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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

About Bo Diddley

Ornery, funny and utterly original, Bo Diddley, a giant of 20th-century music, departs the stage.

Bo Diddley was not a happy camper while he lived, so there is not a chance in a hundred that he went gently when he died of heart failure on Monday. Diddley (born Ellas Bates, later changed to Ellas McDaniel) was always ornery, especially when it came to what he thought was his due. But then, if you'd invented as much as he did, you'd be ornery too if you hadn't received what you thought you deserved. And in Bo Diddley's case, he thought he'd invented nothing less than rock and roll. After all, he was out there two or three years before Elvis or Chuck Berry or Little Richard, tearing it up with an electric guitar and a trademark beat that landed somewhere between a shuffle and the clave rhythm of Latin music. You hear it in everything from Buddy Holly to the Who to the New York Dolls, but Bo Diddley was the first to inject that infectious beat into mainstream pop. For that matter, the very phrase "rock and roll" was coined by disc jockey Alan Freed in the early '50s to describe what his listeners were about to hear: "a man with an original sound, who is going to rock and roll you right out of your seat." And that Diddley did, for over half a century, touring until a heart attack stopped him last year.

Not being an especially sentimental man, Diddley was almost indifferent whenever it was pointed out to him how much he'd influenced the course of pop music. Being honored for his influence "didn't put no figures in my checkbook," he said. And as for being influential, he saw it more as theft. "Everybody tries to do what I do," he said. "I don't have any idols I copied after." But what really riled him was not being paid. Like so many artists of his generation, he was given a flat fee for his recordings but not royalties. "I am owed. I never got paid," he said. "A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun."

A lot of details in his biography come straight off the rack: born in the South around New Orleans, raised in Chicago, where high school classmates gave him the name Bo Diddley and where he soon took Chess Records by storm. He had hits with his first two singles, "Bo Diddley" and "I'm a Man," which was reworked a year later by his labelmate Muddy Waters as "Mannish Boy." But here's where it gets interesting. Muddy's version is straight up bragging—and frankly a little boring. The original is funny. Something in the Bo Diddley delivery always implied a joke, even when it didn't make clear who was being kidded. But in this case the bragging is just so over the top that you can't help smiling. Sometimes the humor lies in the surreality of the lyrics, and no one could be more surreal than Diddley; from his big black glasses to his guitar shaped like a cigar box, he just radiated strange. But a good kind of strange, the kind that made you want to work your way down front and hang on the edge of the stage all night while he played.

In "Hey, Bo Diddley" (he really liked writing songs with his name in the title or the lyrics) he begins with "Bo Diddley done had a farm/And on that farm he had some women/Women here, women there/ Women, women everywhere." Then the plot thickens: "But one little girl lived on a hill/She rustled and tussled like Buffalo Bill/One day she decided she'd go for a ride/With a pistol and a sword by her side." Gertrude Stein, eat your heart out.

Not all Diddley lyrics are quite so bizarre. The logic and coherence of the words to "Who Do You Love?" are worthy of Lorenz Hart: "I got 47 miles of barbed wire/I use a cobra snake for a necktie/I got a brand new house by the road side/Made from rattlesnake hide/I got a brand new chimney up on top/Made from a human skull/Now come on, baby, take a walk with me now/And tell me, who do you love?" Oh, but the sweet nothings have only begun: "The night was dark and the night was blue/Around the corner an ice wagon flew/A bump was hit and somebody screamed/You shoulda heard just what I seen."

Chuck Berry may have been funnier. Jerry Lee Lewis may have been more possessed. Little Richard may have been more outrageous. The operative word in all three sentences is "may." And no one else even came close.


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