Of all the 1950s pioneers of rock and roll – Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry – Bo Diddley, who passed away today at 79, has always been my favorite.
He was so much more than his trademark rectangular guitar and clave beat.
He was a clever lyricist, equally adept at adapting nursery rhymes and hilarious street jive, as on dozens-like songs such as “Say Man” and its sequel “Say Man, Back Again” and lines from “Who Do You Love?” like “I walked 47 miles of barbed wire, I got a cobrasnake for a necktie, live in a house on the roadside, made of rattlesnake hide.” There was the utter hypnotic effect of the combination of rhythmic complexity and lyrical simplicity of “Pretty Thing.” There was the sanctified gospel rock of “Dearest Darling.” There was his maraca-playing, jive-talking sideman Jerome Green, who both brought Diddley an extra rhythmic edge and foreshadowed hip-hop with vocal star turns such as on the excellent boogie “Bring it to Jerome.”
He pioneered reverb and employing female bandmates. Under a pseudonym, he penned Mickey and Sylvia’s pop hit “Love is Strange,” which later was resurrected on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. And that beat of his surfaced in everything from the Who’s “Magic Bus” to U2’s “Desire” to the Smiths “How Soon is Now” to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.”
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I never saw Diddley live, but my father John Lomax III caught him in his prime. It was, he reckons, in about 1961. “He played in some movie theater on Telephone Road,” he says. “I wasn’t much older than 17, and I went over there alone. There weren’t many white people there, I’ll tell you that, even though he was really hot then and getting lots of mainstream airplay. His sister was in the band, and maaannnn. She was wearing gold lame hot pants and was just drop-dead gorgeous. Everybody was screamin’ and hollerin’, everybody standing up through the whole show. If he played in ballads, there weren’t many. This was rock and roll.”
My own closest brush with Bo was when Diddley came to the restaurant I was working at in Nashville in about 1991. Diddley ordered an enormous bowl of lobster bisque, and he was working his way through it with gusto when the owner came over to fawn: “Oh, Mr Diddley, it’s such an honor, I have all your records, you’re such a star, I love your commercials, Bo knows music, hahahah…”
Diddley glanced up from under his hat, glanced through those thick black frames, and dismissed the babbling restaurateur thusly: “Good soup.” – John Nova Lomax