It’s hard, if you really listen, not to be startled when 1955’s “Bo Diddley” — all fast-driving beats and nervy aggression — gets going. Diddley ditched chord changes for propulsive determination more than half a century ago, and it’s still news. Like its namesake, “Bo Diddley” is something you can’t get out of your head. Perhaps that’s because the song, reduced to stark simplicity, is almost all rhythm.
There’s no question rock music was better for it. By speeding up and pushing forward the traditional rumba beat, not to mention adding some searing guitar distortion, Diddley opened a door that the British Invasion, punk music, hip hop and new wave would later rush through. Still, for all of Bo Diddley‘s — and “Bo Diddley’s” — coiled revelation, that shave-and-a-haircut, two-bits beat didn’t start with the man who made it famous. The sound, called kpanlogo, originates from Ghana, West Africa. Typically, it involves two drummers — with the supporting player keeping time while the leader solos. But Diddley had a flair for self promotion that belied his hard-scrabble roots.
Born Otha Ellas Bates but abandoned in McComb, Miss., Diddley later took the name Ellas McDaniel after a cousin who adopted him. He became known as Bo Diddley during a brief career as a boxer. Later, he began singing in between odd jobs, and found his muse in the signature elements of music by John Lee Hooker, Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters. “Bo Diddley” (featuring Waters sideman Otis Spann on piano, by the way) was all of that, only buried beneath this remarkable rhythm — something which subsequently simply became known as “the Diddley beat.”
Well, not quite, of course: A similar rhythm drove “Hambone” by Red Saunders and his Orchestra — Delores Hawkins provided some memorably big howls — a full three years before. Kpanlogo-style drumming, in fact, made several appearances in the previous decade, notably showing up on a post-war Gene Krupa recording. “Bo Diddley” even bears a passing resemblance to Gene Autry’s 1942 hit “(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle, Jangle, Jingle).”
Diddley, however, took his custom-made rectangular guitar and bashed people over the head with so many self-referential efforts that we soon forgot about all that. He followed “Bo Diddley” with “Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger,” “Hey, Bo Diddley,” “Bo’s A Lumberjack” and “Diddley Daddy,” among many, many others.
Bo loved him some Bo, alright. And now, so do we.
Whatever happened to Red Saunders, anyway?
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