In the Dust #14: Bo Diddley ‘Bo Diddley’
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten. (Listen to Bo Diddley The Chess Box via Spotify)
Who do you love?
Bo Diddley, and he’ll be the first to tell you so.
Easily one of the most unabashed self-promoters in the history of rock and roll, at first glance, Bo Diddley’s career seems to be entirely dedicated to solidifying his place, or more accurately his name’s place, in the social consciousness. Certainly no other artist has ever used in his own name in a song’s title, chorus and album more so than Bo Diddley, but Diddley’s work, while perceived by some due to the repetitive name dropping as kitsch and pop novelty, when considered in context, offers much more substance and historical importance than just the universal awareness of a name.
Born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi, in 1928, Diddley was soon adopted by his mother’s cousin, taking her name as Ellas McDaniel. When Diddley was 6 years old, the family moved to the South Side of Chicago, where he became active in the Baptist church and proceeded to learn the trombone and violin. Diddley’s skills at the violin developed quickly and he soon joined a local orchestra, with which he played until he was 18. Diddley, while still interested in the violin and classical composition, found himself increasingly drawn to the energy and vibrant musicianship of those playing at local Pentecostal churches, in particular anyone could play guitar.
One evening he went on the town to see John Lee Hooker, who was playing at a local juke joint. Hooker played “Boogie Chillen”. That was it, Diddley decided.
He soon formed a band, The Hipsters, with pal, and who soon would be longtime band mate and collaborator, Jerome Green. Diddley’s distinctive guitar style, a choked, muted-string method based off of core violin technique, soon set them apart.
After graduating high school, Diddley started working as a mechanic and carpenter, but discovered that even with the two jobs it was difficult to make ends meet. The Hipsters began busking on the street and quickly scored a regular gig at the 708 Club, a popular South Side juke joint.
The Hipsters played a mélange of styles, from Diddley’s own originals, to songs by Louis Jordan, his inspiration, John Lee Hooker, and his future label-mate, Muddy Waters.
After a few years’ buzz and toil at the 708 Club, Diddley signed to Checkers Records, an imprint of Chess Records. Then, he was still Ellas McDaniel, a name Leonard Chess insisted was not suitable.
There are many conflicting claims of how Bo Diddley acquired one of the most famous monikers in rock and roll, and there is no definitive version. Diddley maintained that his peers gave him the nickname, initially as an insult. He also states that it was the name of a popular singer of whom his mother was fond. Others claim it was the name of a popular comedian, and that Chess borrowed the name to lend to Diddley and his first single, “Bo Diddley”.
Others say it is a reference to the diddley bow, a popular instrument among children that features a single string tied tightly to two screws and is played by simultaneously strumming the wire and manipulating its tension with a slide. A common first instrument of the Delta bluesman, it is well known as a progenitor of the slide guitar.
Regardless of how Diddley assumed the moniker, Chess released his first single, the immortal and highly influential, “Bo Diddley”, featuring Otis Spann on piano, under the name in 1955.
He went on to record many more successful singles for Chess in the following three years, all of which, including several B-sides, are collected on Diddley’s 1958 debut album, Bo Diddley. While not as celebrated as Diddley’s first true studio album, Go Bo Diddley, included are some of the most iconic songs of his career.
First, and this should come as no surprise, is “Bo Diddley”. In unison, the band begins, and a rolling, tumbling hiss issues a curiously uniform effect. Green’s maracas, as well as Frank Kirkland’s drums, were originally intended to simply reinforce Diddley’s rhythm. Diddley’s guitar, in turn, reinforced their rhythm back, and all melded together, achieving a strange rhythmic harmony, which came to be known as the Bo Diddley Beat, a major innovation. Diddley breaks up his beat with characteristic, seemingly spontaneous chording and traditional pop AABB lyrics, leading into one of the most distinctive guitar solos in rock and roll, one that has been echoed time and time again by guitar players for over 60 years. A simple tremolo technique of Diddley’s own devising slathers a simple alternating chord progression, creating what is a slithering, bending and prophetically psychedelic sound that would come to permeate the genre.
“I’m a Man”, the album’s second track and the B-side to “Bo Diddley”, is for obvious reasons instantly recognizable. You might know it as “Hoochie Coochie Man”, recorded by none other than Muddy Waters. What you might not know is that after hearing Diddley’s version, which was inspired by Waters, Waters continued the conversation by recording “Mannish Boy,” a song written by Willie Dixon, who plays bass on all three versions, and a jabbing reference to Diddley’s being much younger than Waters and, thus, not the “man” that Muddy was when he recorded it. “I’m a Man” features the same iconic stop-time rhythm as Waters original “Hoochie Coochie Man”, but in his classic style it is substantially “Diddley-fied” by the addition of heavy shakers, distinctive guitar tone and reverberated hollering throughout.
One of Diddley’s most famous to-date, but relatively under-appreciated at the time, “Who Do You Love?” is the second-to-last track on the album. As with many Diddley songs, this country-western stomper is swathed in reverb, and his vocals especially, in slapback. His guitar, almost pedal steel-like at times, soars over in chorus, interrupted by the remarkably angular, but sweet and confident soloing for which he is known. As in “Bo Diddley”, “I’m a Man” and the majority of his work, he, and his magnificence, is the subject, testifying to a cocksureness that is at once overt braggadocio and tongue-in-cheek, corner-mouthed charisma:
I walked 47 miles of barbed wire / I used a cobra snake for a necktie / I got a brand new house on the roadside / Made out of rattlesnake hide / I got a brand new chimney made on top / Made out of human skulls / Now come on and take a little walk with me, Arlene / And tell me who do you love?
He continues, boasting, “Only 22 / And I don’t mind dyin’”.
Diddley’s brash and loveable egotism is only a part in his lasting legacy. Aside from wonderful songs and a persona to match, his skills as innovator and inventor garner him as much accolades as his music.
In 1958, Diddley built his own guitar, a more complicated version of what is largely known as a “cigar box guitar”, a favorite among blues musicians and poor guitar pickers of the south because one could make it easily and cheaply one’s self. This guitar featured a very unusual and unorthodox electrical build, one that contributed greatly towards the distinct sounds Diddley was able to create as his career progressed. He also was one of the first to build and operate his own home studio, engineering and recording a lot of his music himself.
Diddley’s homespun individualism sheds a more complicated light on what the author has, up until this point, referred to as self-promotion and egotism. Diddley, in all ways, is a true original, and fittingly dubbed by his loving admirers, “The Originator”. He turned blues into rock and roll and gave Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and countless other infamous artists a cornerstone upon which to build their own house of worship. When Diddley uses, reuses, and overuses his name, it is more than just the repetition of a moniker; it is pride in the insistent impulse to do it himself, his way, picking a guitar like a violin, making its sound tremble like a reed in the breeze or slyly undulate like a snake to its prey. It is Diddley being Diddley, marking the high water, banging out his juba and, “Diddley” by “Diddley”, changing music forever.
Written by Ben Brundage
Album Review: Caveman ‘Coco Beware’
Winter in the Midwest. It’s bleak. It will rain for days and then it will turn around and snow. The sun hasn’t risen when you get to work and it’s setting when you leave. And let’s not forget, it’s bitterly cold the whole while. But despite all this, I actually like winter. I read more. The beer is darker. Saturday Night Live is on. It’s a time to recharge your batteries after a summer and autumn spent out and about. These are all good things.
But just as California beach pop like Dirty Gold fits a summer drive with the windows down and Cut Copy the club on a Saturday night, we need music for relaxing with in the winter…something that fits the mood of the season. I’ve been listening to a lot of Atlas Sound’s Parallax recently, and now I have a new album to put in my winter rotation, Caveman’s debut LP CoCo Beware.
Caveman is a five-piece band hailing from none other than (surprise!) Brooklyn, NYC. Its members consist of Matthew Iwanusa (Lead Singer/Guitar), Jimmy Carbonetti (guitar), Stefan Marolachakis (drums), Sam Hopkins (guitar) and Jeff Berrall (bass).
On your first listen, you’ll notice the record is incredibly easy listening from beginning to end. The songs are slow paced and methodical, flowing so well from one to the next that you’ll be thinking you are still on track 3 when you’ve already reached the end. But don’t let the mellowness to take away from the beauty of this record, because this is a talented band making some great music. Peaceful vibes, crisp harmonies, and lyrical repetition make this a perfect listen when in search of some R&R.
“Old Friend” is probably the best known track on the album due to its airplay on Sirius XMU; however my personal favorite is Decide. The drum beat and vocals on Decide bring about the nervousness of waiting that builds throughout as the chorus is repeated over and over.
I know the feeling though is make me feel so mean / In time we don’t know exactly what you need / I can’t believe it’s just another year to go so I / I hold…it seems right this come for me
When I hear this song I can’t help but picture someone sitting with their hands together tapping their foot, and just waiting…for something, anything, to come their way. Other highlights on the album include “Thankful” and “A Country’s King of Dreams.” Listen to “Decide” below:
If you are a fan of Fleet Foxes or Cass McCombs, this album is definitely worth a spin as I think you’ll get that same sort of feeling from listening to it. CoCo Beware is out now and available for purchase.
Connect with Caveman via Facebook | Twitter | MySpace | Website
Written by Greg Dahman
Album Review: The Black Keys ‘El Camino’
I’ve heard a lot of people say that El Camino doesn’t sound anything like The Black Keys other work. I disagree. From a musical standpoint the same core elements remain, they just feel as if they’ve been flushed through a different filter. That being said, I’m not sure I could picture any of the tracks from El Camino on any of The Keys previous releases.
Earlier albums all had moods, if not themes. On Thickfreakness and The Big Come Up Auerbach lent a hungriness and immediacy to a voice that had still yet to become his own, sampling a buffet of bluesmen while growing in confidence as an artist. By the time Rubber Factory dropped, the dynamic duo had developed enough to harness and control those minimalist blues and put them to work at their behest. They owned it.
After Magic Potion hit the airwaves in 2006, it felt as if that initial formula had run its course. That’s not to say the album didn’t contain its share of worthwhile tracks. “You’re the One” and “Black Door” are two of my personal favorites along with the addictive crowd-pleaser “Your Touch.” But the band seemed at a crossroads: remain content with a rampant Midwestern fan base and pockets of diehards across the country or…explore.
Enter Brian Joseph Burton, AKA Danger Mouse, who had ascended into relevance around the same time as The Keys with his release of the Godfather of mash-ups The Grey Album. Burton, Ike Turner and The Black Keys set off in 2007 to work on a collaboration of epic buzz worthiness. Midway through the recording process though, Ike passed away. As the legend goes, from Turner’s ashes rose the foundation from which The Keys and Burton built their most critically-acclaimed album to date: 2008’s Attack & Release.
The beauty of this album lay in its ability to refrain from alienating a base that had come to love The Keys delta-influenced, garage sound, while at the same time allowing them to kick the door wide open to new listeners. Then, rather than attempt to recreate this new achievement, the duo took a breather. A separation in 2009 brought forth Auerbach’s Keep it Hid, backed by Texas-bred, up-and-comers Hacienda. An album, that Carney argues he had no prior knowledge of. Ticked off and startled by the potential loss of his musical soulmate, Carney scrambled to form his own side project, Drummer, releasing Feel Good together later that same year.
However, The Keys quickly patched things up during Carney’s legendary break-up with Denise Grollmus. (Her side of which is detailed in a Salon.com piece entitled “Snapshots From a Rock n’ Roll Marriage”) The duo emerged in Brooklyn to collaborate on, of all things, a hip-hop album produced by Damon Dash of Roc-A-Fella fame. Blakroc featured a who’s who of underground hip-hop’s past and present. Though the album achieved moderate commercial success, the buzz was most definitely back.
By the time that Blakroc was in the can, so too was Carney’s marriage. Once again, this time after the death of a relationship rather than the death of a producer, The Keys rallied for a breakthrough achievement. Still suffering from their hip-hop hangover, Brothers brought ear rattling bass lines, immediately addictive hooks and the first addition of new musicians, combining them into a break-up album of epic proportions. And we all know everybody loves break-up albums. Here, Auerbach served as the scorned, rage-infused voice to his partner’s brutally dissolved marriage. The album was everywhere. You couldn’t change the station on the television or radio without hearing it.
The rest as they say is history. The Black Keys are now bona fide rock stars, complete with the requisite trio of Grammies and mammoth sales. It’s always a mixed bag sharing a band that you’ve seen grow since infancy with the masses, but as I said in my review of their show at Indianapolis’ The Lawn at White River:
“Rather than harbor resentment for the yuppies that only know The Keys from their most recent work Brothers, I choose instead to embrace it. This is the music that I want America to listen to. This is the music that I want the radio stations to play. Not Gaga, Young Jeezy or Coldplay. This. Shit. Right. Here. Mannnnn.”
I stand by that statement. However, I knew the follow up to such a massive commercial success would prove the duo’s toughest test to date. Color me nervous. Though I was enticed by the decision to bring back Danger Mouse in the role of producer, it seemed to elevate the pressure to deliver rather than lessen it.
The good and bad news is that this is not Attack & Release 2. Nor is it Brothers 2, though the four-man band that created it remains intact. Here, the hip-hop hooks have been exchanged for a strong, layered rock that is big enough to fill the arenas that The Keys plan to pack during their spring tour. The crunchy, distortion that made Auerbach famous is back, but it’s no longer the focal point.
While El Camino works well as a coherent thought, I’m left wanting the type of timeless songwriting that served as the driving force behind albums like Rubber Factory and The Big Come Up. Missing are tracks like “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down” and “Brooklyn Bound,” that upon the first spin convinced me that I would still be listening when I’m 40. Maybe El Camino will grow on me. Maybe I’ll come to adore this effort like I do their others.
For now, I’ll remain content that Carney and Auerbach continue to make new strides, even if they haven’t reinvented the wheel. Is this their most interesting release to date? No. But it’s still fucking better than any of the other shit on the radio, and for that I am thankful. El Camino is the soundtrack to the party that The Black Keys attend each day that they awake and pinch themselves. It will keep you dancing. It will keep you singing. And it will keep me listening.
You May Also Like:
The Black Keys Announce North American Tour
Video: The Black Keys “Lonely Boy”
Concert Review: The Black Keys – The Lawn at White River
Written by Rob Peoni