When you get down to it, when you really get down to it – rhythm rules.
Before you can utter a sound you can feel and respond to the rhythm of your mothers beating heart. And it’s your first and dearest tune; the lullaby a part of you will always live by. Rhythm rules.
You are then born suddenly into a world of seeming blooming and buzzing confusion where you must learn again to tune in to the essential rhythms of life. Heat and cold. Hunger and thirst. Night and day. Summer and Winter. Spring and Autumn. Rhythm rules.
Meanwhile the planets and the stars rotate in their ancient dance while the tides of the sea rise and fall, rise and fall, obedient to the imperial moon as they beat, beat, beat, rhythmically on the shores of the waiting land. Rhythm rules.
Rhythm rules. It always has and it always will. You don’t need to be able to read and write. You don’t need to speak a particular language. All you need is a beating heart.
And to demonstrate the utter primacy of the power of Rhythm there is only one man to turn to: he was born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi in the dying days of 1928. As a boy he became Ellas McDaniel but the world will always know him as The Originator, the one, the only Bo Diddley.
In March 1955, as I rocked safely in my mother’s womb, Bo Diddley took his Guitar and went into Universal Studios in Chicago in the company of Otis Spann (piano), Jerome Green (maracas), Frank Kirkland (drums) and Lester Davenport (harmonica) and laid down two tracks, ‘Bo Diddley’ and ‘I’m A Man’ that would be issued as a 45 in April on the Chess Records subsidiary label Checker with the serial number 814. I will brook no argument that this is the greatest debut single of all time!
Listen here to Bo announcing himself to the world with the supreme confidence of a man who knows, absolutely knows, that he has found and can incarnate the rhythm which will sweep the globe and revolutionise popular music.
A primordial, irresistible Rhythm which will lift listeners out of the everyday world reconnecting them with their essential physicality and, as the beat pounds relentlessly on, a door to a buried collective unconscious is opened and bodies drenched in sweat discover a reinvigorated sense of their animal and numinous nature.
Now we can call up the musicologists (there’s usually a brace or two of them in a dusty corridor of your local university!) and learn that the, ‘Bo Diddley rhythm’ melds elements from Latin America, West Africa and the Southern States of America.
We can talk artfully about the influences of latin clave and body slapping, ‘hambone’ performers. We might refer to the beat as three stroke/rest/two stroke or say, ‘Shave and a hair cut (pause) two bits’ or bomp-ba-domp–ba-domp, ba-domp-domp.
Now, that’s all very well but what really counts is that unless you are being forcibly restrained by experts once you hear that Bo Diddley Beat you won’t have the inclination to think about any descriptive terms for the beat that you must get in sync with, must get down to. The beat that you feel in the soles of your feet, in your loins, in the pit of your stomach, in the very chambers of your heart.
A beat that is and was a musical earthquake and which continues to produce aftershocks in the work of those who listened hard to what Bo was laying down.
People like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, Pete Townshend, Eric Burdon, Jeff Beck, Bob Seeger, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and Bruce Springsteen all fell under Bo’s spell and wrote and recorded songs with Bo’s Rhythm flowing through every bar and every line. Look out in a few days time for a further post illustrating Bo’s astounding influence on popular music.
Now, though it’s time to return to the original source. Here’s Bo from April 1957 with the spooky, hypnotic mantra, ‘Mona’.
Well you sure can hear the field holler here. And, you can feel, have to feel, the sweet agony of the longing and the lust. Some say Bo wrote this in homage to an exotic dancer who piled her trade at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit. If true, she must have been some dancer!
Mona is music stripped down to the barest elements needed to carry its message; like a rope bridge strung over a chasm that somehow stays in place when it seems it must fall into the depths below.
Listen to the eerie, I will not be denied vocal. Listen to the febrile, I just don’t know how much of this I can stand guitar, and tell me you are not shaken and stirred. Tell me that your heart is not going bumpety-bump! Mona, Oh Mona!
Bo was by no means a prisoner of his own Beat. He was a very fine songwriter with storytelling flair able to write lines that invoked the well known tropes of folk tales with wit and wisdom.
Musically he knew all about what Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were doing in Chicago as well as the what was coming out of New Orleans from Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. His youthful training as a violinist had given him a feeling for melody and harmony that he brought into play when needed.
In 1956 he had written a song, in a rockabilly style shuffle rhythm which was immediately recognised as a classic – ‘Who Do You Love?’
I remember laughing out loud with pleasure the first time I heard the opening lines:
‘I walk forty-seven miles of barbed wire, I use a cobra snake for a neck tie,
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 baby let’s take a little walk, and tell me, ‘Who do you love?’
Indeed! Why wouldn’t Arlene go for a walk with Bo- given the entrancing, hucksterish, nature of his lyrical come-on and the scintillating excitement of the lead guitar played here by Jody Williams.
You’re sure to have a fine, fine, time with a man who just rode a lion to town using a rattlesnake whip. A man with a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind who’s just 22 but don’t mind dying. Sure, he will probably be gone in a puff of smoke tomorrow morning. But, today’s the only day that counts Arlene – Carpe Diem!
Bo must have had an ear cocked to the rippling rhythms emerging from the interplay of musicians in dance bands from New Orleans and Caribbean. You can hear this loud and clear in a lovely, slyly humour filled record he cut in December 1958 – ‘Crackin’ Up’
Bo’s marvellous reading of the phrase, ‘What’s buggin’ you?’ on its own would have me happily laying down my cash to buy this one! Add to that Bo’s pretty, shimmering, glitterball guitar and the virtually DooWop backing vocals and you have a perfect pop confection that hits the spot every time.
In 1962 the Eminence grise of Chess Records, Willie Dixon, presented Bo with a guaranteed hit with the charming cracker-barrel philosophy treatise, ‘You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover’. Once Bo and the band lock in you are going nowhere till the song ends! Like Bo says … Come on in closer… Turn it up!
Bo Diddley was a radical innovator who respected the tradition he was heir to. He was a primitive artist and an avant garde artist. He was thoroughly modern and post modern before his time.
Imagine him here strapping on his square bodied guitar and sending everybody reeling with the so good you’re going to have to keep this one on repeat for an hour or so, ‘Mumblin’ Guitar’.
In any universe that I can imagine Bo Diddley will always be out in front of the pack. Bo Diddley is and was as cool as cool can be.
‘The Story of Bo Diddley’ double CD on Chess/Universal should be a corner stone of any collection of the best of 20th Century music!
As stated above, my next post, due very soon will showcase the depth of Bo’s influence on the generations of musicians who followed him. Don’t you dare miss it!