Wednesday, January 5, 2011

January 5: Bo Diddley, "Bo Diddley"

Artist: Bo Diddley
Song: "Bo Diddley"
Album: Bo Diddley (single)
Year: 1955

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During the early years of rock and roll, as the blues style was morphing into something fresh, exciting, and new, there were a number of artists that played important roles in the development of the sound that would dominate the next half of a century.  The overall importance of these artists cannot be overstated, and many of them were even given nicknames that have endured over the years which signify their part in this historical change.  These names had various implications, and while there was one who was called "The King," there was only one man worthy of the most distinguished title of all, at it is Bo Diddley whom people refer to as "The Originator."  This title is extremely fitting as it was Diddley's musical approach and innovations that set in motion nearly every other artist of the "rock era," and even today, his sounds can still light up a room and hold their own with anything else being recorded.  It is this timeless feel to his songs that prove what a revolutionary, yet completely developed sound he was playing, and his songs are also proof of the amazing impact that one can find in the most simplistic of musical arrangements.  Due to his massive influence on the entire "rock and roll" sound, it is impossible to cite a single song as his finest, yet one can easily make the case that his most important contribution was his first, Bo Diddley's monumental 1955 single, "Bo Diddley."

When critics write about "the songs that started it all," it is unfathomable to think that there is any other song that can be spoken of before "Bo Diddley," as in nearly every sense, it knows no predecessor.  The rhythm that is set forth on "Bo Diddley" may seem "normal" within a modern context, but the winding, almost sultry sound that it pounds out was nothing short of a renegade sound when it was first released.  The way in which drummer Frank Kirkland made the rhythm shake and groove with this simple arrangement remains largely unparalleled, and it is again the simplicity that makes the sound all the more impressive.  The sound of the drums lend a unique bounce and echo to the song, and the addition of Jerome Green on maracas gives "Bo Diddley" a darker mood, and there is a feeling of something almost sinister throughout the song.  It is this "edge" from the rhythm section that makes the song even more appealing, and the perfect finishing touch to the music comes from the guitar of the songs' namesake, Bo Diddley.  Bringing a wide range of sounds and styles, one can hear everything from blues to ska to the sounds of surf rock in his playing, and it is this instantly recognizable sound that catapulted him into the most elite group of musicians.  Though each band member sounds amazing on their own, it is the way in which they came together as a group on "Bo Diddley" that defines what would later be called "the Bo Diddley beat," and serve as the template for rock and roll.

While many point to his guitar as the most defining aspect of the music of Bo Diddley, one can also make the case that his voice and vocal approach was equally important to the overall impact of his music.  Though over the years, he would develop a legendary grit and growl within his music, on his early songs, it is clear that his voice is just as powerful and wide-ranged as nearly any other artist at the time.  However, one of the key differences in his voice was the level of raw authenticity one can experience, and there was also a proximity to the lyrics that one can always hear in his music.  Much like the music, Bo Diddley was able to do a brilliant job of keeping things simple in his lyrics, yet they are consistently just as good as the most cryptic words one can find.  Truth be told, the original lyrics for "Bo Diddley" were censored by Chess Records, and it was Ellas McDaniels that re-wrote them for the version which can be found on the early single releases and most "Best Of" collections.  The lyrics are an odd play on the nursery rhyme "Hush Little Baby," and yet even with this clear source, the edge and mood of the song are not in the least way impacted, and this is largely due to the manner in which Bo Diddley delivers the lyrics.  Though some artists may have had more powerful or more "tuned" voices, there is no other singer that sounds quite like Bo Diddley, and it is his sound on "Bo Diddley" that countless artists copied, proving why he was worthy of the title "The Originator."

In an era when music has become overly complex and almost embarrassingly artificial, there is perhaps no better time to take a long look at the roots of rock music, and recall why it was that the style caught on in the first place.  Taking the song "Bo Diddley" as the beginning of the rock movement, it is clear that simple, honest music will always survive and appeal to wide audiences, as the song sounds just as fresh today as it did nearly sixty years ago.  The way in which Bo Diddley and his band made the song shake and sway makes it clear why it was such a hit at the time, but the fact of the matter is, one can still hear the spirit behind the song in the music of today.  This clear connection cannot be found in many other artists from any point in music history, and one can argue that it is absent from the music of many of the most commercially successful musicians of the "early rock" era.  This fact alone is perhaps the most telling of just how revolutionary and influential a musician lived in Bo Diddley, and even on his first single, his impact is clear.  Making the vocal contributions to the song just as staggered, yet irresistibly dancable as the music, Bo Diddley's iconic 1955 single, "Bo Diddley," is as close to "rock perfection" as one will find anywhere, and it is the reason that the song stands as "the" pivotal moment in the development of rock music.

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