Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Go, Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley died two days ago.
Ellas McDaniel died too, but scarcely anyone knew Bo by his earlier name. "Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard?, My pretty baby said she was a bird..."
I first heard his maracas-driven quasi-rhumba thing, that shave-and-a-haircut hambone beat, back in 1957 when some newcomer teen (a real j.d. character with white t-shirt sleeves rolled-up and sharp jeans shrunk tight) arrived in Izmir, Turkey, where I was living as a USAF dependent. This new guy, whose name I can't dredge up, brought along a 45 single on Checker by unknown-to-us Bo, which had what eventually became my all-time favorite Diddley cut on one side ("Mona"), and some other great rocker on the other.
Lines I still recall: "Tell you, Mona, what I wanna do, Build my house next door to you, Can I see you some time?, We could throw kisses thru the blinds, Can you come out on the front?, Listen to my heart go bumpity-bump, I need you, baby, that's no lie, Without your love I would surely die..."
I loved "Mona" and appreciated the flip--was it "Hey Bo Diddley"?--but mostly I was just totally blown away, age 13, by this powerhouse Black rock'n'roller, filled with attitude and style. Chuck Berry may have been the wordmaster, but Bo had the aural "I'm a Man" moves. Still, living in Turkey pretty well mitigated against a white teenager learning much more...
We moved on to pale-skin (or at least Northwest-isolated) Tacoma, Washington in 1958. Though I'd bought great albums by Fats Domino and Little Richard by then (plus Elvis and the Burnette Brothers Trio), I still didn't know much about, or hear much by, the mysterious Bo; I'd pretty much forgotten my fascination for "Mona." But my high school had its own local rockers, a group called The Wailers, and they soon had a national hit that I really craved, called "Tall Cool One."
I bought the debut Wailers album anchored by that title track, played it often, took it along when I went off to college in the fall of 1960, to Northwestern University... meaning Evanston, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Suddenly I could hear a lot more from and about Chess and Checker Records, Chicago blues and Black r&b, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and... Bo. Another dorm guy had Bo's first album, which I immediately traded my Wailers album to get, even though "Mona" wasn't on it. I didn't care; finally I could see as well as hear the amazing Black guy with processed hair and snazzy clothes and flashy f-hole guitar (not yet one of his weird-shape models), who was truly too cool. And his name-check song (plain "Bo Diddley," sample lyrics quoted up top), "I'm a Man," "Pretty Thing," "Who Do You Love," and other great tunes were.
Flash forward a decade or so... through other hits "Say Man," "Road Runner," "Hush Your Mouth," "Crackin' Up." I played Bo's first album for years, then eventually sold it or swapped it or something. But around 1975, Fate being the trickster that it is, suddenly I got the chance to write and record a song with the career-revived, guitar gunslinger himself: Black Gladiator, bag-of-tricks Bo.
Okay, it was an advertising song; but given the performer, I refuse to say "jingle." Rainier Ale needed a performer/spokesman who could appeal to the (perceived) Black audience for beverages heftier than beer. Lo and behold, Bo Diddley was coming to Seattle for a few days for a club gig. (Yeah, "Bring It to Jerome"!) I persuaded the Rainier man that the one-and-only Diddley Daddy would be perfect; we got in touch with his management, negotiated a fee, and bingo.
Nearing 50 by then, Bo in person was about what one might expect--cautiously friendly, rock-star arrogant, protective of his rep, and more. But he had great stories to tell alongside his vociferous resentment of groups like the Stones and the Who. (Both were making money off his songs, or at least what had become known by then as the Diddley Beat.) He breezed through my Rainier Ale lyrics in two or three takes, Bo and his rectangle guitar only, no back-up rhythm section wanted (he'd have had to split the money!), collected his check, and left. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.
It was a bit of a let-down, yes. But, faintly, I could still hear "Mona" singing in my head... and I still can.
Say, Man... rock in peace.