Bo Diddley, RIP

Born Ellas Bates (changed later to McDaniel), Bo Diddley imported the pounding beat (bomp, ba-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp) that now bears his name into rock music. It can be heard in many primal rock songs such as Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” the Ronnie Hawkins version of “Who Do You Love,” and the Rolling Stones’ version of “Mona.” On a personal note, my favorite song with the Bo Diddley beat is the Byrds’ version of Jackie DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe” on the “Mr. Tambourine Man” album. The Byrds demonstrated that Beatlesque harmonies could be superimposed over that driving beat.

Richie Unterberger offers a spirited biographical rundown on the man and Stephen Thomas Erlewine commemorates him. My colleague Major Peter Swanson (serving in Iraq) recalls Mr. Diddley onstage:

I saw him in concert at Glam Slam in 1991. Bo was in his mid-60s, but it is still the best concert I have ever seen. At one point, the drummer got tired (even though, at one point in the show, Bo sat down at the kit and tapped out the Bo Diddley beat on the various percussion instruments), so he paused to address the audience. In an attempt at motivating the younger generation, he told us to “Get off the reefer and get involved.” Even though I wasn’t on the reefer, I was glad to have the pep talk.

At the 1991 concert, he played a handful of songs that I don’t think were ever released. One was a ditty declaring, “You’re ugly, and your breath stinks too/Scope don’t work. You need Listerine.” Another was an attempt at social consciousness, pleading, “In America, this should not be/This should not be in our country,” followed by the refrain, “Lord have mercy/God bless America.”

Drummers everywhere will all get a break now that Bo Diddley has left the stage.

Diddley died Monday at his home in Archer, Florida at the age of 79. Ben Ratliff reviews Diddley’s life in a detailed New York Times obituary (with the obligatory Times-style reference to him as “Mr. Diddley”). Ratliff has also posted a patial list of songs with the Bo Diddley beat in his honor. RIP.

UPDATE: Readers John Phares and Alan Cole correct me regarding the Bo Diddley beat. Phares writes: “Bo’s beat isn’t in five four, it’s in four four — four beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat.” I’ve taken the liberty of silently correcting the post.


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