Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Can't Stop Thinking About Bo Diddley

Update: Thanks to JC at American Footprints for unearthing the famous Bo Diddley performance on the Ed Sullivan show discussed below. It includes Mr. Sullivan mangling the introduction in his inimitable defective-robot style. CH, 6/4/08

“I look like a farmer...but I’m a lover; can’t judge a book by lookin’ at its cover”

There was more to Bo Diddley than bomp ba bomp bomp...bompbomp.

Beyond pounding that riff into the ground in a dozen classic songs, his fascination with doo wop ( I’m Sorry and the heavenly You Know I Love You), nonsense pop (Diddy Wah Diddy), electric blues a la Jimmy Reed (Before You Accuse Me), rock (Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover), novelty (Road Runner), rockabilly (Cadillac), surf guitar (Mumblin’ Guitar), unhinged violin lounge (The Clock Strikes Twelve) and unique, majestic mashups of rhythm and harmony (Josephine) created a body of work unrivalled in American popular music for its genius and variety.

Bo Diddley built his own guitars—not just the distinctive shapes, but also the custom electronics—and his incendiary stage shows were so legendary, Chuck Berry reportedly developed his characteristic duck walk in self-defense, in order to hold his own on the package tours they shared. Bo Diddley also claimed Elvis had been smuggled into the wings during one of his shows to pick up some tips on showmanship from “The Originator”.

Bo Diddley’s enormous talent intersected with the post-World War II economic, media, and artistic explosion that mixed country, rockabilly, pop, rhythm and blues and created the musical and business paradigm of American pop that rules the world today.

Bo Diddley mixed and mastered virtually every key element of 1950s American music. It’s an amazing achievement for a young man who, by the time he was 26, had exchanged his birth role as a sharecropper in Mississippi for the life of a rock star.

He apparently recorded his experience on a home movie camera that he carried with him on tour. His footage would no doubt create a fascinating document of American pop culture in the 1950s, although there may be difficulties—the only reference in print to Bo Diddley’s filmmaking activities that I’ve seen relate to Etta James’ account of him filming an orgy in (I think) a Philadelphia hotel room.

Bo Diddley’s pride, self-confidence, enthusiasm, and restless, exploring intelligence are palpable in his music—and his prickly relations with the people on the business side of his music.

Famously, Bo Diddley commemorated a major milestone in his career—an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1955—by refusing to play his cover version of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s old chestnut “Sixteen Tons” as Sullivan instructed, and knocking out his defiant anthem “Bo Diddley” instead.

TV.com provides an amusing recap of the show’s context:

“Dr. Jive's Rhythm and Blues"> --Bo Diddley - "Bo Diddley"
--LaVern Baker - "Tweedlee Dee"
--The Five Keys - "Ling Ting Tong"
--Willis "Gater Tail" Jackson & his Band (instrumental song with saxophone solo)
Note: The above acts were all part of a revue of rhythm & blues acts introduced by Tommy "Dr. Jive" Smalls, a New York disc jockey. ("Dr. Jive's Rhythm and Blues" was a revue at New York's Apollo Theater.)

Additional guests:
--Film clip from "Big Knife" with Rod Steiger & Jack Palance
--Ted Lewis (bandleader-singer) - "How Long Is He Gonna Last?" & "Me And My Shadow"
--Suzanne Brooks & Ted Lewis - "After You've Gone"
--Jack Carter (comedian, stand-up routine)
--Caesari Siepe (of the Met opera) - "Na Voce'na Chetarra" (in Italian) and & "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing"
--Wandy Tworek (Danish violinist, does a comic musical act)
--Vicente Escudero (69-year-old Spanish Flamenco dancer)
Audience bows: Helen Hayes, Robert Dowling, Farley Granger

In today’s terminology, Bo Diddley blamed what we would today call a “repertoire malfunction” for the misunderstanding.

John Collis continues the story in The Story of Chess Records (Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 1998):

An argument ensued during which Sullivan accused Bo of being the first ‘colored boy’ to double-cross him, an insult that earned him an attempted right hook.

To complete the day, Bo was forced to sign for his fee, $750, and then give the cheque straight back. For a ‘colored boy’ it was apparently considered enough to simply appear on Sullivan’s show...

Bo Diddley has spoken at length about his financial travails at the hands of Chess.

Collis quotes from a Rolling Stone interview:

Well, Bo Diddley ain’t got sh*t. If Chess Records gave me, in all the time that I dealt with them [about 20 years and 20 albums—ed], if they gave me $75,000 in royalty checks, I’ll eat my hat...Somebody got the money—everybody in this business has big mansions and stuff...I got a log mansion. When I left Chess Records, they said I owed them $125,000.

At Bo Diddley’s nadir, he sold the rights to his songs back to Chess.

On my shelf I have a copy of an undated promotional CD, executive producer Marshall Chess, entitled Bo Diddley is a Songwriter, issued to the trade by Arc Music to flog the great man’s music to licensees, a consideration that Chess apparently saw unfit to extend while Bo Diddley still owned the rights to his songs and could profit from them.

Bo Diddley never uncorked a series of perfect records like his labelmate at Chess, Chuck Berry, was able to do.

He never charted No. 1 and his biggest hit was Say Man, a throwaway insult session between the bandleader and his maraca player (I was walking down the street with your girl...and the wind blew her hair into my face...and the wind blew her hair in her face...and the wind blew her hair in the street!) enlivened by a magical piano riff from Chess’s legendary sessionman Lafayette Leake.

Nevertheless, his genius for songwriting, performance, and innovation and his titanic influence place him in the first rank of American musical geniuses of the 20th century.

Bo Diddley aka Otha Ellas Bates aka Ellas McDaniel 1928-2008 RIP


Oso said...

Say Man ! Dang, long time since I heard that song. Didn't realize it was his biggest hit. His sister used to sing with him at times, she was really cute. and I tripped on that funny guitar he had. Great entertainer.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post. You might have added to his virtues his great sense of humor. Back in the '60s, I saw him perform at a cowboy bar in Phoenix, and he was GREAT--had the audience eating from the palm of his hand. When someone in the audience started to heckle, Bo said, "Hush now, or I'll move into your neighborhood."

John Freeman said...

Nice 'cartoon' tribute here:


He was a real celebrity...