Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-Billie’s Truth- With Bo Diddley’s Bo Diddley In Mind

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-Billie’s  Truth- With Bo Diddley’s Bo Diddley In Mind

Sketches From The Pen Of Frank Jackman 

Bo Diddley bought his 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'd better not take the ring from me
Bo Diddley caught a nanny goat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday coat
Bo Diddley caught a bear cat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday hat
Mojo come to my house, ya black cat bone
Take my baby away from home
Ugly ole Mojo, where ya been?
Up your house and gone again
Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley have you heard?
My pretty baby said she was a bird

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“Well,” Jeff Sterling said to himself, “there is no need to pussy foot around on this one.” He felt no need to step back to avoid any hurt feelings or regrets about the past. Not to the audience that had followed him memory trips back to the youth of the early baby-boomers in many of the half-read nostalgia drift magazines that he, now comfortably retired, had by-line in and read by among others those who thought his impressions were worth taking note of. Not earth-shattering taking note, his subject being various cultural quirks that he had taken pains to object over a lifetime and put to pen but of interest and let’s leave it at that. Jeff believed just that cultural quirk inspiration moment that there was only one big question before the house. The question before the house simply put-Who put the rock in rock ‘n’ roll?

What had brought this matter up, brought it to mind just then was that Jeff had gone up into his attic a few weeks before with the purpose of trying to thin his load of back copies of magazines and alternative newspapers in which his by-line appeared.  Looking through the August 1997 issue of the East Bay Other he noticed a review that he did of a Chess Records’ double CD, where Bo Diddley unabashedly staked his claim featured in a song by the same name, except, except it started out with the answer already answered in the affirmative. Yes, Bo Diddley had put the rock in rock ‘n’ roll. That was the central theme of Jeff’s review, the neglected role that Bo played in the creation of the rock beat. That review inspired Jeff to check out a Netflix DVD which highlighted Bo’s performance as part of the 30th anniversary celebration to see if his earlier opinion had held up. Had Bo’s part been rightly appreciated as part of the tidal wave of rock that swept through the post-World War II teenage population in 1955. Had Bo to use today’s terminology some “street cred” for that proposition.

One night a few week later Jeff was at Simmy’s Grille having a couple of drinks with his old high school friend and rock aficionado Sam Lowell and he mentioned to Sam the article his reasoning for his position. Sam had taken some notes (notes between drinks so reader beware) and began to think through his own feelings about Jeff’s proposition since in the “who invented rock” ongoing saga Sam had put his money on Ike Turner in his various incantations in the early 1950s, especially the riffs on Rocket 88. Some time later he put the notes into written form for Jeff to read. The following is what Sam was thinking:      

“Certainly there is no question that “black music,” “race record music,” if you like, 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 in places like the Village, North Beach out in Frisco town, hell, even in a couple of places in staid old Harvard Square 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 my old first choice 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. Not 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. Feared to have in their households and not a few banned anything to the left of the Inkspots and their eternal talking the lines of one verse of their song whatever the song. Feared mogrulization, feared for the neighborhood and feared for their daughters’ hidden lusts and sons’ lustful dreams. Feared that transistor radio they were forced to buy worrying what hellish music that they could not hear was being played up in Timmy or Dotty bedroom.     Well, we were washed away by the beat and we have proven 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 in all white “projects” kids like me and my boys, my corner boys (although this housing project was so isolated from the rest of the town that it had no stores, pizza parlors, drugstores, even variety stores, for righteous corner boys to place their feet up on the walls in front of those establishments and so we consoled ourselves with the corner of the elementary school that served the neighborhood). In years like 1955, ’56, ’57 every self-respecting teenage boy (or almost teenage boy), under the influence of television “magic,” tried, one way or another, to imitate Elvis. From dress, to sideburns, to swiveling hips, to sneer (okay I will not dispute that the expression might have been a snarl not a sneer like a girlfriend, a short-lived girlfriend of the time, although not short-lived over this issue, claimed. Worse claimed that his snarly expression made Elvis sexier. Made usually rational young women, and some not so young, throw their sweaty undies up on his stage. Sneer or snarl that part she had right, the sexy part-for girls). Hell, I even bought a doo-wop comb to wear my hair like his. I should qualify this whole statement about Elvis’ effect 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. (By the way that Billie is not some misspelling or some homage to Billie Holiday whom he would have been clueless about then but to distinguish him from father Billy and more personally because he did not want a name whose spelling reminded him of a damn billy-goat.) Billie was wild for girls way before I acknowledged their existence, or at least their charms. He was always invited, invited early in the inviting time, to all kinds of boy-girl parties, okay “petting parties” since this was a while back and no parents are around even by girls who had gotten their shape. Me, well, I got a few invites, maybe backup invites when about sixteen other guys said no, to parties by sticks (girls who for some reason had not gotten their shapes yet). 

Billie decided, and rightly so I think, to try a different tack. Tried to be a pioneer by not following the crowd (a trait that would not stand him in good stead later, late teenage later, when he decided the deck was stacked against him and took up robberies and assorted other felonies but that was long after we had parted company, had parted neighborhoods and I had decided, although it was a close thing, that crime was not my forte). Instead of forming the end of the line in the Elvis imitation department he decided to imitate Bo Diddley. At this time we were all 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. Something mysterious, something with raw physicality although this is mostly later rationalizations which neither Billie nor I would have been capable of articulating back then. Even an old clumsy white boy like me could sway to the beat, could fake enough moves to get by, get by where it counted on the dance floor.

Of course like I said that last bit was nothing but a now time explanation for what drove us to the music. Then we didn’t know the roots of rock, or probably didn’t care (although Billie’s small room was filled with a fair number of fan magazines and the like so he probably like in lots of things then could have given a pretty adult read on what was happening if he had been asked), 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 so he assumed that he was 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 went quiet. Billie ran out, and I ran 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 himself propped up against that endless train 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.”

After Jeff had read Sam’s sketch he said that Sam had done justice to Billie and Sam agreed that he had but Jeff felt a little queasy about Bo, about heroic Bo who seemed to play sideman to Billie there. In the interest of completion Jeff persuaded Sam to include an old time quick review of his of one of Bo’s compilations to make up for any omissions: 

“The last time I had occasion to mention the late Bo Diddley in this space [Jeff’s by-line for the East Bay Eye] was in connection with a series of interviews and performances along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others in Keith Richards' Chuck Berry tribute film "Hail, Hail Rock and Roll." The talk centered, rightly, on the dismal fate of many black recording artists who developed what would become Rock 'n' Roll when the white artists like Elvis took it over and reaped the benefits of a mass audience. Well, those interviews occurred a while ago, back in the 1980's, but Bo's sense of not having been properly recognized I believe remained until his death. Yet, when one thinks of the sounds created by the founders of Rock 'n' Roll can anyone deny that Bo's primal beat was not central to that explosion? I think not.

Here, in one album we have, if not all of Bo's creative work then a good part of it, at least a good place to start. Of course, the classic song Bo Diddley and its offshoots and variations are here. However, the one Diddley song that will probably outlive them all is Who Do You Love? Although not a theme song it nevertheless expresses the raw energy of rhythm and blues/ rock/ carib sound like no other. Hell, George Thoroughgood was able to make a whole career on the basis of having covered that song and other of Bo's work (and to be fair, covering the work of Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor as well[CL1] ).

And that is a good point to finish on. The really great rockers, and Bo is in that company, unlike the one-shot johnnies get covered because their work expresses something that someone else later wishes to high heaven that they had created. (George has been quoted directly on that “wishing he had created” point.) Finally, I give the same warning here as others have given in their comments about the sameness of this Chess 50th Anniversary CD from 1997 and a current one entitled The Definitive Bo Diddley Collection issued in 2007. Get one or the other and save those pennies to get more of Bo's work. "I said- I'm just 22 and I don't mind dying. Who do you love?" Thanks for that line Bo. Kudos.]

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