Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Take A Bow, Bo

The word legend gets tossed around so much that it sometimes loses all meaning, such that these days you can call, say, last year's disposable reality talent series winner a legend and not be shot for it, which of course in a noble, just universe would indeed be the case. But yesterday Bo Diddley, a true pop culture legend, passed away at age 79. He left such an indelible imprint on popular music that he stands an awful good chance of never being forgotten as long as there are still electric guitars around and amplifiers to plug them into.

Because you see Bo Diddley was rock 'n' roll -- or at the very least one of a select handful who could truly be considered pioneers of a strange new sound back in the early 1950s. In songs like "Bo Diddley," "Who Do You Love," "I'm A Man" and, my favorite, "Ride On Josephine," he refined an intoxicating syncopation that quite simply never went out of rock 'n' roll fashion or lost its ability to captivate and sound fresh. Without Bo Diddley, there probably still would have been something called rock 'n' roll, but one can argue that it likely would have sounded a lot different without his hypnotic trademark rhythm.

My first impression on hearing the news was how he never got the credit he deserved for basically inventing an art form along with his much better known, more widely credited co-founding contemporaries like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, along with key contributions from Chicago blues legends like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.

According to the excellent obituary by Ben Ratliff in today's Times (and let's face it: The Times is peerless when it comes to a good in-depth obit), it always bothered Bo that he didn't get the respect the others got, to say nothing of their outsize fame and riches.
None other than Joe Strummer of the Clash insisted on Bo Diddley as the support act for their first American tour, and sure enough in 1979 you had the unlikely sight of the 50-year-old legend entertaining punk rock fans half his age. (The Clash were known for their incongruous concert pairings; the times I saw them, their opening acts included Sam & Dave, Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash.)

Years earlier, when first the Twist craze and later Surf music ousted the likes of Diddley from the pop charts, another British band was taking elements of the Bo Diddley sound and combining it with the blues to form the basis of their early recordings. So it was no surprise when those same Rolling Stones couldn't wait to share the bill in 1963 with Bo Diddley, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers, and soon Diddley was headlining his own British tour.
The Times piece also points out another interesting fact: that the man who came to be known for such a basic, primitive rhythm had years of classical training, having studied violin from age 7 to 15. In fact,
On songs like “Who Do You Love,” his guitar style — bright chicken-scratch rhythm patterns on a few strings at a time — was an extension of his early violin playing, he said. “My technique comes from bowing the violin, that fast wrist action”... explaining that his fingers were too big to move around easily. Rather than fingering the fretboard... he tuned the guitar to an open E and moved a single finger up and down to create chords.
Before hitting it big the first time, Diddley led a hardscrabble life, working in a meat plant, as an elevator operator and in a factory, even hoping to make a living boxing professionally. Even when he made it to the Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, he played a different song than the one agreed upon, enraging the network brass and ultimately leading to a 10-year ban from television. As The Times puts it:
Mr. Diddley always believed that he and Chuck Berry had started rock ’n’ roll, and the fact that he couldn’t financially reap all that he had sowed made him a deeply suspicious man. “I tell musicians, ‘Don’t trust nobody but your mama,’ ” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2005. “And even then, look at her real good.”

1 comment:

jimithegreek said...