Bo Diddley’s influence was not just musical, but sartorial (see also: Isaac Hayes, R.I.P.).
Somebody has to represent the African-American inventors of rock’n’roll on the list, and while I have much respect for Little Richard, his singular vocal style and use of the piano as primary instrumentation place him outside the mainstream. Chuck Berry is the obvious choice, maybe even the smart one, but the late Ellas McDaniel (a.k.a. Bo Diddley) was arguably even more innovative. Rock’n’roll famously changed popular music by placing the emphasis on rhythm rather than melody; Diddley took it one step further and added an element of pure sound, pioneering the use of reverb and distortion that Jimi Hendrix would later take into outer space.
But while Bo had one foot in the future, he also had one way back in the past. The rumbling drums found in most of his music are a direct link to rock’s African roots. He was most famous, of course, for the Bo Diddley beat, but even when he didn’t use it — as on “Who Do You Love” — he could lay down the tribal thunder with the best of them.
You can also hear the influence of the blues loud and clear here. In truth, the dividing line between rock and the blues is often pretty blurry; the only thing that makes Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” rock and Muddy Waters’ version, “Mannish Boy,” blues is the necessity of a filing system. Really I could just as easily put “I’m a Man” on this list, but “Who Do You Love” is somehow more compelling. Maybe it’s the lyrics, which marry bluesy swagger and boastfulness with death imagery and what appear to be voodoo references:
I walk 47 miles of barbed wire
I use a cobra snake for a necktie
I got a brand new house on the roadside
Made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top
Made out of a human skull
Now come on and take a little walk with me, Arlene*
And tell me who do you love…
Tombstone head and a graveyard mind
Just 22 and I don’t mind dying
Who do you love?
“Who Do You Love” has been covered by the Band and the Stooges, the Doors and the Dead, Eric Clapton and Patti Smith, George Thorogood and the Jesus and Mary Chain (who also recorded a tribute called “Bo Diddley Is Jesus”). But the original cannot be touched:
* It would be easy to think that Bo is addressing himself to the more generic “darlin'”, but if you listen close, he’s clearly enunciating the name “Arlene.”
No argument so far, but the blues is only one leg on which rock stands. The other is black gospel music. So my number 2 would have to be something by Aretha or the Right Reverend Al Green. But you knew that already.
Certainly gospel is an important influence on rock’n’roll, but to my mind it’s a tributary. Blues is the river. You are of course invited – nay, encouraged – to submit your own list.