Musicians reflect on Bo Diddley's influence

Tue Jun 2, 2009 10:52pm EDT
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By Gary Graff

DETROIT (Billboard) - Mention Bo Diddley's name and most everyone thinks one thing -- the beat. Bomp ba-bomp-ba-bomp, bomp bomp. Applied to such songs as "Bo Diddley," "Hey Bo Diddley" and "Who Do You Love," it's perhaps the most influential musical motif since the devil purportedly handed Robert Johnson the I-IV-V chord progression at the crossroads.

It earned Diddley -- who died June 2, 2008, of heart failure at age 79 -- his rightful moniker as the Originator and his spots in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, as well as other lifetime achievement honors. But there was more to Diddley than the beat.

During a career that stretched some four and a half decades, he produced a rich body of spirited, aggressive work that fused a blues sensibility with rock 'n' roll energy and ran far deeper than the well-known hits. Diddley acquitted himself as a progressive bandleader as well as an inventor, not only of the square-shaped Gretsch guitar that was his trademark but also of a variety of effects that subsequently became commonplace pedals and rack mounts for electronic components.

A year after his death he's remembered as all of that and more by other musicians who knew him, admired his accomplishments or both.

Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top): "He hit the scene with that infectious beat he brought to the forefront, but it goes back to when he landed in Chicago and was part of the Maxwell Street scene playing at the flea market on the corner. It was Bo Diddley, Clifton James on drums and Jerome Green on maracas -- and that was it. Who ever heard of a guitar player and two percussionists? And you listen to those early records now, with the knowledge there was no bass guitar, no rhythm guitar, no piano, no nothing except those three guys, but you turn it up and you say, 'Well, I don't miss anything. It sounds like a full orchestra to me.'"

George Thorogood: "No artist has fascinated me more than Bo Diddley. When I got into his stuff, everybody in 1967 was listening to two monumental rock history albums -- one was (Jimi Hendrix's) 'Are You Experienced?,' the other was (the Beatles') 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.' But I had this album, Bo Diddley's '16 All-Time Greatest Hits.' I'd go to Wildwood, New Jersey, and buy maracas by the pound because I was fascinated with this sound and this thing that was Bo Diddley. This was before I got into John Lee Hooker, and I was amazed by the sound of this guy who sat on one chord, maybe two. But, like James Brown, he could do one chord for 15 minutes and it never gets boring. That's where I learned my whole routine from. I mean, what is 'Bad to the Bone' except, really, Bo Diddley?"

Todd Snider: "There are four important things about Bo Diddley that I hope everybody knows. The first, of course, is that he invented a beat. Second, and less known, his song 'Bo Diddley' was a first in that his name was the title and chorus which, in my opinion, makes him one of the inventors of rap. Third, three months before Elvis Presley played (on) Ed Sullivan, Bo Diddley did. He was told to play a different song than 'Bo Diddley' and said he would, but when the cameras rolled he played 'Bo Diddley,' thus inventing rock 'n' roll's attitude. Fourth and most important, he was so sexy that he told Arlene he had a chimney made out of human skulls -- and she still went for a walk with him."

Billy Corgan (the Smashing Pumpkins): "What he really did was bring a rock 'n' roll attitude to rhythm and blues, and that influence is everywhere. Imagine the Stones without the influence of Diddley's swagger, and you can see his true impact. His prime, like Chuck Berry's, was at a time when African-American artists playing rock 'n' roll was more comfortably accepted by a white public if these men were playing nonthreatening observers whose commentary came through in riddles and encoded language. The hipsters picked up on the fact that they were being spoken to. I never thought much of Bo Diddley till I got his boxed set in the early '90s, and I found certain songs struck me like Escher drawings in that the more I heard them the more I saw. His is the kind of music that in its primitive urgency never gets old and in its lyrical narrative will never become outdated."   Continued...

<p>Legendary blues guitarist Bo Diddley performs at the 35th annual Bumbershoot Seattle Arts Festival in Seattle September 4, 2005. REUTERS/Anthony P. Bolante</p>