Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley, R.I.P.

When I was in my early teen years, I "inherited" a few LPs from Dad. The ones his sisters hadn't gouged to death. One of those albums was Bo Diddley's Have Guitar, Will Travel, pictured here. I was very lucky that my three aunts didn't destroy this album.

I was a bit aware of Bo, more through cover tunes, especially those of everyone's favorite flat-voiced guitar whiz from Delaware, George Thorogood. But the Have Guitar album didn't have any songs that I was familiar with. Still, I quickly grew to love the album.

Unlike his contemporary legends, Berry, Jerry Lee, Buddy, Elvis and Little Richard, Bo Diddley's songs weren't that well known. Sure, if you were a hard core rock fan, but he never had one big signature hit.

He was known for a sound. The Bo Diddley beat is simply one of the most effective rock rhythms ever, and yet it was only part of his sound.

First and foremost, Bo Diddley was a incredible guitar player. Like Les Paul did as a teen, Bo made his first electric guitar. He was clearly interested in the sounds you could get out of a six string. Case in point, two of my favorite songs off of Have Guitar, "Mumblin' Guitar" and "Run Diddley Daddy".

The former song is a spectacular instrumental. Bo starts of by playing an angular distorted lead that cuts across the rhythm of the drums and Jerome Green's maracas. Throughout the song he deviates, seemingly playing every part of the guitar. At no point is the soloing melodic. It's all variations on the main rhythm. It's so inventive.

Then there's the breathless "Run Diddley Daddy". The song has more distorted guitar, and in the breaks after the chorus he furiously strums out chords in a dissonant fashion. He even finds time to throw in a speedy guitar solo. Technically, I'm sure purists of the time cringed. But the feel of this was so right.

Because Bo clearly didn't give a shit what other people thought. He was trying new sounds, coming up with bizarre lyrics (really, think of how "Who Do You Love" sounded when it was released -- that was as punk as you could get back then), and writing in any style he felt like. Whether it was the beautiful ballad "Mona" or the gospel inflected rock of "She's Alright" or the talking blues story of "Cops And Robbers", Bo could do it all. And those are just songs from one album.

His influence on the guitar sounds of the British Invasion is pervasive. He was also a powerhouse performer. And, if you've ever read any interviews with him, totally nuts.

I was fortunate to see him once at the Chicago Blues Fest. That night, Mr. Diddley decided to go with the flow and turned in a traditional electrified blues set. At one level I was disappointed, as I would have loved to hear all of the hits, but it sounded great and he was totally committed to what he played.

Bo Diddley was an original, even stacked against his larger than life contemporaries. While at one level, his recordings are dated, the spark of true originality makes them exciting to this day.

1 comment:

Slack-a-gogo said...

I benefited from your copy of "Have Guitar..." at an impressionable age, so it's still my sentimental fave.

It's a cliche when a rock and roller dies to say he was one-of-a-kind, but in Bo's case, it's true. Who else could pull off being Bo Diddley? Party due to his self referential lyrics, Bo seemed larger than life and almost made up (which in many ways he was, but he made himself up).