Bo Diddley remembered

6.4.08

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Yes, Bo Diddley is gone. There has been, as there should be, national attention in news stories and remembrances. Sadly, as with many early black blues/rock pioneers, there is probably more fame in Bo's death than there was in much of his life.

And maybe there isn't much more that can be said about him, but after reading a few of the obits and tributes, I keep feeling that a few things might be missing. One of the hardest things in writing about music and musicians is to capture the essence of what they do and why they do it.

So indulge BlueNotes for a few minutes while he and I try to add a few thoughts.

Most of the articles I read called him a pioneer of rock and roll. Which he was. But for some reason, I like the phrase that I noticed in an obit in the LA Times: "Primal rock and blues musician...."

And that's what he really was -- a Mississippi-born and Chicago-reared artist who loved the blues, took Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker as a couple of early role models, and gave that music a new shape and sound, which in turn caught the fancy of a bunch of young white musicians like Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones, and who helped translate Bo's music for an audience that only marginally caught the significance of what the Originator (Bo's nickname for himself) had done.

Or, more simply, the man never quite got the credit he deserved.

Here's what the Times of London wrote in its obit yesterday, and it captures what Bo expressed often:

"I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob," he told The New York Times in 2003. Two years later he made the point more forcefully. "I tell musicians, 'Don't trust nobody but your mama,' " he said in an interview. "And even then, look at her real good."

It was a theme he came back to often in interviews and conversations with writers, and which other early black pioneers also expressed. They sowed, and others reaped. But despite the bitterness, the music always came through.

Some articles pointed out that his influential contemporaries, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, got more recognition. They did, probably because their music was somewhat more accessible to mass audiences. But both of them also complained that they weren't really appreciated. Richard, especially, suffered the indignity of having some of biggest hits covered by people like Pat Boone. Can you imagine? And Berry had the bad habit of not always showing up, or showing up in proper shape to perform. But hey, even BlueNotes has his off days.

But I suspect that Bo (I'm sorry, I just can't call him Diddley) suffered from the music he created, which was more primal than that of many of his musical colleagues.

As author George R. White wrote in his biography "Bo Diddley: Living Legend," "Both his music and his image were too loud, too raunchy, too black to ever cross over."

That's probably true. Berry wrote songs that could easily be translated into Everyteen's lifestyle -- cars, girls and music. Richard -- well, he was a little tougher. His rock and roll euphemisms came straight out of the raunchy blues traditions in which every other lyric was somehow a euphemism for sex. And his unisexual flamboyance couldn't have been too reassuring to Moms and Dads who had yet to give up Patti Page and Guy Mitchell.

But Bo was primal. The beat, the image, the testosterone-fueled "I'm a Man" lyrics.

Speaking of that, there's a passage in Nadine Cohodas' fine book about Chess Records, "Spinning Blues Into Gold," in which she describes the Chess recording session for Bo's first effort -- "Bo Diddley" and "I'm a Man."

Leonard Chess, the producer who pushed and prodded his artists into doing the music that met his vision, yelled at Bo: "Sing like a man. The beat has got to move at all times." (He actually prefaced that with a word that can't be repeated here, because that's the way Leonard worked.)

The book also notes that Bo's name most likely came about purely by chance during that recording session, in looking for a name and catch phrase for the song "Bo Diddley," which Bo had initially written as "Uncle John."

Bo told different people different versions of how he got his name, most of them slightly cloudy. But according to Cohodas, Billy Boy Arnold, the Chicago harp player (who favored the stylings of the first very great John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson), who was working with Bo at the time, said he came up with the Bo Diddley name on the spur of the moment during the "Uncle John" recording session. He said he recalled a circus clown on the street using that name and it just popped into his head while they were looking for song title.

Of all the stories, I like that one the best. That's how Ellas McDaniel became Bo Diddley.




In case you missed it, my PG colleague Scott Mervis wrote a fine tribute piece about Bo yesterday, with some comments by Porky Chedwick. Porky, as a few of you oldsters may remember, loved to play Bo's songs, and gave him a big Burgh boost.

Some of you may also remember that Bo's bands included two fine and slinky female guitarists. The first was Lady Bo (Peggy Smith), and I've sent her an e-mail asking her to comment, so we'll see.

The second was The Duchess, Norma Jean Wofford, of Pittsburgh, as Mervis noted. She died in 2005. Both women had unique places in the rock and blues pantheon as female guitarists.

And speaking of guitars, it's well known that Bo built and designed his own square guitars, with electronics designed to play the music the way he wanted it to be played.

Bo was an originator in the true sense of the word, who never quite got the fame and fortune he deserved. But his music will live on.



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