Bo Diddley: Two On One, Bo Diddley, Chess Records, 1986
Well, there is no need to pussy foot around on this one. The question before the house is who put the rock in rock ‘n’ roll. And here in this Chess Records double CD, Bo Diddley unabashedly stakes his claim that was featured in a song by the same name, except, except it starts out with the answer. Yes, Bo Diddley put the rock in rock ‘n’ roll. And off his performance here as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of the tidal wave of rock that swept through the post-World War II teenage population in 1955 he has some “street cred” for that proposition.
Certainly there is no question that black music, in the early 1950s at least, previously confined to mainly black audiences down on the southern farms and small segregated towns and in the northern urban ghettos along with a ragtag coterie of “hip” whites is central to the mix that became classic 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. That is not to deny the other important thread commonly called rockabilly (although if you had scratched a rockabilly artist and asked him or her for a list of influences black gospel and rhythm and blues would be right at the top of their list, including Elvis’). But here let’s just go with the black influences. No question Ike Turner’s Rocket 88, Joe Turner’s Shake , Rattle and Roll and, I would add, Elmore James’ Look Yonder Wall are nothing but examples of R&B starting to break to a faster, more nuanced rock beat.
Enter one Bo Diddley. No only does he have the old country blues songbook down, and the post- World War II urbanization and electrification of those blues down, but he reaches back to the oldest traditions of black music, back before the American slavery plantations days, back to the Carib influences and even further back to earth mother African shores. In short, that “jungle music,” that “devil’s music” that every white mother and father (and not a few black ones as well), north and south was worried, no, frantically worried, would carry away their kids. Well, it did and we are none the worst for it.
Here is a little story from back in the 1950s days though that places old Bo’s claim in perspective and addresses the impact (and parental horror) that Bo and rock had on teenage (and late pre-teenage) kids, even all white “projects” kids like me and my boys. In years like 1955, ’56, ’57 every self-respecting teenage boy (or almost teenage boy), under the influence of television, tried, one way or another, to imitate Elvis. From dress, to sideburns, to swiveling hips, to sneer. Hell, I even bought a doo-wop comb to wear my hair like his. I should qualify that statement a little and say every self-respecting boy who was aware of girls. And, additionally, aware that if you wanted to get any place with them, any place at all, you had better be something like the second coming of Elvis.
Enter now, one eleven year old William James Bradley, “Billie”, my bosom buddy in old elementary school days. Billie was wild for girls way before I acknowledged their existence, or at least their charms. Billie decided, and rightly so I think, to try a different tack. Instead of forming the end of the line in the Elvis imitation department he decided to imitate Bo Diddley. At this time we are playing the song Bo Diddley and, I think, Who Do You Love? like crazy. Elvis bopped, no question. But Bo’s beat spoke to something more primordial, something connected, unconsciously to our way back ancestry. Even an old clumsy white boy like me could sway to the beat.
Of course that last sentence is nothing but a now time explanation for what drove us to the music. Then we didn’t know the roots of rock, or probably care, except our parents didn’t like it, and were sometimes willing to put the stop to our listening. Praise be for transistor radios (younger readers look that up on Wikipedia) to get around their madness.
But see, Billie also, at that time, did not know what Bo looked like. Nor did I. So his idea of imitating Bo was to set himself up as a sort of Buddy Holly look alike, complete with glasses and that single curled hair strand.
Billie, naturally, like I say, was nothing but a top-dog dancer, and wired into girl-dom like crazy. And they were starting to like him too. One night he showed up at a local church catholic, chaste, virginal priest-chaperoned dance with this faux Buddy Holly look. Some older guy meaning maybe sixteen or seventeen, wise to the rock scene well beyond our experiences, asked Billy what he was trying to do. Billie said, innocently, that he was something like the seventh son of the seventh son of Bo Diddley. This older guy laughed, laughed a big laugh and drew everyone’s attention to himself and Billie. Then he yelled out, yelled out for all the girls to hear “Billie boy here wants to be Bo Diddley, he wants to be nothing but a jungle bunny music N----r boy”. All goes quiet. Billie runs out, and I run after, out the back door. I couldn’t find him that night.
See, Billie and I were clueless about Bo’s race. We just thought it was all rock (read: white music) then and didn’t know much about the black part of it, or the south part, or the segregated part either. We did know though what the n----r part meant in our all-white housing project and here was the kicker. Next day Billie strutted into school looking like the seventh son of the seventh son of Elvis. But as he got to the end of that line I could see, and can see very clearly even now, that the steam has gone out of him. So when somebody asks you who put the rock in rock ‘n’ roll know that old Bo’s claim was right on track, and he had to clear some very high racial and social hurdles to make that claim. Just ask Billie.