Remembering Bo Diddley

Mention Bo Diddley’s name and most everyone thinks one thing—the beat.

Bomp ba-bomp bomp, bomp bomp...

Applied to such songs as “Bo Diddley,” “Hey Bo Diddley” and “Who Do You Love,” it's perhaps the most influential musical motif since the Devil purportedly handed Robert Johnson the I-IV-V chord progression at the crossroads. It gave Diddley his rightful moniker as the Originator and his equally rightful spots in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, as well as other lifetime achievement honors.

It’s been a year since Bo Diddley died June 2, 2008, of heart failure at age 79 in his home in Archer, Fla., following a prolonged illness. It ended one of the most influential careers in pop music history, a 54-year run during which the man born Ellas Otha Bates helped merge blues into rock’n’roll.

Australia's Byron Bay Bluefest in 2007 marked the final performance of Diddley. The DVD release of this full performance is expected later this year.

During his career, Diddley produced a rich body of spirited, aggressive work that ran far deeper than the well-known hits. He also acquitted himself as a progressive bandleader as well as an inventor, not only of the square-shaped Gretsch (three models of which are now manufactured by Fender) but also of a variety of effects that subsequently became commonplace pedals and rack mounts.

The value of Bo Diddley’s seminal beat to the history of rock’n’roll is undeniable. “If Bo Diddley had received a dollar every time some act borrowed his distinctive beat—that bouncing ‘chank, a-chank-chank, chank, chank,’ with maracas shaking right alongside—he’d have been the richest man in rock,” wrote Tom Moon in his 2008 compendium “1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die” (Workman Publishing). Moon continues: “The Rolling Stones would have had to pay up several times. Bruce Springsteen would owe for ‘She’s the One.’ Buddy Holly for ‘Not Fade Away.’ The Strangeloves’ 1965 [song] ‘I Want Candy’ was a direct copy, as was the Who’s ‘Magic Bus.’ ”
One of the lesser-known aspects of Bo Diddley’s career was his support for female musicians, even in the early years of rock’n’roll, says Margot Lewis, who along with Faith Fusillo guided Diddley’s career through their company, Talent Source. Lewis suggests the person who could attest to that best was Diddley’s longtime bassist/bandleader, Debby Hastings.

“Bo was brought up by women all around him, and he was comfortable with women,” Hastings recalls. “He was also the kind of guy who liked to give people a chance. “So even back in the ’50s, when he came upon a female musician who was good he had her in the band."

In the wake of his passing, Lewis and Fusillo now want to ensure Diddley’s legacy transitions into an active and potent future. “We want to perpetuate his legacy and make sure he gets his due in the world of popular music and popular culture,” Fusillo says. They are working with strategic partners—primarily the New York-based publishing and marketing firm Primary Wave Music and also Universal Music Enterprises (UMe), which owns much of Diddley’s recorded catalog—on an array of projects, including exposure for some 200 reels of unreleased and largely unheard Diddley recordings.

Available now is a Diddley Collector’s Pack on iTunes featuring the artist’s hits and an exclusive unreleased track—a frenetic jam recorded in the ’70s and featuring “Bo going crazy on the guitar for about 10 minutes. It’s unbelievable, vintage Bo. When we first heard it, we almost started to cry,” Fusillo says. UMe, meanwhile, is preparing for the June 9 release of “Ride On/The Chess Masters 1960-1961,” the Hip-O Select label’s third volume of Diddley’s Chess Records recordings. The limited-edition set (5,000 copies) includes 16 unreleased tracks and rarities, including recordings Diddley made at his home studio, then in Washington, D.C., and with two more years of his Chess tenure left.

Looking further down the line, Primary Wave, TCI and the Diddley estate hope to stage a tribute concert, most likely for the second anniversary of his death in 2010, which will probably yield a companion album and DVD.

“We just want to spread the word and make people aware of who Bo Diddley was in the history of music," says Lewis. "He was such an important figure and made so many important contributions that we still hear today. We have to make sure that people know who Bob Diddley was...forever.”

One year after Diddley's death, he’s remembered by other musicians who knew him, admired his accomplishments or both.

Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top): “He hit the scene with that infectious beat he brought to the forefront, but it goes back to when he landed in Chicago and was part of the Maxwell Street scene playing at the flea market on the corner. It was Bo Diddley, Clifton James on drums and Jerome Green on maracas—and that was it. Who ever heard of a guitar player and two percussionists? And you listen to those early records now, with the knowledge there was no bass guitar, no rhythm guitar, no piano, no nothing except those three guys, but you turn it up and you say, ‘Well, I don’t miss anything. It sounds like a full orchestra to me.’ ”
George Thorogood: “No artist has fascinated me more than Bo Diddley. When I got into his stuff, everybody in 1967 was listening to two monumental rock history albums—one was [Jimi Hendrix’s] ‘Are You Experienced?,’ the other was [the Beatles’] ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ But I had this album, Bo Diddley’s ‘16 All-Time Greatest Hits.’ I’d go to Wildwood, N.J., and buy maracas by the pound because I was fascinated with this sound and this thing that was Bo Diddley. This was before I got into John Lee Hooker, and I was amazed by the sound of this guy who sat on one chord, maybe two. But, like James Brown, he could do one chord for 15 minutes and it never gets boring. That’s where I learned my whole routine from. I mean, what is ‘Bad to the Bone’ except, really, Bo Diddley?”

Todd Snider: There are four important things about Bo Diddley that I hope everybody knows. The first, of course, is that he invented a beat. Second, and less known, his song ‘Bo Diddley’ was a first in that his name was the title and chorus which, in my opinion, makes him one of the inventors of rap. Third, three months before Elvis Presley played [on] Ed Sullivan, Bo Diddley did. He was told to play a different song than ‘Bo Diddley’ and said he would, but when the cameras rolled he played ‘Bo Diddley,’ thus inventing rock’n’roll’s attitude. Fourth and most important, he was so sexy that he told Arlene he had a chimney made out of human skulls—and she still went for a walk with him.”

Billy Corgan (the Smashing Pumpkins): “His influence is tough to quantify. Most people point to the ‘Bo Diddley beat’ as if that alone was enough, but that in many ways severely underestimates what he brought to the table. What he really did was bring a rock’n’roll attitude to rhythm and blues, and that influence is everywhere. Imagine the Stones without the influence of Diddley’s swagger, and you can see his true impact. His prime, like Chuck Berry’s, was at a time when African-American artists playing rock’n’roll was more comfortably accepted by a white public if these men were playing nonthreatening observers whose commentary came through in riddles and encoded language. The hipsters picked up on the fact that they were being spoken to. The sad part of that now is it can lock these men’s brilliance in an archetype no longer appreciated fully when set against the brash, shameless confessional monologues of rap. I never thought much of Bo Diddley till I got his boxed set in the early ’90s, and I found certain songs struck me like Escher drawings in that the more I heard them the more I saw. His is the kind of music that in its primitive urgency never gets old and in its lyrical narrative will never become outdated.”

Joe Satriani: “Bo Diddley gave us so much. He was an essential part of rock’n’roll. It couldn’t have happened without him.”

Bonnie Raitt: “Bo’s music will continue to influence people as long as someone can beat out that signature rhythm on whatever instrument they can. He was one of the greats and a wonderful man as well.”

Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead, Phil & Friends): “That groove is everywhere. It’s so fundamental. It permeates. You can hear it in all different kinds of music, and it moves so nicely. Personally I kind of like to do things inside it; I like to take the groove and move it over an eighth note and set up that tension between the thing that stars on the downbeat and the same pattern that starts an eighth note later, and then you can build that up and it’s very satisfying. It’s very fruitful, shall we say.”

Bob Weir (Grateful Dead, Ratdog):
“He was famous for that one rhythm, but he was actually a pretty eminent blues artist. He had an amazing sense of dynamics. When musicians get together and they’re working up stuff, it’s quite common to hear somebody say, ‘I want you to play this Bo Diddley,’ and everybody knows what that means. It rumbles and rolls, and the notes don’t come real fast so you get a little time to be real choosy about what notes you play and it allows you to dance with your instruments. It’s a fun rhythm to play, so we tend to stretch it out and live in it for a while.”
Nils Lofgren (E Street Band): “That groove, however Bo fell into it, I’m sure he realized he had a gem . . . and he called it his own and sold it to us, and it was a beautiful thing and still is. It’s a signature beat that you can play against a four-count bar, but you can’t lose it. If someone’s playing that beat you can improv around it with funk, rock, melodic playing, nasty stuff, pretty stuff—but not at the expense of the beat. The drummer doesn’t have to play it; the guitar player can play it against regular backbeat drums, and it’s going to color the entire picture.”

John Doe (X, the Knitters):
“Once you get past the brilliance of Chuck Berry, the next step is the simplicity and the amazing poetry of Bo Diddley. I think everybody wants to be known for something, and that [beat] is a pretty great thing to be known for. What it might overshadow is his sense of experimentation. He came to Los Angeles once in about ’83 and played this place called the Music Machine, and everybody was just out of their minds because Bo Diddley hadn’t played in L.A. since who knows when. They had put together a group of guys that played the blues OK but really didn’t have a clue to what to do with Bo Diddley and, with all apologies, it was terrible. That same night Dave [Alvin] and a few of us went to the owner of the club and said, ‘Get him back six months from now and we’ll put together a band and it will be great,’ and we did. And it was.”

Ted Nugent: “Bo Diddley’s incredible impact on music and America is immeasurable. As my American blues brother Billy Gibbons exclaimed, accurately, that a newborn infant exposed to the Bo Diddley rhythm would begin to gyrate accordingly. We often hear the term ‘primal’ associated with good rock’n’roll music, but clearly Bo handed off the purity of primal direct from our aboriginal campfires straight to the masses via his electric guitar grind. It is pure. Proving that God dearly loves me, I was privileged and deeply honored to jam with Bo and actually play bass guitar in a few of his concerts back in 1970. It changed my life. I wallowed in the belly of the beast and was instantaneously moved to better appreciate and more effectively implement the soulfulness of his music into my own. All dedicated musicians, knowingly or otherwise, directly or indirectly, cannot make stirring music without the immense touch of Bo Diddley guiding them one way or another. He defined the sensuality of rhythm. God bless Bo Diddley.”
Steve Howe (Yes, Asia): “It’s a little bit difficult because he’s not a virtuoso guitarist. But he moved some air, didn’t he, in the same generation as Chuck Berry and Bill Haley. He did have his own sort of sound—it was very simplistic, but very influential.”

Jack Ingram: “One way I look at it is when I listen to Tom Petty, we don’t have “American Girl” without Bo Diddley—and that could be said about thousands of other classic American rock’n’roll tunes. Without Bo Diddley, we’d be missing an entire segment of the soundtrack of our lives. My kid brought me a guitar he made in class the other day; he’s 3 years old, and in preschool they were making guitars that look like Bo Diddley’s. So his influence is bigger than I can fathom. It’s bigger than the money he made or the records he sold.”

Keith Urban: “In ’97 I was in a band called the Ranch. We were opening for Bo at a club in New York City. We finished our set, and I made sure to get out into the audience to see Bo play. I remember he was sick that day—he was apologizing to the audience because he could barely sing—but I didn’t mind, because to compensate he just played longer guitar solos. After his show, we were packing up backstage, and in walks Bo and he says, ‘Hey, boy, was that you just pickin’ on that there guitar?” I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Mmm, you’re a good guitar player, boy,’ and then he just nodded and walked away. I remembered this photo that was taken backstage that night; I’d had it on a table in my apartment for years, but when I moved it was packed up. I actually found it after I was asked by the organizers of the Grammy Awards to play with B.B. King, Buddy Guy and John Mayer as part of a tribute to Bo. It really was a full-circle moment for me.”