Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 26: Bo Diddley, "Bo Diddley"

Artist: Bo Diddley
Album: Bo Diddley
Year: 1956
Label: Chess

Though nearly everyone recognizes his name, most people are not familiar with the music of the man known as Bo Diddley. Furthermore, a majority of people are unaware of the massive impact that his work has had on shaping rock and blues music. Along with the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley stands as one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. Much like the others, he took blues music and put his own, rocking spin on the style. Having penned some of the most famous songs in history, as well as playing his own, distinctive style of music until his death in 2008, Bo Diddley's recorded catalog spans generations, and his music is as relevant now as it was more than fifty years ago. To truly understand both Bo Diddley's music, as well as how rock and roll music came to be, one need look no further than his first full length album, his 1956 release, Bo Diddley.

First and foremost, there is the name of the man himself. Often referred to as "The Originator," he was born Ellas Otha Bates, and after he was adopted by cousins, he took the name Ellas McDaniel. The name "Bo Diddley" has many rumored origins, but Ellas took the stage name around 1954, shortly before recording the song of the same name. Like so many others, Bo Diddley's first full length album is mainly a collection of the singles that he had released to that point. The album features many of the biggest songs in history, including the number one hit, "Bo Diddley," as well as the classic, "I'm A Man," which has also been recorded under the name "Mannish Boy." The fact of the matter is, though many of the songs found on Bo Diddley are now considered "classics," it was in fact Diddley (credited as Elias McDaniel) who wrote them. Songs like "Who Do You Love," "Before You Accuse Me," and the aforementioned "I'm A Man" remain some of the most iconic blues songs ever, and Bo Diddley marks their first recorded appearances. From the first singles he released, it was clear that the music of Bo Diddley was not an altered R&B sound like many of his peers, but it was, in fact, what was then a "new" sound which can now only be called rock and roll.

Like many of the early rock and roll musicians, Bo Diddley plays his own, very unique style. Taking a strong sense of beat and rhythm from John Lee Hooker, and then adding in a heavy dose of tremolo guitar, Bo Diddley's style is the ultimate fusion of blues and rock styles. Playing his signature cigar-box guitar (rumor is he made his first on his own), the image of his guitar is nearly as recognizable as the sound it creates. The tone that his guitar emits is instantly recognizable, and it is very much in his guitar playing that the blues roots of his style becomes clear. The rest of the music is very sparse and simple, with basic basslines and smooth, yet swinging drum patterns. Again, the strict and prominent sense of rhythm plays a key aspect in what is now referred to as "the Bo Diddley beat." The syncopated drum patterns make Bo Diddley's music instantly recognizable, and it makes tapping your foot along with the songs nearly irresistible. This rhythm is also central to many of the songs where Bo Diddley does not even change the chord he is playing on guitar. On songs like ""Who Do You Love" and "Hey Bo Diddley," the guitar chord is constant throughout, and it is the rhythm that becomes the central musical idea. Furthermore, countless bands have taken the "Bo Diddley" beat and used it in their own songs. Some of the most famous examples are The Who's "Magic Bus" and "Rudie Can't Fail" by, The Clash. Since Bo Diddley is a collection of singles, there are a number of different studio musicians on the album backing Bo Diddley, as the songs were nearly all recorded during different studio sessions over the previous years. However, the fact that there are a number of different musicians, yet the songs all fit together perfectly, is a testament to both the writing and playing skill of Bo Diddley.

The "Bo Diddley Beat" is as present in the vocals as it is in the music itself. Often concentrating more on the pace and meter of the words as opposed to the pitch of the notes, one can see many of the songs on Bo Diddley as early formations of what would become rap music. The voice of Bo Diddley is, like his music, a perfect combination of bluesy gruff and spirited rock singing. There are moments when Diddley gets deep and dirty like Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, and then he can seamlessly shift into a hip, swinging sound like Chuck Berry. It is very much this contrast in sounds that makes it possible for his songs to be covered by everyone from George Thorogood to Eric Clapton to The Doors; each putting their individual spin on the songs. Lyrically, the songs on Bo Diddley, are rather simple, yet the origins of many of them are as varied as the songs themselves. The words Bo Diddley sings often epitomize the loose, and more jovial nature of rock lyrics, moving beyond "love" songs and creating the "bad boy" or "rebel" image that would become the foundation of countless bands that followed. While "Who Do You Love" contains many allusions to traditional hoodoo magic, one can clearly hear the link between "Hey Bo Diddley" and the common childrens' song, "Old Mac Donald." Even the lyrics find the balance between being somewhat "dangerous" and suggestive, yet they are simultaneously undeniably "cool" and catchy. While he many not have achieved the same chart success as artists like Chuck Berry or Little Richard, one can easily make the case that the music of Bo Diddley is just as, if not more important than the work of his contemporaries.

Bo Diddley remains one of the most recognized and highly respected performers in this history of music. Nearly everything about his music was groundbreaking, form his unique guitar, to the sound he created with it, to the distinctive rhythm of his music, known as "the Bo Diddley beat." Pushing and exploring the idea that rhythm could play a far more central role than any other element of the song, the music of Bo Diddley was like nothing else that had ever been heard, and there have been few who have done it was well since he created the sound. Bo Diddley's first single, "Bo Diddley/I'm A Man," topped the charts and both songs remain staples of rock and roll, nearly sixty years after their release. This is largely due to the simple, pure music and lyrics, and the wonderfully addictive rhythm that is created on each song he plays. Performing his amazing songs, with the same energy as when he first sang them, Bo Diddley played concerts all over the world until, literally, months before his passing in June of 2008. Truth be told, Bo Diddley represents some of the finest, most pure rock and roll music ever recorded, and it remains one of the greatest and most enjoyably addictive records in music history.

Standout tracks: "Bo Diddley," "I'm A Man," and "Who Do You Love."

1 comment:

T.Rakei said...

Don't forget the maracas. Some people try to imitate the Bo Diddley sound with a tambourine, but you really need maracas.