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,
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?