He passed today, with family and friends near him, never fully recovered from a stroke. He seemed like he was around forever and would always be. And that was the signal mark of what he did.
A few quotes first:
- Michael Lydon, Boogie Lightning: “The humor is not just the jokes; it’s Bo’s whole stance. He obviously enjoys making records, and that enjoyment comes through in the music.”
- Jimi Hendrix: “…if you want the backbone of the real pioneering thing which Clapton and the others are into – that’s it. Bo Diddley made a great contribution to rock.”
- Bo Diddley: “I made ‘Bo Diddley’ in ’55, they started playing it, and everybody freaked out. Caucasian kids threw Beethoven into the garbage can….I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob….I am owed. I’ve never got paid. A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun.
What to say, really. Where to begin.
Over on Idolator, M. Matos’s comment puts it all simply but accurately: “…probably did as much for guitar and rhythm as anyone in rock history.” On ILM, Scott Seward: “I LOVE YOU BO YOU HELPED INVENT THE WORLD I LIVE IN! ROCK ON!” There’s going to be more, much more.
Keep those words above from him in mind, though, first and foremost, about the slam-bang impact and the fact that for him renumeration was always going to be a hard-fought struggle, especially in a country where he was born in a place where the deck was long stacked against him just because of who he was. It isn’t everything about his life, but it’s essential for knowing what he thought about it all — about how in response to any and all the tributes he received, and all the ones he’ll be getting now, he noted that “it didn’t put no figures in my checkbook.” This to-the-point story from the St. Petersburg Times back in 2002 is well worth a read, and your time. To quote:
“All that I own here, I got by penny-pinching,” he says. “This is bought and paid for, all 76 acres. Don’t nobody else own this. Only things that can get me out of here are Uncle Sam and death.”
He estimates his losses at $50-million.
“Ain’t no way in hell I’ll get past the anger feeling until I see some checks,” he says. “I can’t be 21 years old no more. A lot of people ask me, why you angry about this still? What the hell you mean?”
And with that sad fact noted — what a life. WHAT a sound.
I was talking just now with a coworker who had seen him a few years back at a blues festival and he noted that his set was ‘a lot like all those fifties guys still touring, just the basic thing.’ I’ve no doubt of that, really — the living hell of those circuits, especially if that’s one of the few ways to guarantee a steady source of income, must seem mesmerizingly banal after a while, standard introductions and expected reactions, retracing the past once more. It traps a sound in amber that…
Well, words fail.
Mention Bo Diddley and the idea is guitar for many, thanks to things like his many famous poses with his favorite instruments, the footage, the things like the Nike ad campaign with Bo Jackson twenty years back, stuff like that. But as Matos notes, it’s about rhythm. The phrase ‘the Bo Diddley beat’ says it all — Diddley didn’t rock. He SWUNG.
And he did it by keeping his ears open — taking advantage of the fact that he was where he was, America, in all its imperfect glory. The many interviews he did over the years must have provided the well-worn feeling to him as well, the same questions and figuring out how to handle the responses, but here’s a sample that still illustrates well:
His interest in music began at an early age and he studied classical violin for several years through his church. One day, however, Diddley and his cousin were horsing around and he broke his little finger, ending his classical music career.
“He threw me on my ass,” says Diddley, now 77. “I fell on my hand and broke my little finger. I had to quit because my finger wouldn’t fall in the right place.”
Diddley is glad, though, for that classical training.
“It gave me a different approach to music,” he says. “Now I have to brag a little bit; I’m something else. I come up with some weird shit.”
This melting pot of strange stuff included bits of classical, African and church music, R&B and the blues. “I put all that stuff together and mixed it up,” says Didldley, who would also become a truly gifted lyricist. “I was just lucky enough to do that.”
Bragging a little bit, now there’s an understatement — he boasted for his entire career but he did so in the two best ways possible — with humor that just as easily offset the frustrations as it did provide a calling card, and more simply, with the knowledge that he was completely on the money. Put all that ‘strange stuff’ together into the Bo Diddley beat and what you have is an extremity that is simultaneously futuristic and ancient. It’s still extreme.
Context is important here. Here’s a comparative example — Bill Monroe and his impact on music via bluegrass. Sound strange? Not at all — here’s a basic summary that illustrates it:
Of all musical genres, there is no other that evokes the traditional heart and soul of North America more than Bluegrass. It embodies a diversity of folk music and instrumentation from around the world yet is distinctively American. While the Blues was evolving in the American South, Bluegrass was developing in remote regions of Appalachia, and for centuries, this “mountain music” evolved from indigenous musical traditions ranging in style from the spiritual to the comical. Remarkably, it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that mountain music was consolidated, refined and labeled as Bluegrass by way of a timely convergence of musical personalities and new technologies. These new technologies were the phonograph and radio, which, for the first time, brought rural music to people all over America.
Around the same time, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass boys hit the scene appearing on the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 and, by way of these ‘new technologies’ and a very active touring schedule came to be well known as one of the most popular bands out of Nashville. As Bill was from Kentucky, the name, Bluegrass, came from his state motto; “The Bluegrass State”. Bill Monroe’s sound was unique at the time because of its hard driving and powerful traditional acoustic instruments and its distinctive vocal harmonies. After experimenting with different instrumental combinations, he settled on the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass for his band. When Earl Scruggs, a banjo player from North Carolina joined the band in 1946 with his distinct 3-finger picking style, it further energized the public and helped define the Bluegrass genre.
Now think about what Bo Diddley was doing similarly — pulling it all in, putting it all together, as he heard and figured things out. Some extended quotes Neil Strauss’s story on him a couple of years back, along with some context:
“I was out to destroy the audience,” Diddley says, recalling the roots of his rhythm. “I wanted to destroy ’em, just make the toughest dude in the crowd pat his foot. I’d find a groove to get ’em by watching feet, and once I got one guy moving, I’d start working on the dude sitting next to him.”
His style, he says, came from playing his guitar as if it were a violin. Lady Bo tells it differently. “Have you ever seen his hands?” she asks. “His fingers are so thick he has to play rhythm rather than complicated leads.”
By the time he was seventeen, Diddley was busking in the streets. “We used to carry a washtub bass around and, since we didn’t have no drums, we made noise on a board,” he recalls. “But then I learned about a paper bag. Put a paper bag in your pants and then you can hit it to make a beat.”
Later, for percussion, he found a sand dancer who made noise by scraping his feet in a patch of sand. They played together on street corners as the Hipsters. “I was creating my own thing,” Diddley says of the band. “I wanted to make a few bucks.”
“I made the first tremolo, and I didn’t know what the hell I did,” Diddley says. “A guy I grew up with was into electronics, so we’d go to this old Army surplus place, looking through all the electronic bullshit for something that would vibrate the sound. I eventually went to the junkyard and found some parts out of an old car. Later, I made it out of an old windup clock. I had it fixed so it would run faster. I was just breaking the circuit to get that sound. But then Diamature out of Toledo made one. That’s when I got the thing and messed it up and bent it to adjust the speed to make it go faster. That’s how I got it to go whoomp-whoomp-whoomp, and I built my career or my style around that.”
Hambone, also called patting juba, originated on the plantations after slaves were forbidden to use drums. So instead they created percussion by clapping their hands, stomping their feet and slapping their chests and thighs. It made its way to popular culture in minstrel shows and vaudeville. And, just as Bo Diddley was finessing his sound, the trend hit the mainstream again when Red Saunders, a drummer who had also moved to Chicago from the South as a teenager, scored the novelty hit of 1952 with “Hambone.” Soon, everyone from children on television shows to street performers to the country star Tennessee Ernie Ford was slapping body parts and singing “Hambone.”
Diddley denies that he simply adopted hambone to the guitar, claiming that he was playing his beat in the streets before the Red Saunders song. Though he has said that he invented the beat while trying to play the Gene Autry song “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” he told me that the inspiration came from church. “I heard something like that when I was twelve or thirteen in a sanctified church. I’d peek through the curtain, and they just had a tambourine and an old raggedy piano, and these old ladies was just letting loose.”
The point of all these observations is to note that this is process at work — process, not product. Something that comes together and revamps and recombines. By the time we hear it, or hear the impact of it down the line, we do so in a way that is fixed when here you get a sense of somebody living life and taking everything from it — hustling to make cash, getting people to move, making an individual mark. Then you put it all together into a form that gets recorded, that sounds of its time, that bleeds and crackles and rumbles because that’s how it would be heard, in the same way that someone like Monroe put it all together and then took advantage of those technologies available to him to record something that then became fixed, a quality, a starting point, a baseline that was always shape-shifting and unstable.
I could just as easily say what I’ve said about, say, James Brown — and that would be the point, and I’ve no problem in holding Diddley’s work in such high esteem. In both cases it would be foolish and simplistic to limit their individual work to a time when ‘things were done better’ or something simple like that — the point is that these were creations in context, not automatically great nor having a special validity due to their age now. There’s stuff happening right now blowing minds in ways that won’t be recognized fully until down the road, and there’ll be tales of ripoffs and failed recognition and hollow praise that doesn’t really provide the needed payback.
Bo Diddley’s creations in context keep unfolding in the most amazing ways — the obituaries rightly mention the big hits that specifically referenced what he did, from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” to U2’s “Desire.” In my earlier post I linked to Hendrix, the New York Dolls, the Cramps, Spacemen 3, Jane’s Addiction. But here’s something for you that shows how wide the impact was to this day, and from a band that in their own way have created something in context that ended up being a new baseline.
Portishead’s new album Third has a song on it called “We Carry On,” and comparison points are often made to the Silver Apples as a source, among other acts. But give a listen and ask yourself — where’d that beat first recombine, where’d that tension first explode:
In my first post I linked to a variety of Bo Diddley pieces, so go back there, play a few, and consider.
There’s way more to say — talking about the work of the Duchess alone would require a separate post. Others will say it with more knowledge, awareness and better words.
But to end on the note I did in the first post — to quote the title of a song by another Diddley-obsessed act, the Jesus and Mary Chain: “Bo Diddley is Jesus.” And to quote another Idolator comment, from Chris Molanphy: “I’ll bet he’s referring to himself in the third person to St. Peter right now.”
Sounds about right.
[ADDENDUM: found this story elsewhere on WordPress which well deserves a link and a quote:
I saw Bo Diddley perform live on four different occasion, but none in the last 10 years or so. The first time was at Peabody’s in Cleveland during the summer of 1984. My friend Casey and I arrived early, which wasn’t really necessary because even a quarter century ago Bo was way past his career prime (although nowhere near past his performance prime). We were hanging out at the bar and it was empty except for one middle-aged black guy sitting at the other end, who turned out to be the man himself. It was one of only two times in my life I’ve asked a celebrity if I could pose for a picture with him. (Hunter Thompson was the other.)
Bo’s records are awesome, but he really excelled live. Even in his 50 and 60s, he was an energetic, dynamic entertainer, kicking his leg out while riffing on his square guitar. The really cool thing was Bo never traveled with a band. He would always just pick up a local bar band in whatever town he happened to be in to back him up. It wasn’t like Bo’s songs are particularly hard to learn, despite their brilliance. Still, I always got a kick out of watching Bo briefly stop a performance to teach the band a song they’d never heard before, and of course they’d all nail it less than a minute later.
Keeping it going, on and on. Everyone who ever backed him up got lucky, and I hope they all knew why — but I’m sure they did.)