Bo Diddley was one of only two people to whom I’ve ever addressed a get-well note. That is people that I didn’t know, personally. The other was Ava Gardner but that is another story.
It was as if the mere idea of them, the very thought of them and the indelible mark that they made on their chosen fields made it preferable not to have to entertain a world without them.
Nevertheless, when the news of Bo Diddley’s passing hit the wires this afternoon, I was somewhat surprised to see my name in a list of rock and roll musicians who had come under his spell.
By then I’d been asked by a newspaper for my thoughts on the man and volunteered that there was a kind of rock and roll music for which only a tremolo guitar, a killer beat and one and a half chords were really needed. I’ve tried to live by that on a couple of occasions and it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
Then if you put most R&B originals up against the cover versions cut by beat groups and rocking combos of the 60s and 70s, you’ll find a slower, more emphatic pulse that lays waste to cheap excitement and nervous energy of pale young imitators.
However, this is not the case with Bo Diddley. He has them beaten their own frantic game. The last time I had played “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”, I had check that my turntable was not running fast. This thing is urgent.
Maybe it was that tremolo guitar or the ferocious use of maracas that makes the tempo appear as if it were rushing ahead. This record jumps out of the speakers and runs away up the hallway, screaming. Nobody ever played this number better.
In any case, people didn’t always take their Bo Diddley, head on. Buddy Holly took “that beat” into the charts with his own song, “Not Fade Away” and The Rolling Stones turned that same tune into something close to punk rock, while The Strangeloves had a hit on the Diddley beat, in 1965 with “I Want Candy”.
Even though that record still sounds fantastic today, “The Strangeloves” were actually a bizarre pop-punk scam, the invention of the songwriting team behind the title, who insisted the “group” pretend to be sheep-shearers from Australia for reasons that remain obscure today.
New versions of that tune seem to hit the airwaves about every ten years and some of them with even less obvious claims to “authenticity”, that most over-rated of pop virtues. Still, Bo Diddley didn’t have too much time for imitators.
Nevertheless, my favourite “Bo Diddley” song, not written by Bo Diddley was “Rosalyn” by The Pretty Things”. At least they had the decency to name themselves after one of Bo’s records.
If you are reading this then you probably know all the great Bo Diddley cuts and the cover versions too. My favourite Bo Diddley cover? That’s got to be “Pills” by the New York Dolls. What else?
However, if you still want to hear something really unhinged, check out “Mumblin’ Guitar” or “Hush Your Mouth” from Bo Diddley “Chess Box Set”.
I only saw Bo play live once and that was in Australia during the 1980s. He was second on a double bill with Chuck Berry.
Now Chuck is infamous for leading his often, inexperienced pick-up band accompanists a merry dance of perverse rhythm changes and tricky key signatures and this night was no exception.
I remember very little else about Chuck’s performance, except for a rather sweet and faithful rendition of Nat Cole’s “Ramblin’ Rose” – which he preceded with the remark, “And now for some REAL music”, as if his own compositions amounted to nothing at all.
The little I recall is in stark contrast to every beat of Bo Diddley’s set, which was hammered into my memory. He couldn’t possibly have played every song I would have liked to hear in the time available but I recall a stupendous version of “Mona”, which made be forget all about the Quicksilver Messenger Service.
At the end of the set, a rather nervous M.C. took the central microphone, as Bo continued to vamp out the rhythm of his final number. He made an erratic flapping gesture and yelled, “The Legendary Bo Diddley!!!” and started for the wings.
Bo, stopped him, said something in his ear and sent him out centre stage…
“The Incredible”, “The Amazing” and “The Fantastic” were all auditioned, in turn, as tributes, followed by that same bolting run for wings and the same slumped tramp of shame back out into the spotlight, as the M.C. once again failed to measure Bo Diddley’s achievements.
This seemed to go on for five or ten minutes, although I accept that it was probably less. Nobody was complaining. The place was in uproar, as Bo and band churned on with “that beat”.
Finally, in desperation, the hapless comperé sprinted to the microphone and blurted out, “The originator of ALL MUSIC! Bo Diddley!” and the great man was satisfied and brought the number to close.
Later that evening, I found myself in small and crowded hotel elevator with “The Originator of All Music”. He was still wearing his black cape-like smock and his gunslinger Stetson.
I was a little disappointed to see that his sheriff’s badge was actually cut out of that rainbow reflective foil that you see at the funfair and stores selling party favours. I suppose we should all take that up with those who bought his songs for a pittance and those who never paid him his due…
Staring at my equally unimpressive shoes, we rode up a few flights together and I didn’t dare utter a word. It was a close to greatness as I care to get.