song. What does remain constant is the method of rhythmic layering.”
—Robert Palmer (the writer, not the musician), Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, p. 74
This quote — as well as the other quotes attributed to Diddley — comes from Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, Palmer’s companion volume to the 1995 PBS television series. It’s by a considerable margin the best book I’ve ever read discussing what rock ‘n’ roll is and where it came from and I mention it here because his analysis of Bo Diddley is unparalleled. There was a reason he was enlisted to write the liner notes for the Bo Chess Box. The way Palmer gets inside Diddley’s multi-faceted rhythmic framework and communicates its appeal not only turned me into a lifelong Bo Diddley fan, it made me want to hear, understand, and write about music like he seemed to do effortlessly. Seriously, if there’s a shred of music geek DNA in your body, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of this book.
Bo Diddley was rightfully called “The Originator” and he sure as hell wasn’t shy about calling himself the creator of rock ‘n’ roll. However, he didn’t emerge fully-formed from the head of Leonard Chess. The key word in “originator” is “origin” and while my next post will take a look at the myriad of ways in which Diddley innovated and influenced, this time around I want to examine his origins. Where exactly did Bo Diddley come from? With some help from Palmer and my own collection of records, I’ve hit several points of origin for the man born Ellas Otha Bates.
Download full Bo Diddley playlist (Parts 1 & 2) as zip file (117 MB, all MP3s)
Total Time = 43:13
When Bo Diddley was cutting his musical teeth in the mid-1950s, Muddy Waters was the undisputed King of Chicago’s South Side. THE MAN. He was the coolest dude with the coolest voice, had the smoothest sound, the best band, the prettiest womens, and all but owned Chess Records. How could all this not influence Diddley? Bo’s first single on Chess was “I’m A Man,” a boastful blues from 1955 based on a pair of earlier Muddy songs, “She Moves Me” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Muddy actually cut “Mannish Boy” in response to (and was probably a slight dig at) his young, upstart labelmate.
Muddy Waters – She Moves Me (1951)
Muddy Waters – Hoochie Coochie Man (1954)
Bo Diddley – I’m A Man (1955)
JOHN LEE HOOKER
John Lee Hooker’s hypnotic blues was a primary influence on the young Bo. Hooker proved that a primitive, percussive guitar sound with minimal chord changes — or no chord changes — could not only work, it could sell. It’s pretty much a straight line from “Boogie Chillen” to “Who Do You Love.”
John Lee Hooker – Boogie Chillen (1948)
Bo Diddley – Who Do You Love? (1956)
SPIRITUAL, SANCTIFIED RHYTHMS
“A lot of times I tell people, I don’t what it is (my sound), I just play it. But I do know what it is. It’s mixed up with spiritual, sanctified rhythms, and the feeling I put into it when I’m playing, I have the feeling of making people shout. I put it right there in the shout mode, and they can’t help it, ’cause I got it locked right in there. And that’s what you gotta do. If you can’t lock them into that mode, they don’t move.”
Neither John Lee Hooker nor Bo Diddley invented the hypnotic drone. That sound was an fundamental part of the African-American community dating back to when blacks were no longer African, but not quite American, if you catch my drift. The primal quality heard in the music of Hooker and Diddley had its roots in the heavy, syncopated rhythms of ring shouts, spirituals, and work songs, where melody was a non-factor and songs were intensely rhythm-centric and participatory, with call-and-response a defining feature.
Austin Coleman and Joe Washington Brown – Run, Old Jeremiah (1934)
Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley (1955)
THE AFRO-CUBAN BEAT
Bo Diddley wasn’t the first American musician to tap into what came to be known as the “Bo Diddley Beat.” Sure, he perfected it. But that rhythmic pattern, the distinctive hambone syncopation, came straight from Africa. However — and this is key — it came via Caribbean musical traditions. Again, here’s Palmer taking us from the ring shout to Diddley’s famous beat:
clave/hambone/Bo Diddley beat: “shave and a haircut” repeated over and over, rather than “shave and a haircut/six bits.” You can find this three-beat pattern buried in bata drum polyrhythms, on recordings of Yoruba music from Nigeria as well as Cuba. During the 1920s, it figured in music for dance crazes such as the Charleston and Black Bottom. The three-beat pattern itself was generally referred to as the Habanera, a name that suggests someone was aware of its Cuban (Havana) associations or origins.”“Rhythmically, the action of the ring shout has to do with the syncopation of hand clapping patterns against the thunderous but steady stamping of feet. The shout’s most characteristic hand clapping involved a three-beat accent pattern familiar to any Bo Diddley fan. It’s the first half of the Afro-Cuban
–Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, p. 69
Jelly Roll Morton – Black Bottom Stomp (1926)
Louis Jordan – Run Joe (1947)
Bo Diddley – Pretty Thing (1955)
Bo Diddley – Hush Your Mouth (1958)
Lyrically, Bo was unique among his fellow first-generation rock ‘n’ rollers in bringing the street into the studio. Where Chuck Berry sang about “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Diddley was doing the dozens with Jerome Green. In this respect, Bo was extending the streetwise, jive-talkin’ hustler tradition as set forth by Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. Jordan was particularly influential, with many of his songs featuring his trademark half-spoken, half-sung drawl. Diddley extended the tradition of appropriating hip street lingo in his songs, so much so that hip would, in a few years, be followed by hop. (More on that in a moment). You heard it in his signifying, in his congratulatory self-reference — seriously, how many songs have Bo talking up Bo? — and in his general badassery. The greatest lyrics in the Diddley canon are so self-assured, they sound like they could’ve been penned by Muhammad Ali:
“I walk 47 miles of barbed wire
I use a cobra snake for a necktie
I got a brand new house on the roadside
Made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top
Made out of a human skull.”
Suffice to say, the continuum from Calloway to Jordan to Diddley continues straight through to funk-era James Brown. And of course, oral street culture fully flowers with the emergence of hip-hop in the 1970s and ’80s. To this end, I’ve tacked on a brief bonus cut below, the one exception to today’s video showcase of Bo’s forerunners.
Cab Calloway – Reefer Man (1932)
Louis Jordan – Open The Door, Richard (1947)
Bo Diddley – Say Man (1959)
Kool Moe Dee – MC Battle with Busy Bee
This is an excerpt from an early MC battle, this one featuring Kool Moe Dee, then of The Treacherous Three, throwin’ down on Busy Bee Starski. It’s from December 1982 at Harlem World in Manhattan and is noteworthy because you’ll hear Kool Moe Dee reference the song “Diddy Wah Diddy.” That, of course, was a 1956 hit for Bo Diddley.
This should keep y’all occupied for awhile. In a few days I’ll post more about Bo’s unique sound and innovations and massive influence on rock ‘n’ roll [go to Part 2]. In fact, I’ve got a medley of surprises in store, so please check back. If you’d like to jump start your Bo Diddley collection, my suggestion is to head over to Amazon’s Bo Diddley page and start exploring. You’re gonna buy the Palmer book anyway, so what’s a few more ducats for Diddley?