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This article was originally published in issue #2
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Bo was making a guest appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show - and Rock and Roll would never be quite the same again.
Chuck Berry may have been the father of a thousand licks - the inspiration for more Rock and Roll guitar solos than any other player in history - but if it’s the raw feel of Rock and Roll you’re after, there’s another American R&B legend with at least as good a claim to fame - Bo Diddley.
It was Bo Diddley’s, swampy, sexy rhythms that thudded out of jukeboxes across the world in the 1950s and ‘60s, inspiring (among so many others) Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Who (think ‘Magic Bus’), the Edge, Joe Strummer and Johnny Marr.
Bo Diddley was christened Ellas Otha Bates when he was born in 1928, in McComb, Mississippi. Later, he adopted the surname of his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, who brought him up. That’s why you’ll often see the name McDaniel on his songwriting credits.
Why ‘Bo Diddley’? It’s never been properly explained - though a lot of people think it was a typical Bo play on words, the diddley bow being a home-made African American stringed instrument. There are other versions of story and Bo himself once claimed it was just the name of a singer Gussie McDaniel knew. But then Bo liked to spin a yarn. Listen to his lyrics.
Like so many Black musicians before him, Bo soon set out for Chicago. Arriving in 1934, he quickly became an accomplished musician, but the call to Blues came when he heard the legendary John Lee Hooker and soon Bo was playing the guitar in street bands, busking to supplement his income as a mechanic and carpenter. That last bit is important, because the Bo Diddley sound didn’t come out of a plug-in. By all accounts, he was an inveterate dabbler in creating strange sounds.
By the early 1950’s Bo had a regular club gig in Chicago, but something special must have happened in a magical period between then and 1954, because that was the year he was admitted to the holy ground of the Chess recording studios, where he cut two immortal songs: ‘I’m a Man’ and ‘Bo Diddley’. Within a year, Bo Diddley (the song) based on an African American clapping rhythm was the Number One R&B hit. In that same year, Bo was making a guest appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show - and Rock and Roll would never be quite the same again. A year later he recorded the throbbing ‘Pretty Thing’ and his reputation was cast in stone.
Say, ‘play me a Bo Diddley rhythm’ and most guitarists will have a stab at it. But jabbing out a jerky ‘dum-de-de-dum - dum-dum’ doesn’t even begin to approach the essence of Bo Diddley’s legacy. Somehow he’d melded together a sort-of Rumba beat, complete with maracas (which became an essential prop to 1960s British R&B singers like the young Mick Jagger and Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones) with Blues harmonica and a eerie, soupy, guitar sound wrung out of his cigar-box shaped custom Gretsch guitars, plugged into amps set with a surprisingly hard to imitate tremolo effect.
Bo also pioneered jokey, slangy, street-wise bragging word games in his songs - leading to some even dubbing him ‘the grandfather of rap’. Put the whole lot together and you had an irrepressible jungle feel that spawned many hits and countless imitators.
You don’t need a Gretsch Bo Diddley re-issue to get the sound (though it’s good to see they are, finally, available again) but you do need a good ear to set the tremolo right and you need a good tremolo, too - ideally from a nice old Fender amp. Where the square guitar came from is another area of Bo’s murky storytelling. He once said he used to use a Gibson L5 but because he jumped around so much on stage, he injured himself in the groin with it, so he built his own without any pointy bits. Who knows - it may even have been true! Either way, Gretsch made some of his most famous guitars, though others also worked for Bo down the years and in the 1980’s he told a British magazine that he was having guitars made by someone in Australia. Then again, this was one of Bo’s stories.
Over the years Bo Diddley’s reputation grew. Like his fellow Chess artists, he inspired a generation of British R&B bands, but his influence was greater than that. His material was eventually to be covered by an astonishing variety, including The Grateful Dead, George Thorogood, Bob Seeger, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Who, Tom Petty and The Clash.
If you want to find just one player who got close to the sound, check-out that most unlikely source - The Smiths. On ‘How Soon Is Now’, Johnny Marr proves once and for all that playing a million notes a second isn’t the only way to send shivers down a listener’s spine. Better yet, check-out Bo’s stunning version of Willy Dixon’s ‘Pretty Thing’ - and then remember it was recorded in 1955.
Bo Diddley died on 2nd June 2008. He left a legacy that no guitar player should overlook.