Fringe Box



Milestones In Rock ‘n’ Roll History: Bo Diddley

Published on: 23 Nov, 2018
Updated on: 23 Nov, 2018

Bowie, the Smiths, the Who, the Clash…and many more. They all adopted the trademark rhythm made famous by a guitarist baptised as Ellas Otha Bates, known to the world Bo Diddley. DAVE READING looks at his influence in his latest feature in our Rock ‘n’ Roll Milestones series.

According to Johnny Marr, even people who don’t like the Smiths like the riff he plays in How Soon Is Now? And whenever he gets into a discussion with another guitarist, they want to talk about that famous riff – what did he do to get it?

Bo Diddley.

The simple answer is that he played an E G A sequence using a vibrato effect. But you can go back through the decades to get a better story.

Every so often, you hear a recording driven by that hypnotic rhythm. It has been called “Shave and a haircut – two bits”. Read that aloud and you get the general idea. It made an appearance in Johnny Otis’s Willie And The Hand Jive; Magic Bus by the Who; I Want Candy by the Strangeloves; Sound and Vision by David Bowie; Rudie Can’t Fail by the Clash; Desire by U2; and George Michael’s Faith. It has been deployed by many other performers, from Elvis Presley to Bow Wow Wow.

For Johnny Marr, the one that hit the mark was Hamilton Bohannon’s Disco Stomp, which reached No 6 in the UK singles chart in 1975, when Marr was 12. He admits he was obsessed with that track. 

But the original inspiration was a guitar player born Ellas Otha Bates in Mississippi in 1928, known to the world as Bo Diddley. With his vibrating, fuzzy guitar style and his wisecracking vocals, Bo Diddley epitomised rock ‘n’ roll at its outrageous best and the Bo Diddley beat – as it became known – is one of the compelling rhythms of rock music.

You can trace the Bo Diddley beat way back to Afro-Cuban rhythms that were brought across the Atlantic by slaves who had been torn away from their homes in West Africa. But following a clear outline from Bo to his musical heritage is far from straightforward.

You’d think his racial background must be relevant but even that is complicated. “I’m classed as a negro,” he once said, “but I’m not. I’m what you call a black Frenchman, a creole.” He also threw African and native American blood into the mix, and pointed out that some members of his extended family could pass for white. 

Bo’s musical education is just as interesting. He learned to play the violin as a child, got bored with it and turned to the guitar. His technique was driven, in part, by the size of his fingers – too big to shape the chords on a guitar in the normal way. So he learned to tune the guitar to an open chord so he could play barre chords by placing his finger across the frets. 

His lyrics speak the language of street culture. The 1955 single Bo Diddley even has the audacity to place the singer himself at the centre of the action. A sign of conceit – or just a guy having fun? 

Bo Diddley buy babe a diamond ring,

If that diamond ring don’t shine,

He gonna take it to a private eye,

If that private eye can’t see,

He better not take the ring from me.

That song was the first hit record to introduce African rhythms into the new musical style called rock ‘n’ roll. This was a bold move in a nation divided by racial tensions.

A year later a six-foot-tall white Texan with his roots in country and western also recorded Bo Diddley. His name was Buddy Holly.

Buddy had grown up in an atmosphere of racism but he was a rare soul who overcame his prejudice and turned out to be one of the bonds connecting white people with music that was essentially black in its origins. Buddy’s version of Bo Diddley was remarkable for its time because he didn’t translate it into rockabilly. He retained the key elements of simplicity and rhythm that kept it true to the original. 

The following year Buddy paid a further tribute to the Bo Diddley sound, this time with a song of his own. Originally he offered Not Fade Away to the Everly Brothers, but they turned it down. Realising its potential, Buddy and his band the Crickets recorded it in the early summer of 1957.

It’s a classic example of spare, lean rock ‘n’ roll: bold and brash in the Bo Diddley style. The rhythm is pounded out by drummer Jerry Alison on a cardboard box. It’s a standard lesson in letting the spaces play their part – a far cry from the multi-tracking that became fashionable in the late 1960s and beyond.

In 1963 Bo Diddley toured the UK and British acts began to feature his songs. The Rolling Stones recorded Mona; the Yardbirds chose You Can’t Judge A Book; the Animals and the Pretty Things both did Road Runner. Within a year Bo had four hit albums in the UK and his sound was set to become legend.

Share This Post

Responses to Milestones In Rock ‘n’ Roll History: Bo Diddley

  1. Ian Nicholls Reply

    November 24, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    Thanks to David Reading for another excellent piece. It is a travesty that you don’t hear a lot more of Bo Diddley in the media.

    I recently discovered a Bo Diddley greatest hits CD in a charity shop. It was only then did I find out that the Doors’ Who Do You Love? was a Bo Diddley cover. In fact, his original version is better than Jim Morrison’s. I remember finding the strange lyrics, like “cobra snake for a neck-tie” disturbing even in the crazy days of the 1970s, whatever did people make of them in 1956?

  2. Peter Chilvers Reply

    November 26, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    It was great to see this overlooked icon when he performed at the Odeon. He has always been very near the top of my list.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *