Bo Diddley, Lyricist

“I walk 47 miles of barbed wire”

I first went to see Bo Diddley at a great New York nightclub called Limelight, a converted gothic church between the West Village and Chelsea, on July 26, 1987. This was a big comeback show for Bo Diddley, who had recently made his face familiar on MTV playing the pool player with the box-shaped guitar in George Thorogood’s video for “Bad to the Bone”. Curious about the swaggering guy in the Thorogood video, and vaguely aware of his music, I went and bought a Bo Diddley album and found a treasure chest of primal, hard-driving, joyful, funny three-minute blues-rock songs I could listen to over and over. I jumped at the chance to see him in concert, and managed to squeeze into the fifth row of the packed nightclub to gaze up at his thick hands laying that pulsing tremolo over those Bo Diddley chords on that beautiful box-shaped guitar. Bo Diddley was pretty old in 1987, but he wasn’t too old to snarl his lyrics, or to enjoy himself. It was 75 minutes of the Bo Diddley beat, leavened by the Bo Diddley sense of humor. I don’t know which I enjoyed more, the beat or the humor.

The Bo Diddley beat is such a good beat (and by the way, of course he didn’t invent the beat, he just figured out how to do it on an electric guitar) that listeners may mistake this for his only credit and neglect what a good writer Bo Diddley was. Like his friend and partner-in-crime Chuck Berry, Ellis “Bo Diddley” McDaniels lived to tell stories and create characters. His songs are what made him famous, even more than his beat. His words were as simple as his guitar playing, and just as strong. Many blues fans don’t even know that Bo Diddley wrote this song, which became a blues staple and a Muddy Waters classic:

Now when I was a little boy,
At the age of five,
I had somethin’ in my pocket,
Keep a lot of folks alive.
Now I’m a man,
Made twenty-one,
You know baby,
We can have a lot of fun.
I’m a man,
I spell M-A-N … man

Bo Diddley’s greasy hambone style was always rooted in humor. Influenced by earlier raunchy vaudeville acts like Butterbeans and Susie, Diddley often worked comedy routines into songs, most successfully with his maracas player Jerome Green as comic foil. He had a couple of hit singles with Say Man and Say Man, Back Again:

Bo: Say man
Jerome: Yeah, what’s that?
Bo: Speaking of your old lady, I seen that new girl you got.
Jerome: Yeah, ain’t she nice?
Bo: Yeah, she’s got everything a man could want.
Jerome: Sure has!
Bo: Hair on her chest, a mustache, everything a man could want …

Sometimes Jerome is straight man, and other times Bo gets stuck with the role:

Jerome: Say, look here
Bo: What’s that
Jerome: I can do what you’re doing
Bo: Then how come you not doing anything?
Jerome: I got you doing it

The humor frequently reflects the tradition of aggressive boasting that also characterizes today’s gangsta rap:

500%, mo’ man
A livin’ dream
Bo Diddley, baby
Mo’ man than you ever seen
Strong and handsome
And a teasin’ tan
Bo Diddley, baby
A nat’ral born man

I’m drivin’ a ’48 Cadillac
With Thunderbird wings
Tellin’ you baby, that’s a runnin’ thing
I got wings that’ll open
And get her in the air
I think I can take it away from here

Other times his leery, suspicious barbs recall Groucho Marx, as when he sends up the children’s song “Mockingbird”:

Bo Diddley buy his babe a diamond ring
If the diamond ring don’t shine
He gonna take it to a private eye …

Bo Diddley died yesterday at his home in Archer, Florida. Some obituaries I’ve read call him an ornery man, referring to his bitterness over the greater fame of several of his early-rock pioneer peers. I don’t know if he was ornery or not, but he seemed quite happy with life at the Limelight concert on July 26, 1987. The concert was such a big success that immediately afterwards a second Bo Diddley concert was announced, this time to be recorded for a live album featuring Rolling Stone lead guitarist Ron Wood and an impressive lineup of musicians. I got tickets for the show at the Ritz on November 25, 1987, but found it disappointing compared to Limelight four months earlier. I blame the overly professional band. Like Chuck Berry in concert, Bo Diddley just needs a spirited and sloppy trio to thrash in the background, and can be easily overpowered by slick backup musicians. There was also no need for Ron Wood to join Bo Diddley on guitar, as everybody in the audience knew: when Bo Diddley’s on stage, you don’t need another guitar.

The live album was released but quickly forgotten, because it wasn’t a great show. But I remember a moment towards the end that you won’t catch on the album. Diddley, perhaps sensing that the band wasn’t hitting it hard enough, started shouting at them. “Come on!” Then he started pogoing. Up and down. The whole bulk of him. “Come on, man!” he shouted at Ron Wood, who presumably had never seen such behavior from Keith Richards.

Ornery? The guy was 58 years old and at least 250 pounds, and he was pogoing onstage at the Ritz. That’s not any kind of ornery I know.

I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
Got a cobra-snake for a necktie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made from rattlesnake hide,
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of a human skull,
Now come on take a walk with me, Arlene,
And tell me, who do you love?
Who do you love?
Tombstone hand and a graveyard mind
Just 22 and I don’t mind dying.
Who do you love?

The New York Times has put up some very good articles about Bo Diddley, and here’s a note posted at NewCritics.

10 Responses

  1. Another archetype has been
    Another archetype has been lost and the world of music is diminished.
    I know of Bo Diddley more than I do his music from living in Austin and hearing him often on the radio, listening with half an ear. He was an authentic bluesman.
    Didn’t he also play the pawnbroker Nicholas Cage’s character sold his Rolex to in Leaving Las Vegas?

  2. Bo Diddley

    Eric Burdon
    Bo Diddley

    Eric Burdon liked his sister,
    The Dutchess, and Jerome Green.
    Mark E Smith liked him
    Proud. Lou Reed didn’t like
    Him rappin. Stooges’ 1969,
    Influenced by him and the Who.
    New York Dolls’s Pills
    Is better than his original.

  3. Bo Diddley recorded for Chess
    Bo Diddley recorded for Chess Records in Chicago, along with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and so many other great artists. Actually, I think Bo’s stuff came out on the Checker label, which was a sister label that the Chess brothers cooked up, perhaps as a tax dodge.

    The first Diddley album that I bought was Bo Diddley’s Sixteen Alltime Greatest hits, and I slipped that fat Chess disk on the turntable and listened to Who Do You Love for the first time and it blew my mind. Back in those days, Chess records were, I swear, an inch thick. Quality!

    The British Bands were totally influenced by Bo. The Stones did a great version of Mona, and the Yardbirds also checked in with a classic reading of I’m A Man. Back in those days I played in a lot of garage bands, and You Can’t Judge a Book By Lookin’ at the Cover and Bo Diddley were staples on the playlists. Hey – Chuck Berry’s stuff was kind of difficult to play, but anyone could do a Bo Diddley beat!

    One time when I saw Bo Diddley in concert, he of course had that famous box-shaped guitar, and he claimed to have added a “secret dial” to the guitar. He was sort of comping along, doing the Diddley beat and rappin’ to the audience, talking about this “secret dial”. He built it up, built it up and then BAM! he turned on that secret dial, the guitar went to eleven, and in a storm of fuzz-tone and feedback he launched into the best version of Who Do You Love that I’ve ever heard.

    And you’re right Levi, the dude could write a lyric. The list of influences goes on. The Pretty Things took their name after a Bo Diddley song, and on their first album they did perhaps the best version of Road Runner outside of the master himself.

    My best Bo Diddley story, however, doesn’t include the man himself. I was practicing with my band in my garage back home in Chicago, and we were working out pretty good on Mona. I had the tremolo, reverb, and heavy bass all working on my guitar, and the drummer really was tom-tomming the Diddley beat. All of a sudden, our neighbor from across the way appears with a gun, and threatens to kill us if we don’t turn down the volume. We of course refused, and in fact turned the volume up. He was bluffing.

    RIP, Bo.

  4. Great piece.

    I’m embarrassed
    Great piece.

    I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know he wrote “Mannish Boy.” Thinking about it now, I’m surprised I never noticed — those lyrics are in Diddley’s voice all the way.

  5. His lyrics are so good, they
    His lyrics are so good, they are mythic. Especially “Who Do You Love.”

    Rolling Stone # 946, April 2004, Iggy Pop said, “People listen to Bo Diddley recordings and think, ‘Oh, you can just go bonk-de-bonk-bonk, de-bonk-bonk, and you got a Bo Diddley beat.’ But it isn’t that easy. He played really simple things but with incredible authority . . . Bo’s hands are about a foot long from the wrist to the tip of the finger. He really controls his guitar. Bo plays his instrument, and the way the rhythm clicks is unique. What seems to pass for guitar more and more now is some wimp with a fuzz box.”

  6. Diddley played a pawnbroker
    Diddley played a pawnbroker in the film Trading Places, which starred Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy, so I read on His remark is famous but I can’t recall it.

  7. Yeah. He also said, “Bo, you
    Yeah. He also said, “Bo, you don’t know Diddley” on a TV commercial.

  8. saw Bo several times during
    saw Bo several times during the early 70’s
    @ toronto’s Le Coq D’or on yonge st. and the
    shows were hot heavy go go influenced happenings
    full volume pulsing sweatsongs bouncing around
    the packedlikesardines maybe 150 capacity club.
    Loved the one chord grooves and especially the
    knock-out semi-clad rinestone dancing girls surrounding
    “our hero” dodging between the band members and shimmying
    around Bo’s pumping custom box guitar glittering out front

  9. Bo Diddley was one of the
    Bo Diddley was one of the greatest innovators of
    guitars and rock ‘n’ roll. He is already missed by me. The world was brightened by Bo’s stage presence.

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