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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


In the Dust #13: The Weird and Wild World of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

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 via Spotify)

In honor of the 13th edition In The Dust, the first of the new year, one of doom and gloom in which the entire world will purportedly cease to be, it is only fitting that we begin said year with something different, something strange, something spooky.

To that aim, we can do no better than to look at the originator of shock rock, a true iconoclast with a magnificent career that has all too often been written off as novelty, the mystifying and freakish Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose unusual upbringing would produce an unusual adult and, most importantly, an unusual talent.

Born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929, Jay was 18 months old and cared for by an orphanage when a Native American family of the Blackfoot Tribe adopted him. He managed to teach himself piano sometime during his toddlerhood and could read sheet music by the age of six. By fourteen he could play the saxophone as well. A prodigious talent in many respects, Hawkins was also an avid boxer and won a Golden Gloves Championship in 1943. Despite his skill at an apparent wealth of interests, his singular ambition lay in opera. Hawkins idolized singer Paul Robeson and wished to sing just like him. In 1943, concurrent with his Golden Gloves title, he enrolled in the Ohio Conservatory of Music to study opera.

Shortly into his tenure there Hawkins dropped out to join the war effort. He served primarily as an entertainer, falling back on his early musical roots, performing his own brand of blues-tinged popular songs and standards for weary soldiers, but Hawkins also told an apocryphal tale of his days as a paratrooper, a fact that is widely disputed, and of being captured and held as a prisoner of war, a claim that is largely unsubstantiated. According to Hawkins, upon his liberation from the prison camp, he decimated one of his captors by taping a hand-grenade into his mouth and pulling the pin.

Once he was allegedly freed, Hawkins continued to box and won the Middleweight Championship of Alaska. This would prove to be one of Hawkins’s last forays into the sport as a professional, amateur or otherwise.

After Hawkins’s discharge from the military in 1952, he would return to his musical career, this time without conventionally operatic ambitions, teaching himself how to play guitar and signing on as a vocalist and piano player in Tiny Grimes’s band, best known for his guitar work as a member of the Art Tatum Trio and on several sessions with Charlie Parker. Hawkins went on to perform with a time for Fats Domino, but was dismissed when he attempted to perform in a leopard skin suit.

It is around this time that he adopted the professional moniker “Screamin’ Jay” a nickname given to him by a boxing fan who, excited by Hawkins’s visceral energy in the ring, yelled, “Scream, baby, scream!”

Screamin’ Jay, leopard-clad and often donning wild hats and large red leather boots in conjunction, was fed up with the personal and stylistic demands of the refined jazz-oriented band leaders in whose employ he’d become accustomed. He signed with Okeh Records as a solo artist in 1955, and set about recording his first hit, “I Put A Spell On You”.

Originally envisioned as a refined ballad, some claim “I Put A Spell On You” was released as such, but there are varying accounts as to the authenticity of this claim. Regardless, if it was released it sold very, very poorly. The evening Hawkins was scheduled to record the Okeh/Epic version, possibly the first, possibly the second, the engineer brought in ribs, whiskey and beer to enjoy prior. Not surprisingly, everyone got completely and totally wasted. They set about recording the song anyways. What resulted was a weird, guttural, booming, operatic and utterly insane take filled with odd sound effects, banter, ad-lib, and a heavy, loose band of blasting horns and skittering drums. The next day, when Hawkins and the band listened to the take, Hawkins admitted that he didn’t even remember recording it, but it worked, and he was forced to relearn the entire song according to his blacked out masterpiece.

Now there are countless re-recordings of this song, as it was Hawkins most popular and lucrative. The original article is the heavy, horn-laden and literally bone-jangling bellow-out.

The song, however, much like the rumored first recording, did not sell. Some found the sounds of rattling bones “offensive”, cited references to voodoo and pagan ritual, and a pervasive, overt sexuality. They were removed, the song was tamed and a cleaner version was rereleased. It caught the ear of famous “payola” DJ Alan Freed. Freed curated a “Rock and Roll Review,” and, inspired by Hawkins’s performance of “I Put A Spell On You”, encouraged him to perform, but Freed did not stop there. He urged Hawkins to adapt his stage show to the odd, eclectic world his recording, offering to pay him $300 to emerge onstage from a coffin, an offer which Hawkins accepted, inspiring him to create the outlandish stage persona for which he is still famous today, one featuring gold and leopard skin outfits of curious cut, rubber snakes, the soon-ubiquitous coffin and a skull on a stick adorned with rattling bones, which he affectionately dubbed “Henry”. He appeared occasionally with a bone through his nose, carried a spear and maybe a shield, dancing and chanting in a primitive way that attracted the close attention of the NAACP, who claimed that Hawkins was creating an irresponsible and false association of the black race with cannibalism. Even the National Coffin Association (which apparently exists) objected to Hawkins’s theatrics claimed he was poking fun at the dead.

In the face of such controversy, Hawkins’s stage show remained unchanged and, with his bellowing, classically trained bass voice, went on to reinvent the sound of 50s rock and roll, recording many more great songs for Okeh/Epic including the half doo-wop, half-stomp romp “Orange Colored Sky”, the scatty, horn-laden waltz “Hong Kong”, the bluesy, brash and simply great “Alligator Wine” and, later, for other labels, the downright gross “Constipation Blues”, and the infectious “Feast of the Mau Mau”.

Hawkins later claimed that the shamanic intensity of his performances and his entrance from a coffin gave him chills, which led to substance abuse and alcohol dependency, a hurdle that Hawkins eventually conquered. After numerous tours all over the world, some of which involved playing for troops just as he did at the start of his career, he retired to Hawaii where he lived until his death in 2000. Hawkins died of a failed surgery to treat an aneurysm. He was 70 years old.

His legacy lives on long after his death. None of Hawkins other songs ever surpassed the success of “I Put A Spell On You”, a song that has been covered innumerable times by artists the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival and on. His act inspired KISS, Alice Cooper, Danzig, Gwar, Black Sabbath, The Cramps, Marilyn Manson and Tom Waits. The dense, operatic performance Hawkins delivered on the original version of “I Put A Spell On You” inspired The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to select it as one of The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll.

The legacy of Hawkins personal life is, perhaps, also immortal. At the time of his death, he was said to have fathered over 55 illegitimate children. That number has now risen past 75. At one point, there was a foundation with the sole purpose of discovering and aiding all of Jay Hawkins’s offspring. That foundation has since, apparently, ceased to exist.

As with many great, perished artists, his work has been incessantly butchered out of its original form. Thus, it is nearly impossible to find a full, unadulterated Screamin’ Jay Hawkins release without buying an original LP, or a still reordered and chopped European import CD. It seems the closest and most faithful U.S. release to Hawkins’s original Okeh/Epic years is a collection appropriately titled, Cow Fingers and Mosquito Pie.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was an idiosyncratic wonder of prodigious talent, a singular phenomenon, an artist the likes of which we have never seen and, as the disparity between what one is and what has come before, in our time, has closed to an imperceptibly small distance, we will likely never see it again.

Written by Ben Brundage


In the Dust #11: Mississippi Fred McDowell ‘Steakbone Slide Guitar’

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.

When most people today get to talking about the blues masters, they first mention names like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Further on into the conversation, you hear Elmore James, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House. Stick around a while longer and there’s Skip James, Charley Patton, Furry Lewis and Tommy Johnson. Take root at that table, settle in, and you get to Mississippi Fred McDowell, slide guitar master, renowned to those well-initiated, but relatively obscure to many.

Of course this conversational progression is by no means doctrine of blues hierarchy, but it is a fact that Fred McDowell is rarely mentioned in the same breath as many other early masters of the craft, despite the fact that he was their contemporary. This is not for lack of talent, but rather the unusual origin of McDowell’s blues that set him apart.

McDowell was born in 1904 in Rossville, Tennessee but eventually moved to Mississippi, working for a spell in a feed mill in Memphis and settling in Como, a town in a region known as ‘North Mississippi’, just to the east of the Delta. It is here McDowell lived and developed his own brand of the blues. He began playing slide guitar with a pocketknife, as did Henry Sloan (a man mentioned many times here, famous for playing the first blues W.C. Handy ever heard and writing the ubiquitous lyric, ‘goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog’). McDowell then graduated to a ground-down steak bone, for which he is famous, and eventually a true glass bottleneck. As played by McDowell, this brand of blues, referred to as ‘hill country’, is a slide-based, Delta-esque style that incorporates some of the finger-picking flourishes of East Coast, ragtime-influenced Piedmont blues, while emphasizing African traditions like droning and single chord “harmonic centers” played in repetition, rather than complicated chord changes and drastic variations movement to movement. Succeeded by the more modern artists of Fat Possum Records such as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell was arguably the first successful ‘hill country’ blues artist. He is widely regarded in deep blues circles as one of the most technically talented slide guitar players to ever slip on the bottleneck but does not often receive the same accolades as his contemporaries because of this slightly removed, heavily localized and “primitive” style.

Like many seminal blues artists active in the 20s and 30s, McDowell’s popularity subsided in the late thirties, concurrent to the approach of the Second World War, but a rise in the popularity of folk and blues music in the late fifties brought about an infamous rediscovery period for all music Americana, of which McDowell was a primary beneficiary. He recorded with the truly immortal Alan Lomax in 1959, which eschewed McDowell into a career renaissance. His music received state-of-the-art sonic treatment, rather than the hasty, acetate field recording he was used to. The uniqueness and virtuosity of McDowell’s sound showed through for the first time in crystal lucidity (a track recorded by Lomax from early in this period, indicative of the audio quality and guitar styling of the sessions, is “What’s The Matter Now?”, and well worth checking out). The records recorded by McDowell and Lomax proved immensely popular and he toured extensively as a result. Those recordings still stand today as some of the finest, most poised and truly remarkable tracks of his career.

One such record, Steakbone Slide Guitar, McDowell’s first solo electric album and one of the last he recorded before his death in 1972, exhibits the searing slide, soulful articulation and idiosyncratic, indefatigable spirit for which his music, and the man himself, is still revered.

The album opens with the blues standard, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, originally recorded in 1937 by John Lee Williamson (AKA Sonny Boy Williamson I). This song has been done and done and done by almost every bluesman under the sun, but McDowell, somehow, seems to imbue it with new life unlike any other rendition this author has heard. His acrid but immensely satisfying slide work elicits a kind of vibration deep in your mind’s center akin to floating in still waters. The hypnotic tweak and twang of his glass bottleneck, mimicking his vocal patterns in a songbird’s call-and-response, juxtaposes with a clean, sharp melodic attack his gruff, aged vocals, emulsifying into a strange, southern syrup tinged with the mellow sweetness of sugar cane and decades of toil’s salty tang.

McDowell proceeds to play several timeless blues standards, such as the first song he ever learned, “Big Fat Mama”, as well as “The Train I Ride”, “Get Right Church” and “Worried Life Blues”, billed here as “You Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore”, all in beautiful, skillful fashion, sliding up and down his open-tuned neck with a calm and practiced air, often embellishing with “talking slide”, a common but nonetheless impressive technique where the last, or last few, words of a particular phrase are dropped and replaced by a slide guitar’s approximate enunciation, fore-father to the modern talk box popularized by Peter Frampton and wah-wah pedals of Hendrix and countless funk acts.

The centerpiece of the record is a McDowell original, “What’s The Matter With Papa’s Little Angel Child?”. Perhaps the most classically ‘hill country’ of all the songs on the record, McDowell stays on a repetitive, finger-picked progression, circling doggedly the harmonic center, milking from it a churning, trance-like phrase which he intersperses with choice flourishes on his top strings, moving his thumb-heavy bass up a string or two but working still underneath, anchoring, pulling you deeper and deeper into the groove and out of your body. “I wonder what’s a-matter / With Papa’s little angel child? / She won’t come home / ‘Til twelve o’clock at night,” he cries, his guitar seething and writhing as if it were his rogue thoughts and he is wrestling with it, calling out in desperate agony like a snake charmer no longer in control of his serpent: “the meanest woman, lord, you’ve e’er seen.”

The album closes with the song for which McDowell is likely most well-known, “You Gotta Move”, a slow, twisting exhibition of slide mastery made famous by The Rolling Stones of their celebrated 1971 album, Sticky Fingers. McDowell, who was later clung to like a shark with so many suckerfish by the rock-and-rollers and blues-wannabe, rediscoverers-and-appropriators the 60s and 70s, famous declared, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll.” He was reluctant to associate himself with younger pop acts, but taught the worthy, including Bonnie Raitt, with generosity and patience the ways of slide. Despite his aversion to rock-and-rollers, McDowell was flattered and delighted by The Rolling Stones remarkably faithful rendition of this song, and when listening to McDowell’s original, it is clear that The Stones went to great lengths to preserve the essence and tonal integrity of a master’s masterpiece.

Blues historian and music critic, Robert Palmer, wrote in his classic book, Deep Blues, about the truly subtle and almost imperceptible tonal intricacies of blues music, the bending of notes so delicately and precisely that a particular intonation is achieved, both vocally and instrumentally. A music thought by many uninitiated to be primitive, loose, even sloppy, Palmer argued is, in fact, extraordinarily and almost incomprehensibly complex, a somewhat mystical musical style built upon difficult techniques honed over years of physical and mental preparation, often born of a very specific upbringing, one of anguish, hard work and a complicated relationship with a very Southern brand of faith.

“You Gotta Move” is, in the author’s mind, perhaps the best example of that precise intonation. McDowell delivers a powerful, brilliant performance, but the magnitude of its brilliance could just as easily be confused for not giving a shit whatsoever. Somewhere in this gray area is the mystical allure of the blues, a seemingly relaxed, low-down and easy musical form that, once examined, becomes a convoluted abyss of names, genres, sub-genres, styles, apocryphal tales and astonishing skill. McDowell straddles that line better than most, laying back during “You Gotta Move” in a special sweet spot, “the pocket”, setting fire to shine soaked juke joints with the scorch of his slide and beckoning patrons to dance the building down with a cool, throaty holler.

Maybe it is the seemingly sleepy, sly, cock-eyed vibe of the droning ‘hill country’ blues that kept the genre and its artists so long from the popularity that other brands of other Southern blues experienced? Maybe it is their slightly removed position from the Delta, plantation-cum-blues Meccas Dockery and Stovall and the infamous Beale Street that held them back? Maybe it is the superficially simple use of the harmonic center that led audiences to gravitate to more apparently complex forms? What it is the author cannot say, but if exploring the vast musical tradition of the ‘hill country’ means digging deep into blues and its periphery, passing on the way the Blinds, the Johnsons and the Jameses, marooning oneself on a distant and reputedly “lesser” form of blues all in the name of finding one man who can make the guitar speak in a tongue you’ve never heard, then the answer is simple. You gotta move.

This album is available via Spotify and iTunes.

Written by Ben Brundage