Bo Diddley – His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection – Classic Music Review

When the geniuses who are wasting their talents hacking elections get around to doing something beneficial for the human race, I hope they apply their noggins to figuring out the mystery of time travel. I have five stops on my itinerary:

  • June 16, 1904, Dublin, Ireland, the day described in Ulysses by James Joyce, now celebrated as Bloomsday. I want to see all the sights and come up with my very own witty and obscene internal dialogue!
  • Le Chabanais, Paris, 1943. I’d pose as a high-class hooker at the leading brothel in Paris, use my bondage skills on Nazi clients and deliver them bound-and-gagged to the underground! No Nazis in my pussy!
  • Easter Sunday, 1967, Elysian Park, Los Angeles. That’s the place and time of the first love-in and I want to go for the championship trophy! They did give away trophies, didn’t they?
  • May-June, 1981, Bonds International Casino, New York. The Clash played seventeen gigs at Bonds during that period and I want to see every fucking one!
  • Mid-1950’s, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, Chi-Town, the home of Chess Records. I’d crawl through the duct work and hide myself in the ceiling so I could watch Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Mr. Elias McDaniel create history.

I think I’d have the most fun with Mr. McDaniel, aka Bo Diddley. For one, he has a fabulous laugh, and many of his songs make me laugh. For another, his lyrics combine ludicrous hyperbole and blatant self-mythologizing, but even when he’s strutting his stuff, I get the sense that he didn’t take himself all that seriously. But most importantly, his sense of rhythm comes straight from his cojones, infusing his music with sexual power, and I love sexual power, no matter who’s dishing it out. In the liner notes for this collection, Don Snowdon emphatically validates my perception: “But make no mistake, Bo Diddley played body rock—his musical sights were set on the listener’s hips from the git-go.”

Humor, modesty and as horny as fuck. AND he had a square guitar designed specifically to avoid damaging his hyperactive private parts. Yeah, I could go for Bo Diddley.

“Bo Diddley” (March 2, 1955): Elias’ greatest claim to fame is the Bo Diddley beat, a clave rhythm that some count as “shave and a haircut—two bits” (seven eighth-notes and a rest) while others hear six eighth-notes, a rest and a quarter-note at the end of the run. I hear both, depending on how Bo is feeling it at the moment. Musical analysis aside, what sells the beat is the echo of Afro-Caribbean rhythms that naturally stimulate a rhythmic response in the nether regions, encouraging the listener to dance, shake some ass or engage in a little dry humping with a more adventurous dance partner. Bo was smart enough to make the Latin connection and milk it for all it was worth by taking the unusual step of making maracas master Jerome Green a regular in his recording sessions.

The Bo Diddley beat is prominent in this first song he recorded at Chess, with heavily-tremeloed guitar, maracas and Clifton James’ tom toms front-and-center. Bo doesn’t bother with note-picking in this piece, focusing entirely on the rhythmic potential of the guitar. The sound he manages to create through relatively primitive equipment is mesmerizing, and gives me the urge to jump onto the stage the next time I’m attending a rock concert so I can set fire to all those fucking pedal boards guitarists are enamored with these days. “Just play the fucking instrument, for fuck’s sake!” I’d scream as the security forces dragged me into the wings. Sorry, but in my never-humble opinion, technology is too often used to disguise a profound lack of musical talent. And no, I’m not an anti-technology Luddite, as my reviews of Radiohead, Devo and St. Vincent will conclusively prove. I’m just tired of lazy-ass musicians who don’t respect the craft.

This first song was his first and only #1 hit (on the R&B charts), and while we’re piling on the firsts, his first effort in transforming himself into a mythic figure. While speaking of himself in the third-person may seem pompous, pay attention to the lyrics—this is clearly a guy without the slightest tinge of pretentiousness:

Bo Diddley caught a nanny goat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday coat
Bo Diddley caught a bear cat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday hat

Not exactly like strolling into Bergdorf Goodman to shop for a designer mink stole.

“I’m a Man” (March 2, 1955): This all-time classic was the B-side to “Bo Diddley,” believe it or not. Bo Diddley could have retired after that single and still have become a legend.

If you’re accustomed to The Yardbirds’ treatment, you may get a little impatient with the slower tempo of the original, but I’d encourage you to get the fuck over it. The Yardbirds version is a classic rave-up where they use the structure of the original as takeoff point for the thrilling guitar-harmonica call-and-response that follows the verses, which in turn leads to the equally thrilling and positively furious high-voltage scratch-strummed build to the final collapse. Bo Diddley’s version is pure Chicago blues featuring a stellar performance on the harp courtesy of Billy Boy Arnold. It’s a piece of slow-burn foreplay from a man knows he can deliver the goods and is seriously feeling it from the base of his balls all the way up to the tip of his Johnson:

Now when I was a little boy
At the age of five
I had somethin’ in my pocket
Keep a lot of folks alive

At the age of five? Because I didn’t have a little brother, I knew nothing about little boy wee-wee sticks until I found that “erection is common among infants and toddlers” at newkidscenter.com. Here’s the scoop:

How to handle child erections. We all know that babies are curious, eager to learn more about themselves and the world. Child erections are part of his attempts to get to know his own body. Although they may make you feel embarrassed, it is important to handle these situations with utmost attentiveness and tact.

  • You mustn’t make the boy feel ashamed, as if he is doing something dirty. Keep in mind that your behavior at these first stages will influence his sexual outlook and behavior in later years.
  • Try not to panic and don’t let the boy get over-excited. You can put him in a cool bath and try to distract him until things return to normal.

What if your baby likes to play with his penis? If you notice that your baby boy likes touching and rubbing his penis, trying to get an erection, you don’t need to worry. This is a perfectly normal child’s behavior, says Anita Sethi, research scientist at the Child and Family Policy Center at New York University, quoted by “Parenting” magazine. She assures that the boy will outgrow this habit sooner or later.

I’ve never known a guy who outgrew that particular habit, and apparently, Bo Diddley took great pride in turning the habit into a discipline so he could parade his big bulge around town. Not only does this doctor-approved citation validate Bo’s early-stage braggadocio, but confirms the wisdom of my own approach to the sight of a male erection—I always handle those situations with utmost attentiveness and tact, because if I don’t, latent male insecurity will overtake the urge, leaving him with a deflated plaything and me with an empty toy box.

As the saying goes, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, and Bo clearly wanted the female members of the listening audience that he was available and certifiably reliable:

All you pretty women
Stand in line
I can make love to you baby
In an hour’s time

This verse occasioned an observation by reader JonathanCR in response to my Having a Rave Up review on the crucial point of interpretation:

BTW on the “in an hour’s time” bit of “I’m a Man” – I always took that to mean not that the singer will take an hour to pleasure the listener, but that he will do so an hour from now (for an unspecified amount of time) – i.e. she’s just got to wait for him! That makes more sense of Muddy Waters’ version (“Mannish Boy”), which ups the ante on all of Bo Diddley’s boasts and changes the announcement to “five minutes’ time”! Bo likes to keep his woman waiting, but Muddy prefers to strike while the iron’s hot . . .

I agree completely. There’s no way that Muddy Watters would finish a fuck in five minutes—such an act would contradict his documented pride in his sturdy companion and leave the woman unsatisfied, which in turn would endanger his reputation (yes, guys, women tell other women everything about your fuck style, in exquisite and extensive detail). Muddy’s message indicates he also makes customer service a priority, reducing the wait to the minimum time necessary to brush his teeth and attend to his armpits. In contrast, Bo Diddley makes you wait a whole fucking hour, meaning that either he needs more time to prepare his body for the upcoming competition, or he’s fucking another broad. If he’s fucking another broad, he’s also keeping an eye on the clock so he can get to the next customer within the stated one-hour limit. Unacceptable! If I saw a guy checking his watch during a fuck, that watch would wind up as evidence against me, because the frozen watch face would tell the police the exact time I murdered the worthless SOB. Offering a waiting time of one hour can be a successful marketing strategy only if the waiting time is compensated by the greatest fuck in history, a continuous cascade of orgasms that would induce a heroin-level addiction to Bo Diddley, thus ensuring a return visit to the shop:

The line I shoot
Will never miss
The way I make love to ’em
They can’t resist

Gosh, I wish I could check Consumer Reports or a well-populated Yelp listing . . . Sorry, Bo, I think I’ll have to go with Muddy, as he doesn’t have any limits to the duration of a fuck, and I need a minimum of two hours to feel all is right with the world.

“You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care)” (March 2, 1955): Bo switches to picking during the opening passage of this Chicago blues number, more notable for the instrumental passages featuring Billy Boy Arnold’s energetic harp and Otis Spann’s extended piano solo. While Otis’ fingers dance over the keyboard, Billy Boy plays an extended note that I could swear was elongated guitar feedback until the need to breathe gives him away. The sound blends well with what Otis is laying down, as his style is both fluid and captivating—an excellent demonstration of why he’s considered the best Chicago blues piano player of them all.

“Diddley Daddy” (May 15, 1955): Oh, darn. Billy Boy called in sick today. Who else we got? Hey! Does anybody here know how to play the harmonica? Who the hell are you? Did you say Walter? Geez, what happened to you? Looks like someone landed a few good jabs on your puss. You sure you can play with that missing tooth? What the hell—let’s give it a shot.

A full stable of first-class musicians always seemed to be hanging out at Chess Records, and Bo Diddley wound up featuring many of them on his records. Willie Dixon played bass on “I’m a Man,” and here Little Walter takes a break from his work with Muddy Watters, pulls a harp out of his pocket and gives us a more than a few good licks, moving from an extended moan to a series of runs that occasionally mimic a hot blues cornet. The Moonglows provide the background vocals while Bo takes another opportunity to advertise his manhood, but in a very unexpected yet charming manner. Somebody kissed his baby last night, a kiss that was apparently unwanted and left the poor girl in tears. In recounting her story, she tells him “Say Bo Diddley, you know you’re a natural-born man,” and he responds, “I say I love you baby with all my heart/Please don’t never say we’ll part.” Emotional support is a much better response than hunting down the perpetrator and beating the living shit out of him.

“Pretty Thing” (July 14, 1955): The song that gave one of my favorite and unheralded British bands their name is a Willie Dixon number set to a shimmery Bo Diddley beat. The song is unusual because unlike many Bo Diddley beat songs that remain fixed on a single chord, Bo strays from the root in the instrumental passages, moving up to G, sliding down to F#, then a quick change to D5 before he returns to E. The lyrics are a rather conventional proposal of marriage complete with choir and the cliché “blushing bride,” but the tightly intertwined guitar, harmonica and rhythm keep you in your seat. “Pretty Thing” made it to #4 in the U. S. R&B charts, but would not be released in Britain for another eight years—just in time to fuel the British Invasion and give The Pretty Things their name.

“Bring It to Jerome” (July 14, 1955): Lester Davenport kicks this one off with a brief blast of harmonica, inspiring a long wail from Bo while Jerome Green provides what will morph into the response to Bo’s lines in the verses: “Bring it to Jerome.” What’s going on here is Jerome’s main squeeze has been seeking satisfaction elsewhere, and while Bo relates that mournful story in an aching, pleading voice, his maracas-playing pal keeps repeating “Bring it to Jerome.” The pairing seems to make little sense until Jerome takes over the lead vocal with one . . . no, two things on his mind:

All you pretty women
Bring it to my home
You don’t have to worry
I won’t do you no wrong

Look here pretty baby
This mess I won’t stand
All the other women
Say you got another man

Tsk, tsk. Mixing the need for nookie with the desire for revenge leaves everyone feeling used and abused. While this precursor of revenge porn is unlikely to end well, the song itself is exceptionally engaging, the single chord and steady rhythm mirroring Jerome’s firm intent to show that bitch a thing or two. Bo gets a chance to stretch his larynx and sing with greater range and intensity, a talent that he will put to exquisite use a few songs down the road.

“I’m Lookin’ for a Woman” (November 10, 1955): We now enter a period in Bo Diddley’s career where, according to Don Snowdon’s liner notes, “Surprisingly, Bo’s chart success stopped then for three years.” He lists those three years as 1957-1959, which may confuse readers who have been paying attention to the recording dates from the liner notes that you see here. Since recording dates never reflect release dates, I think the lack of chart success is better illustrated by noting that “Pretty Thing” was his last hit until “Say Man,” and then try to figure out what might have gone awry (commercially speaking). In this case, “I’m Looking for a Woman” features some of Bo’s best guitar work in this collection, a marvelously inventive combination of solid blues picking, tremendous bends and shimmery chords, but in the end, it’s a straight blues number without a strong hook or anything to make it stand out amidst the ample supply of Chicago blues releases during the period.

“Who Do You Love?” (May 24, 1956): The lack of commercial success of this classic number may surprise readers familiar with the popular versions by Quicksilver Messenger Service (who devoted an entire side of Happy Trails to the song) or George Thorogood and the Destroyers (with its relentless power chord attack). Wikipedia calls it “one of his most popular and enduring works.” Maybe so, but it was a certified commercial flop in 1956.

The reasons are obvious when you consider the lyrics in the context of the times. This was the Eisenhower era in America, an era defined by the color gray. Black artists were only just starting to break out of the R&B charts in the early years of rock, and the record shows they had a long, long way to go. While we think of songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Long Tall Sally” as classics, they really didn’t cause that much of a stir upon release in 1956: Berry peaked at #29 and Little Richard at #15. Pat Boone’s Wonder Bread rendition of “Tutti Frutti” crushed the Little Richard original, and his vapid version of “Long Tall Sally” almost exactly matched Little Richard’s not-quite-Top-10 chart performance. The Platters and other doo wop artists did relatively well, and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” reached the Top 10 in late ’56—but except for Elvis’ breakthrough in the second half of that year, rock ‘n’ roll was still a relatively minor player in the music industry, with white guys driving the sales numbers.

While the culture had reluctantly expanded to tolerate rock ‘n’ roll, most songs by those classified as rock artists were rather tame concerning the major topic of interest of the targeted teenage audience: how to attract members of the opposite sex. Iggy Pop’s promise to “stick it deep inside” would have caused those boys to blush and their girls to faint. That kind of sexual honesty was far beyond the capabilities of a culture where most guys would have been thrilled to make out with the girl in those wonderfully humongous back seats and maybe have a brush with second base. While you can imagine a teenage boy crooning “Love Me Tender” to his adoring sweetheart as they floated down the tunnel of love, he wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what to do with Bo Diddley’s hyperbolic display of machismo:

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
Now come on take a walk with me Arlene
And tell me who do you love?

That explains the absence of crossover potential. What’s weird is that “Who Do You Love?” didn’t even make the R&B charts. Since much of the R&B audience consisted of either Southern blacks or those who had fled the South in WWII for better jobs up north, you’d think that at least some of those folks would have been delighted to hear a song loaded with New Orleans hoodoo imagery.

Nah.

I rode around the town
Use a rattlesnake whip
Take it easy Arlene
Don’t give me no lip

The truth is that “Who Do You Love?” was more of an in-joke than a serious attempt to bust the charts. The guys who recorded at Chess Records were locked in fierce competition about whose dick was the longest, hardest and baddest of them all. Bo took his inspiration from Muddy Waters, who had recorded Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” a couple of years before: “I’m telling this chick . . . how bad I am, so she can go tell the cat she’s hanging with, ‘this dude is something else.’ That’s what it kinda meant, cat ridin’ rattlesnakes and kissin’ boa constrictors and stuff.”

O . . . kay . . .

As a satire of machismo, the song works. This guy is so full of bluster that you know he’s all talk and no action. It works musically as well, with Bo in his deeper he-man voice right on the border between talking and singing, letting Arlene know in no uncertain terms that he is one certified bad-ass. Interestingly, the two cover versions mentioned above play the song in the Bo Diddley beat, whereas Bo’s is pretty much non-stop backbeat drive. Maybe if he’d used the rhythm that made him famous, he might have cracked the Top 10.

Nah. Not in this era. “Who Do You Love?” was simply too much, too soon.

“Hey Bo Diddley” (February 8, 1957): I can understand why this one flopped: it’s the least interesting of the myth songs, featuring an incomprehensible story about a farm full of women and a tomboy outlier who visits the farm while armed to the teeth, makes a scene and splits. This is not the luxurious château where slaves-in-training are properly bathed, made up and summoned to serve their wealthy masters at a moment’s notice, it’s a fucking farm where you step in cow shit, pig shit and chicken shit, so even though there are women everywhere, no one could possibly get horny in such a foul environment—even a guy with a cobra snake for a necktie. 

“Mona (a/k/a “I Need You Baby”) (February 8, 1957): Now we’re talkin’! The cover versions by The Stones, Quicksilver, Craig McLachlan and others simply can’t compete with the sheer passionate intensity of the original. Bo’s vocal quivers with desire, and his extended moans give me the best kind of shivers. The minimalistic arrangement of light drums, maracas and Bo on guitar clears enough space in the studio for Bo’s voice to shake the rafters while intensifying the deeply personal nature of his fantasy for the unattainable woman of his wet dreams. It is said that Bo’s heartthrob was 45-year old stripper, underscoring the point that the depth of his attraction had as much to do her unattainability as her physical assets. I don’t believe Bo ever wanted to consummate the relationship—the agonizing desire he feels for Mona is a pleasure unto itself, and there is always the fear that the reality will never live up to the fantasy. He wants to be close, but not that close:

Hey, Mona what I wanna do
Build my house next door to you
Can I see you sometime
We can talk just through the blind

Without the distance between the performer and her devoted audience of one, the whole thing would likely go pffft.

Incredibly, “Mona” was the B-side for “Hey Bo Diddley,” doomed to temporary oblivion. Since Buddy Holly found a use for the tune in “Not Fade Away,” I can’t complain too much.

“Before You Accuse Me” (August 15, 1957): Bo was a man of a thousand voices, and here he introduces his “victim voice,” a pleading cry reeking with a sense of injustice. After a nifty little opening riff, the band settles into a nice easy blues swing that eventually leads to a somewhat dissonant solo as Bo makes a game attempt at expanding his musical horizons. His efforts went for nought, however, as the single went absolutely nowhere. With his commercial appeal waning fast, he desperately needed to come up with something fresh and captivating—something that clicked with the audience in a New York second.

“Say Man” (January 29, 1958): Bo was probably open to trying anything at this point, so what the fuck—how about three minutes of barbershop bullshitting set to a Latin rhythm? Yeah, that’s the ticket! “Say Man” features Bo and Jerome trading insults centered around the mortal sin of ugliness—their own and the relative ugliness of their sweethearts. This kind of “shaming” may deeply offend the overly sensitive, humorless losers of our times who want to obliterate any signs of human discord and disagreeability, but I find the continuous parade of insults here an absolute and totally harmless hoot! My favorite passage combines a beautiful set-up with a devastating conclusion that doesn’t leave the victim feeling shamed, but ready to take it and dish it out with counteracting hyperbole:

Jerome: Ok; since you told me about my girl, I’m gonna tell you about yours. I was walking down the street with your girl.
Bo: Yes?
Jerome: I took her home. For a drink, you know.
Bo: Took her home? (tone of concern)
Jerome: Yeh, jus’ for a drink.
Bo: Oh. (worried about what might come next)
Jerome: But that chick looked so ugly, she had to sneak up on the glass to get a drink of water. (Bo breaks into full-throated laughter)
Bo: You’ve got the nerve to call somebody ugly; why you so ugly the stork that brought you in the world oughta be arrested!
Jerome: That’s alright; my momma didn’t have to put a sheet on my head so sleep could slip up on me!

The conversation sounds natural and anything but scripted, and oh my, that laugh! I love the sheer joy in Bo Diddley’s laugh—it’s a laugh that makes you want to laugh along with him and feel the blessed healing power of laughter wash over you the same way it washes over him. And as strange as it may seem, “Say Man” turned out to be one of his biggest hits, climbing to #3 on the R&B charts and #2o on the white people pop charts, his highest ranking song ever. Kudos to Lafayette Leake for his distinctly light-hearted, playful piano-accompaniment.

“Dearest Darling” (January 29, 1958): Bo’s pleading again, but this one doesn’t work for me despite his energetic vocal because he invokes the lord as the agent that brought him and his dearest darling together. No, Bo, you did it! All by your lil’ ol’ lonesome!

“Crackin’ Up” (December, 1958): A lot of people don’t know that Bo wrote Ian & Sylvia’s monster hit, “Love Is Strange” (also recorded by Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Thunders and a host of others) because he wrote it using his first wife’s name as a pseudonym. Here he attempts to recreate the song using the same Jody Williams-style riff, with mixed success. The premise of the song is fundamentally flawed, for how could the guy who wrote “Who Do You Love?” submit to the basest form of humiliation?

I do your laundry and your cooking too
What more for a woman could a man like me do
You’re bugging me
Yeah, yeah, you’re crackin up

I don’t think she’s the one cracking up, Bo.

“The Story of Bo Diddley” (September, 1959): My favorite entry from the Bo Diddley mythology is based on an extraordinarily primitive, repetitive set of guitar chords that form the perfect background for a man who’s got a story to tell. Filled with his infectious laughter, Bo cleverly contrasts the mythic figure with the black dude who still has to pay tribute to the white man with all the power:

I was born one night about twelve o’clock (Ha-ha-ha)
I come in this world playin’ a gold guitar
My father was around stickin’ out his chest (Hee-hee)
A-now, mama this boy he gonna be a myth (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)

Now, people came from miles around
Yeah, just to hear my little guitar sound
Now, some of ’em said I had what it takes
If I keep on practice I’d be famous one day (Ha-ha)
Woo, I’m a myth!
I’m a killer-diller

Early in the middle of the night
A car drove up with four headlights (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)
Now, a man stepped out with a long cigar
He said, ‘Sign this line and I can make you a star’ (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)
I said, ‘Now, what’s in it man, what’s in it for me?’
He says, play yo’ guitar son and wait an see’
Here I am! (heh-heh-heh,wheeee)
The girls liked me, they say, ‘It’s crazy, it sound nice, uh-huh’

There have been so many—too many—songs by rock stars about how they’ve been exploited by managers and studio heads, but most fall into the category of “the bitching of the rich and entitled.” “The Story of Bo Diddley” tells the real story—a kid dreams of becoming famous, fueled by parental expectations that he’s something special, thus creating a false bravado in the neophyte performer. The locals eat up his schtick and inflate the ego even further, setting up the inevitable deflation at the hands of the man who holds the long cigar and the keys to the kingdom. Most of the other “poor me, I’m a rock star” songs end there in a pathetic attempt to demonstrate the injustice of the system and its mistreatment of the artist. In Bo’s version, he accepts the humiliation as a simple fact of life then sings about the fabulous benefits that compensate for the loss of his special status: WOMEN! Sure beats working your ass off on the farm or playing for nickels on the snowy streets of Chicago. “The Story of Bo Diddley” is the story of a remarkably self-confident but also self-aware man who marveled at the absurdity of the system but realized that it was his best shot at having a life playing music and surrounding himself with admiring women. Is the system unfair? Yes. Does it devalue artistry? Absolutely. So what are you going to do about it? Go into victimization mode? Hey, dickhead—nobody forced you to sign the contract without reading it! There weren’t many opportunities in the 50’s for a black man to challenge any system, including the music business—Motown power was still years away. Bo made his deal with the devil and resolved to have some fun with it.

Hooray for Bo!

“Road Runner” (September, 1959): I have never grasped how this song could appeal to anyone, or why it was covered so extensively by Invasion bands like The Stones, Pretty Things, Zombies, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, and of course, The Animals. The road runner is such an unsexy, cute image, and personally, I always rooted for the coyote to feast on his irritating beepy ass.

“Pills” (May 2, 1961): Playing the role of victim once again, Bo officially relinquishes his status as a viable competitor in the biggest dick rivalry, allowing women to assume their rightful place in the dominant position. Here his plaintive voice is directed at the figure of a “rock and roll nurse,” a practiced dominatrix if there ever was one:

She gave me thrills from my toes
For legging ache
She gave me pills from her love
But a little too late
She gave me pills for my heart
To put me at ease
The rock and roll nurse
Shook me dead to my knees

And that’s where you belong!

Bo employs a rockabilly attack on the guitar with plenty of clean notes drenched in ample quantities of reverb. By the second chorus, he sounds like he’s on the edge of laughter, indicating that the rock and roll nurse is giving him the time of his life. The last verse where he complains to the doctor is a juke move, a pathetic attempt to convince the doc that he’s still the man with the rattlesnake whip. Nice try, Bo—now bend over and take it in the ass like a good boy!

While there’s something to be said for the quality of the original, one can hardly listen to this song without comparing it to The New York Dolls’ version . . . a performance we’ll explore . . . just a sec, let me check the schedule . . . wow! . . . next week!

“I Can Tell” (June 27, 1962): Bo goes full deep voice on “I Can Tell,” throwing in an Elvis-like accent for the hell of it. After the extraordinarily interesting lyrics and good sadistic fun of “Pills,” this feels like a downer unless you focus your attention on the crisp rhythm guitar attack. What’s more important about “I Can Tell” is its placement on the 1962 album Bo Diddley—the album that followed his successful U. K. tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard and cemented his status as a rock ‘n’ roll god with all those working class British boys looking for a more exciting life than the one awaiting them in the factories. If you listen to “I Can Tell” through their ears, you can completely understand their excitement.

“You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” (June 27, 1962): This Willie Dixon song is a sixteen-bar blues played at high speed that was also featured on Bo Diddley, making it a perfect target for The Yardbirds, who recorded it live for the Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds album back in 1963. While Bo’s version is high quality, The Yardbirds win the prize thanks to Eric Clapton’s manic rhythm picking, one of the early demonstrations of Clapton’s ability to integrate deep respect for blues foundations while exploring new pathways to bring the blues to a modern audience. Frankly, the song isn’t one of Willie Dixon’s best efforts, a string of comparatives that add up to the same message: appearances are deceiving. It made a small splash in the R&B and pop charts, but wasn’t distinctive enough to pierce the U. S. Top 20.

“Ooh Baby” (September 11, 1966): Bo should have shared the billing with The Cookies, who were temporarily rechristened the Bo-ettes because some of the girls performed with Ray Charles as the Raelettes. Their parallel background vocals—not quite call-and-response, reflecting the disjointed nature of the relationship described in the song—are soulful, languorous and intensely sexy, as if they’re stretched out on a leopard-covered chaise lounge in their most revealing lingerie. During the interplay, the girls hold firm with the single refrain, “Ooh, baby, I love you” while Bo is going crazy because he can’t figure out why a woman who says she loves him wants to leave him. Hello? Fish in the pond? Never heard of a good fuck followed by a better one? His last charting single completes the descent from mythic figure to second-best-in-the-sack . . . or, if you want to take the more enlightened view, it completes his ascent from macho bullshitter to humble, vulnerable human being.

There are few early rockers who had as much influence on the shaping of the genre as Bo Diddley. To borrow from the lingo of the period, Bo’s rock ‘n’ roll was an absolute blast, the sound of a modern pied piper seducing a generation of performers and fans with good-time rhythms validating the fundamental eroticism of great rock ‘n’ roll. I love the way Don Snowdon ends his liner notes, so instead of trying to compete with perfection, I’ll let Don have the last word here:

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.

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  1. It’s shocking to be reminded of how early those Bo Diddley gems were – mid 50’s predating much of classic rock and roll though Bo carved his own distinctive path. My initiation to his music was a single of your fave “Road Runner” – my mates Dad had it and I was 12. It grabbed me from the very instant it started with him hollering and doing that weird scraping scratching guitar noise and I was thinking “WTF is THAT?” I’d never heard a guitar played like that before.I loved the groove. Sure, in Bo’s canon it may be lightweight but maybe it’s accessibility was why so many ended up covering it. So I have a very soft spot for that as that opened the door and when I discovered some of his other work and how it influenced the Stones, Yardbirds and of course The Pretty Things… yeah. Bo always had my respect.

    Bo was booked to play at The Cavern in Liverpool and I was surprised to see posters advertising it so was intent on catching the show. Unfortunately this was in late 2007 I seem to recall and the gig was postponed. Next thing I heard, he’d passed on so sadly missed out almost by a whisker of seeing him in action. Still, Diddley’s beat goes on as The Pretty Things still play at least one of his ditties in every show either “Road Runner”, “Mona” or “Pretty Thing”

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    1. Whoa, I’m way behind in responding to comments! Sorry for the delay! Funny how a sound can be so attractive—weird, scraping, scratching guitar noise is a beaut! I ought to do a “weird attractive sounds” piece. I should have emphasized more heavily that Bo’s songs were easy to play, so they were great introductions to music for young men who wanted to play in front of a audience of screaming girls.

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      1. What you just said there made me think further as you mentioned that Bo’s songs were easy to play. There was a primal simplicity there and whilst skiffle was big in the UK but meant nothing in the States perhaps Bo was an American equivalent to skiffle or the closest it got!

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  2. What an awesome review. I got quoted!

    I’m reeling slightly from two revelations here: first, I’d assumed that Bo and Jerome were the other way around in “Say Man”, but of course you’re right. And I’d always thought that in “The Story of Bo Diddley”, his father had walked around sticking out his *chin*, saying “Mama, this boy, he gonna be a man!” – but now listening to it I think you’re right (or is it “mess”?)! This is more disconcerting than it really ought to be, but that song was the first Bo Diddley track I heard and it’s etched into my bones at some level.

    The video you post of “Mona” is fantastic. Although Bo’s classic 50s/early 60s tracks are his important work, his later live performances always seem to me to be the closest thing I’ve ever heard to the pure spirit of rock and roll, triple distilled. They make me want to paint my room black and jump up and down on the bed.

    Look at this one from the mid-60s – have you ever seen anything quite like this?? The way those backing singers dance – somehow so sexy and yet aggressive – while one of them (Norma-Jean Wofford, known as “the Duchess”) plays guitar! Same model as Bo’s, but unlike him, no capo, and all while wearing that dress and those heels!

    Bo Diddley had a habit of working with awesome female backing singers. The one in the video of “Mona” you posted was Cornelia Redmond-Chavez, who had a pet monkey that she brought on tour with them. The first and most famous though was Peggy Jones, who called herself “Lady Bo” when working with Bo because she could play just like him, but she had her own band as well. Here’s a clip of them together later on, I think in the 90s – a much more laid-back piece, but you get to see Lady Bo playing a very odd guitar synthesiser:

    BTW, Bo always had a vulnerable streak even from the start – this one’s from 1956!:

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    1. Guitar in a gown. I have a hard time getting my head around that . . . though she does seem to attack the sucker. My first reaction to Lady Bo was “great tits,” then, “Oh, nice harmonies.” Once a bi, always a bi.

      “Cops and Robbers” should have made it to the collection . . . I love the stories, the language, the jive. Thanks!

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      1. Ha, I’m glad I’m not the only one who had that reaction! If you don’t like guitars with gowns you can find videos of the Duchess performing with Bo in tight leather trousers (she’s in the trousers, I mean, not him. Well, he is wearing trousers. You know what I mean). I didn’t post that as I didn’t want to distract you *too* much…

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  3. […] via Bo Diddley – His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection – Classic Music Review — altrockc… […]

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