The music and influence of Bo Diddley

You know, you start writing with a definite direction in mind and before you know it you’re being led down different roads and skipping from one Continent to another and are left trying to hold it together so you, the reader aren’t as confused as I am. I started with the innocent intention of telling the story of Bo Diddley and his influence on Funk. Suddenly I’m in West Africa, hitching a ride to Cuba, and landing in New Orleans. Then before I know it I’m in Detroit, Chicago and Miami!
So let’s at least begin with Bo. Those of a certain age will remember the film “10” and its star Bo Derek who was allegedly the perfect ’10’. However it was another Bo D who gave us the perfect musical ‘5’, beats that is.
Ellas Otha Bates was born December 30, 1928 in McComb, Mississippi.When he was seven, the family moved to Chicago. Ellas was better known by his stage name Bo Diddley. He was also known as “The Originator” due to his importance in transforming the more traditional Blues to a new form of music known as Rock & Roll. Along his journey he influenced such artists as Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, The Velvet Underground, The Clash, Eric Clapton and U2. It seemed that it was mainly white Pop musicians that were following in Bo’s footsteps but this was only the tip of the Iceberg. What about his influence on Soul and Funk? Bo Diddley made popular a rhythm from the Deep South known as the hambone rhythm. This was basically the same as the ‘clave’ which underlies the music known as Afro-Cuban music. The first recognised fusion between clave and Rhythm & Blues/Rock & Roll came with the birth of the “Bo Diddley beat”. The story goes that Bo Diddley came across the beat by accident when he was trying to play Gene Autry’s “(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle, Jangle, Jingle”. Three years prior to Bo Diddley’s first release,The Red Saunders Orchestra cut a tune called “Hambone” with the Hambone Kids. So what is the hambone rhythm? According to The Urban Dictionary it is “a rhythmic knee and chest slapping motion; A dance where you make your own music by slapping your “hambone” or outer thigh, then your chest and your inner or top thigh on the way back down to make a 3 beat rhythm. This rhythm was popular amongst African Americans during the slave times. In early Blues there was a noticable absence of drums and ‘polyrhythms’ except in some of the African American music coming out of New Orleans. Way back in the 1800s musicians from Havana, Cuba, would travel on the twice daily ferry to New Orleans and New Orleans musicians would take the same trip in the other direction. In the mid-1800’s a popular dance amongst African slaves was the Pattin’ Juba, that had duel roots in Black folk culture and Irish Jigs. Pattin’ Juba was brought to the States from West Africa and was a popular plantation dance. In the 1840′s, a free Black man named William Henry Lane took the stage name Master Juba and became the greatest dancer of his time. You only have to listen to “Juba Juba” to hear the Bo Diddley rhythm in words.
“Juba dis and Juba dat,
and Juba killed da yellow cat,
You sift the meal and ya gimme the husk,
you bake the bread and ya gimme the crust,
you eat the meat and ya gimme the skin,
and that’s the way,
my mama’s troubles begin”

By the 1940s Afro-Cuban music was becoming popular on the mainland and New Orleans artists like Professor Longhair introduced Cuban instruments and clave patterns into such songs as “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” released on Atlantic in February, 1950. Soon the Afro-Cuban rhythms became a mainstay of the developing New Orleans sound. So we have now arrived in Chicago. It is 1955 and all of the aforementioned influences have arrived there in the form of Bo Diddley. The self-titled “Bo Diddley” was released in March of that year and became a number 1 R&B hit. Despite some critics calling it ‘Jungle music’ others such as the Cleveland based Disc Jockey Alan Freed was to say that Bo Diddley was “a man with an original sound, who is going to rock and roll you right out of your seat.” History was about to be made and this was one of the first uses of the term “rock ‘n’ roll.” In 1956 it was written in the Harlem based Amsterdam Newspaper that a performance by Elvis Presley had “copied Bo Diddley’s style to the letter.” Bo Diddley began to create not just sounds that related to these African based hambone rhythms but he also infused lyrics based on African-American children’s songs such as “Hush Little Baby” whilst others relied on the tradition known as “the dozens”, or insult games. An example being, “Why, you so ugly the stork that brought you into the world ought to be arrested” taken from “Say Man” released by Bo Diddley in 1959. As well as Elvis. other white rock stars such as Buddy Holly ‘borrowed’ his hambone rhythm for songs like “Not Fade Away” and this beat formed the backbone for hits well into the ’80’s and 90’s. Other examples being George Michael’s “Faith” and U2’s “Desire”. However, in 1970 Bo Diddley exploded onto the Funk scene with his Checker album, “The Black Gladiator”, fusing Funk, Blues and Rock. Samples from this period being used in the ’90’s by rappers De La Soul. His influence on other Black artists, whilst not as well publicised as the influence his music had had on their White counterparts, had started back in the 1960s and stretched across most of the major Soul Cities of America. In 1963 the Symbol label released the original version of “Mockingbird” by Inezz & Charlie Foxx a song based on “Hush Little Baby”. The song reached Number 2 on the R& B Chart and Number 7 on the Pop Chart. In Detroit, also in ’63, Tamla released the Holland Dozier Holland song “Mickey’s Monkey” by The Miracles. “Mickey’s Monkey” reached Number 8 on the Billboard chart as well as rising to Number 3 on the R&B Chart. It was the third Milion seller for The Miracles in as many years.
Then in October, 1964 Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It” reached Number 27 on the Biilboard chart and Number 14 R&B. Again, penned by Holland Dozier Holland and leaning heavily on the Bo Diddley rhythm. In Chicago a year later “Who’s That Guy” by the Kolettes was released on the Checker label. The Gene Redd and Smokey McAllister tune originally appeared on the Barbara label and was yet another example of the influence of Bo Diddley. In May, 1965 the New York based Red Bird label issued “Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups, a group originally from New Orleans. The song fused the Bo Diddley sound with the traditions of New Orleans and harked back to a chanting song that group members had heard and learned from their mother. In late 1968 The Isley Brothers quit Motown and re-launched their own T-Neck label and in February,1969 they released a Funk classic, again, with Bo Diddley’s rhythm patterns playing all through “It’s Your Thing”. It was their attack on Berry Gordy for how they felt he had restricted them at Motown. The track reached Number 2 on the Biilboard chart and Number 1 on the R&B Chart. Back to Motown and as the decade drew to a close “I Want You Back” was released by The Jackson Five. This was the first song credited to The Corporation, made up of Berry Gordy Jr, Freddie Perren, Alphonzo Mizell and Deke Richards and was also the first Jackson Five track to be produced in Los Angeles. Its follow up “ABC” released in 1970 and the third of their hits “The Love You Save”, also from 1970, relied on the Bo Diddley 3-2 beat as well as the playground rhymes associated with African American children’s songs. From 1970, Lee Dorsey’s “Yes We Can Can” produced by Allen Toussaint and released on Polydor had that New Orleans swagger and was adopted by President Barack Obama during his 2008 US Presidential campaign. Again in 1970, “Want Ads” by Honey Cone on Holland Dozier Holland’s Hot Wax label topped both the R&B and Pop Charts. Its follow up, “Stick Up” in 1971 gave them another Number 1 R&B hit and Number 11 Pop hit. Both songs were heavily influenced by the sound of the Jackson Five whilst its follow up, “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”, also in 1971, was pure Latin. Elsewhere on Hot Wax Laura Lee was also winning partly due to the sound created for her second single for the company, “Women’s Love Rights” that reached Number 11 on the R&B Chart and Number 36 Nationally. It’s interesting when you pause to think that when Bo Diddley was developing his unique style, it was seen as revolutionary, in fact this was a term given to the man himself. When artists like Laura Lee, or The Isley Brothers wanted to make a statement, it seemed that Bo’s sound was the perfect means by which to express it.
Further South that year Jean Knight was being produced by New Orleans legend Wardell Quezergue at Malaco Studios in Jackson, Misssissippi, and exploded onto the charts with “Mr Big Stuff”. The track reached Number 2 on the Pop Chart and topped the R&B Chart going double Platinum and receiving a Grammy nomination. Over on the West Coast “Act Like A Shotgun” was produced and co-written by Willie Hutch and recorded by G.C. Cameron. The single was released in the August of 1971 on Mowest and again showed the Bo Diddley rhythm to full effect.The sound predicted what was to come later as Stone expanded his roster of labels and artists, starting with the Alston label. Alston hit big in 1971 with Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” climbing to Number 6 on the National Pop Chart and Number 2 R&B and added to the growing number of students from the Class of Bo Diddley.
Another City’s music had been playing a major part in the sounds of Soul and Funk during this period, Miami, Florida. Miami is the closest major port to the Caribbean Islands with Cuba only 200 miles away. The music of the Islands couldn’t help but influence the sounds emanating out of the studios in Miami and besides the Casablanca label no other epitomised the Disco sounds of the ’70’s more than Miami’s TK company. However, we are more interested in the Soul and Funk of the Sunshine State. The TK series of labels had been started at the beginning of the ’70’s by New York born Henry Stone. Stone had built a great team around him made up from musicians like Willie “Little Beaver” Hale and writers/producers/arrangers such as Willie Clarke and Clarence Reid who’s hit “Nobody But You” had given the company a Number 7 R&B hit in the July of 1969
At the back end of ’71 Joe Tex recorded a song that lay dormant as the ‘B’ side of his single “A Mother’s Prayer” released on Dial at the beginning of 1972, “I Gotcha”. DeeJays flipped it and Joe Tex had his biggest hit for 5 years reaching the Number 1 spot on the R&B Chart and Number 2 Pop, selling around 3 million copies along the way. Bo Diddleyitis had struck again!.
In 1972 The Isley Brothers released yet another Funk classic with “Pop That Thang”, once more on their own T-Neck label, and another Bo Diddley influenced dance number. Not as successful as “It’s Your Thing” it was still able to reach Number 24 Nationally and Number 3 R&B-wise. “Black Water Gold” by The African Music Machine was another slice of Creole/Latin infused Funk with a hint of Bo. The group was an eight-piece Funk outfit from New Orleans led by bassist/songwriter Louis Villery. They were the House Band for the Jewel/Paula labels and had played on recordings by Fontella Bass, Roscoe Robinson and Bobby Patterson. Between 1972 and ’74 they were signed to Patterson’s Soul Power label as artists. Holland Dozier Holland entered the field again in 1973 with their Music Merchant label releasing “Mama’s Little Baby” by Brotherly Love. Written and produced by General Johnson and Greg Perry, this was HDH cashing in on the success of the Jackson Five sound but the usually reliable Johnson/ Perry team failed to impact on the charts.The song derived again from a plantation song.
New talent was producing new hits down in Florida when Henry Stone signed up two young warehousemen who had been boxing up hits for others behind the scenes; Harry Wayne Casey later known wordwide as ‘KC’ and a student recording engineer, Richard Raymond Finch. Having shared their passion for music with each other they started to write songs together and were responsible for writing and producing hits for many of the TK acts, including their own KC & The Sunshine Band. Their success started in June, 1974 when George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” reached Number 1 on both the Pop and R&B Charts. Label Owner Henry Stone added the Cat Label to his growing roster and signed George McCrae’s wife Gwen who continued the success with “Rockin’ Chair” which reached Number 9 Pop and was a Number 1 R&B hit in 1975. Bo Diddley had returned South, at least in spirit.
Former Motown session drummer, Hamilton Bohannon, gave us the nearest he could to Bo Diddley with “Disco Stomp” released on Chicago’s Dakar label also in 1975 whilst the same year saw The Temptations standing on “Shakey Ground” with that unmistakable Bo Diddley chopping rhythm in evidence. “Shakey Ground” was released on the Gordy imprint and written by former Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel and the song’s producer Jeffrey Bowen. The same chopping sound permeated the track “Shame, Shame, Shame” cut by Shirley & Company, again in 1975, produced for the New Jersey label, All Platinum. Singer Shirley Goodman was a New Orleans born singer who was half of the the 1950’s R&B duo Shirley & Lee. Their version of the Louis Jordan song “Let The Good Times Roll” was an American Top 20 hit in 1956. Goodman had also provided vocals for The Rolling Stones and Dr. John, amongst others. Label owner Sylvia Robinson paired Goodman with Jesus Alvarez to create this 70’s Disco monster. Bo Diddley’s 1955 offering, “Pretty Thing” may have inspired the British group of the ’60’s to call themselves the same but in 1975 the pounding beat resurfaced in the Ohio Players hit “Love Rollercoaster. In 1976 another ex-Motowner got into the act with “Sunrise” by Rose Royce MCA, taken from the Car Wash soundtrack, one of the instrumental tracks on show, written and produced by Norman Whitfield upon his departure from Motown.
As we have already heard, the Bo Diddley influence has continued to be heard well into the 21st Century as has the influence of Cuban music. “Cubanisimo” by Marie Laveaux, for example, was released in 2000 on Rykodisc and combined the rhythms of Cuba with the sound of New Orleans in lyrics based firmly in the Crescent City.
So, again, what started out as a simple straight forward path suddenly took me into a series of shortcuts, diversions and detours but as Percy Sledge once sang, “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road”. Love, life, whatever you choose, ultimately, the bumpier the ride, very often the more fascinating the journey. Bo Diddley died on June 2nd, 2008 of heart failure at his home in Florida and although he may well have popularised a sound he was by no means its creator. Rather he was a very important part of an extremely large and complicated cultural jigsaw that had been started in another country and had many more parts to be put in their place.