Bo’s Beat

A few choice critical thoughts on Bo’s beat.

Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History : “To young Bo Diddley, growing up in the ‘Little Mississippi’ that was South Side Chicago, what became the ‘Bo Diddley beat’ must have been an environmental presence — booming from Pentecostal storefront churches, popped out with a shoestring rag, implicit in speech rhythms and in the spring of people’s walks. And as John Lee Hooker remarked in Bo’s favorite ‘Boogie Chillen,’ ‘It’s in him, it’s got to come out.’ At the same time, Bo’s claim to have invented something, his insistence that he was doing more than simply parroting an already existing beat, has both sincerity and the ring of truth. The very concept of the ‘Bo Diddley beat’ is inadequate; what Bo came up with was a comprehensive theory of rhythmic orchestration. The traditional rhythms he picked up were merely raw materials.

“Listen again to ‘Bo Diddley,’ ‘Pretty Thing,’ ‘Hush Your Mouth,’ and ‘Say Man’ — records built around the beat, as opposed to the gospel-ish rave-ups, doo-wop, blues, guitar instrumentals, and tongue-in-cheek hillbilly songs that make up a surprisingly large proportion of the Diddley discography. Neither the exact rhythm patterns nor the way these patterns are parceled out among the various instruments remain constant from song to song. What does remain constant is the method of rhythmic layering. Generally, the drummer is directed to concentrate on his deeper drums, especially the bass drum and tom-toms. There is rarely a cymbal patter. Instead, the sort of cross-rhythms carried by hand clapping in the old-time ring shout, and by the ride and sock cymbals in much rock and jazz drumming, are assigned to Jerome Green’s maracas. These maracas are always prominent in the mix, with a presence equal in sonic weight to that of the drum kit.”

Chuck Eddy, The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll (from the chapter, “What Bo Knows”) : “I even have a soft spot for Burundi rhythms, for example the ones used in Gary Glitter’s 1972 hit ‘Rock And Roll Part 2’ — sort of a doubled, lightened adaptation of the Bo Diddley beat, which Bo somehow developed out of the knit-three-pearl-two rhythm pattern called clavé, first developed on wooden clacking instruments in Cuba and allegedly a common denominator of all Latin and Caribbean grooves: mambos, rhumbas, sambas, calypsos. Other people say Bo’s beat is really the hambone beat; i.e., ‘shave and a haircut, two bits!’ Probably they’re right… The beat kind of goes ‘Boom-ChuckaChuckaChuckaChucka-Boom Boom.’ On top, in Bo’s own version anyway, there’s a nasal, raunchy voice, boastful and making fun of you like in rap, and more guitar, noisy like in heavy metal. ‘Who Do You Love,’ where Bo tries to impress some lady by telling her his necktie’s a snake and he walks on concertina wire and builds chimneys from people’s skulls, is nihilist overstatement like in punk rock.”

Joe Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic : “…It’s perhaps stretching it to trace all of prog rock back to him, but the chance and circumstance of rock’s development has led to stranger relationships. His special influence on Brit beat and blues rock bands shone through those and onto the late sixties Brit progressive bands with their eccentric rhythmic approaches… Bo recorded for the Chess/Checker labels and made use of blues rhythm players that could follow his lead. And he lead them through a stomping adaptation of some kind of black Latinate rhythm (maybe Cuban), which due to its unfamiliar loping insistence seemed especially physical — even threatening. Which explains his lack of pop success. What still needs explaining is his lace of influence upon R&B, on which charts his music constantly appeared.”

[New York Times obit]


5 thoughts on “Bo’s Beat

  1. This made me particularly sad. I know that Bo was advanced in years, but a few more are always appreciated, unless the person is suffering.
    I can never think of him without Mo Tucker coming to mind.. one of his few theme songs where she calls out, “Hey, Bo Diddley!”
    Once we were at a party and a couple of guests were going out of their way to play jazz and factory-era music. Mo rolled her eyes, groaned with beer in hand and asked if there was any Bo Diddley.
    Good times, good memories.

  2. I was at the Los Angeles airport about a year ago and I spotted this amazing looking man amongst the bored business and holiday travelers. He was dressed head to toe in a slightly faded black and it was sitting next to a modest looking but attractive woman in her early thirties. I stepped closer, just to be sure, and yes, he was wearing his iconic black cowboy hat with the badge in the front. I asked “are you Bo Diddley?”. He put his hand out and we shook.

    I was just delighted. Of all of the 50’s rockers it’s him and Chuck Berry that I actually listened to. The energy and attitude of those mid-fifties tracks still comes through.

    And I was inspired. I pitched an photo story on 50’s rockers to Blender magazine but alas they wanted to pair them with younger performers and that seemed trite to me, so it was all dropped. Two weeks later I hear the news of his passing.

    Goodbye to one of the coolest men in rock.

  3. Chris, thanks for popping in. It’s funny that you did, because one of the first things that comes to mind whenever I hear the name “Bo Diddley” is the great Diddley sound-alike compilation you made me years ago (back in the cassette age). Played that comp a lot (and eventually recreated and expanded upon it with a CD comp). (Agree also about Bo and Chuck, though I’d have to add Buddy as well… those three, by a fair distance, are the most enduring 50s rockers in my house, not including all the great one-shot doo-wop artists.)

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