“That’s spelled M-A-N”

June 12, 2008

We can thank legendary musician Bo Diddley for changing the course of popular music. Alexander Billet recalls his amazing life.

BO DIDDLEY was known for many things--his rectangular homemade guitars, his dark sunglasses, the energetic performances he was able to conduct even when age and diabetes dictated he do so sitting down.

He was much more than a unique performer though. The legendary guitarist, who died on June 2 at the age of 79, changed the course of popular music. To say Bo Diddley influenced rock and roll is an understatement. Bo Diddley invented rock and roll.

He was born Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss., in 1928. When he was 7, Diddley's family moved to Chicago, where according to him, "There was both more money and more civil rights." Like many other Black musicians, he first became involved in music though the church, learning to play the violin before being inspired to take up guitar and join Chicago's booming blues scene, which had already produced such legends as Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

However, Diddley was part of a musical landscape that was still very segregated. Black blues records were separated from "white music," and it wasn't uncommon for white artists to gain a wider audience after recording these songs. Even jukeboxes were segregated in Jim Crow America.

Bo Diddley

Rock and roll as a concept didn't really exist in the early 1950s, though there were certainly artists seeking to mix "white" music like honky-tonk and country with blues and R&B. With Diddley's first single, those experiments would take a giant leap forward.

The single was, aptly, named "Bo Diddley" and included the B-side "I'm a Man." Both did things unheard-of in blues or anywhere else for that matter. To this day, they still drip with visceral energy, swaggering cockiness, bravado and sexual tension. In "I'm a Man," Diddley punches a driving, shuffling blues riff out of his guitar and sings with a guttural howl about love and lust.

In the 1950s, to have a Black man pour such ingredients into his recordings was infinitely provocative. It was enough to make the censors balk, and Mom and Dad bristle. According to writer Barbara Beebe, "Long before civil rights marchers held signs saying 'I AM a Man,' Bo Diddley was singing about it in a way that was definitive and left no questions to be asked: 'I am a man/That's spelled M-A-N."

Yet it was the A-side track that contained the famed "Diddley beat." Not in blues, R&B, jazz or folk had this particular rhythm ever been heard. Some have speculated its roots lie in African rhythms, but all we know for sure is that Diddley's signature beat--"boom ch-boom ch-boom, boom boom"--is one of the most well-known in rock and roll, and has been emulated in songs ranging from the Who's "Magic Bus" to Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride," from U2's "Desire" to George Michael's "Faith."

That Diddley provided such inspiration to the next generation of rock and rollers was fitting, given that so many who hit the streets to protest segregation and war during the '60s were profoundly struck by the sounds of Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and many others from that very first strain of rock and roll.

John Sinclair, who would later gain fame as a revolutionary activist and manager of radical rock group the MC5, described the shock that such artists brought to the repressive atmosphere of the '50s: "I mean the music says it all, it's a precise metaphor for the whole situation and just to hear Richard Penniman scream, 'Womp-bob-a-loo-momp-a-wompan-bam-boom!' into the face of Dwight D. Eisenhower...is enough to get the whole rest of the picture."

Diddley's raw confidence put a frown on more than a few faces. Several radio personalities referred to his songs as "jungle music." Others recognized the significance, such as Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed who pegged Diddley as "a man with an original sound, who is going to rock and roll you right out of your seat." This was one of the first recorded instances of the term "rock and roll."

THE SHORT-changing of Diddley's influence would continue for decades. In spite of the prominent role that Blacks played in influencing rock and roll, until recently, most histories tended to focus more heavily on white performers such as Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.

"Elvis was not first," Diddley angrily told Rolling Stone in 2005, "I was the first son of a gun out here: me and Chuck Berry. And I'm very sick of the lie. You know, we are over that black-and-white crap, and that was all the reason Elvis got the appreciation that he did. I'm the dude that he copied, and I'm not even mentioned."

The inspiration Diddley provided is absolutely undeniable though. The Harlem-based Amsterdam News, reviewing one of Presley's first performances in 1956, stated that he had "copied Bo Diddley's style to the letter."

He was obviously not alone. According to George White, author of Bo Diddley--Living Legend, "The powerful amplification and driving rhythms he pioneered evolved into hard rock during the sixties and continue to influence the heavy-metal bands of today. His clipped, string-scratching technique laid the foundations for funk. Jimi Hendrix picked up on his ideas."

Joe Strummer would invite Diddley to open for the Clash on their first tour of America, and later recorded Diddley's "Mona" during their rehearsal sessions. His later experiments with funk would be sampled by De La Soul in the '90s.

As Diddley aged, his influence became more and more recognized. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was invited to play at presidential galas. While appreciative of such praise, Diddley was also blunt that it "didn't put any numbers in the bank account." Such bitterness no doubt came from the fact that even at the time of his death Diddley, like many others from his era, had still not received any royalties from his earliest hits. "I am owed. I've never got paid," he said. "A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun."

Regardless of what greedy record execs thought he was owed, however, the echo of Bo Diddley's legacy can be heard any time we turn on the radio. His music opened up our ideas about music, race and culture itself. It was nothing short of a musical revolution.

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