Diddley's Beat Ba-bomps into the 21st Century

The blues icon died Monday at 79, but his signature sound marches on. The "Bo Diddley beat" powers acts from the Rolling Stones to the White Stripes. Musicologist Ned Sublette celebrates Diddley's infectious, clave-inflected stomp.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Rock-'n'-roll legend Bo Diddley died yesterday in his home in Florida. He was 79 years old. Born Elias McDaniel in McColm, Mississippi, he moved with his mother to Chicago at the age of seven. He made his first record for the Chicago label Chess Records in 1955. It was the self-titled record, "Bo Diddley," and it was an enormous hit that changed the sound of American music. Let's take a listen to the Bo Diddley beat echoing through some more modern pop music.

(Soundbite of song "I Want Candy")

Mr. BOW WOW: (Singing) I want candy.

(Soundbite of song "Desire")

(Soundbite of song "She's the One")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) She's the one.

(Soundbite of song "Faith")

Mr. GEORGE MICHAEL: (Singing) Wouldn't it be nice if I could touch your body...

(Soundbite of song "Bo Diddley")

Mr. BO DIDDLEY: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: But Bo Diddley was more than just that influential beat. Ned Sublette joins us now in studio to help us pay tribute to Bo Diddley's career with a patented BPP Assisted Listen to his music. Ned Sublette is the author of "The World that Made New Orleans" and" Cuba and Its Music." Ned, thanks for coming in.

Mr. NED SUBLETTE (Author, "The World that Made New Orleans" and "Cuba and its Music"): Thank you. Thank you for having me. It's an honor to be here to talk about this great man.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the fact that Bo Diddley was way more than just a beat, first of all, right?

Mr. SUBLETTE: Bo Diddley was way more than just the Bo Diddley beat.

MARTIN: His music - what kind of - when you think about the legacy that he has left, what stands out to you as his greatest contributions, besides that beat?

Mr. SUBLETTE: That's such a big question. There are so many things. Bo Diddley was a transforming figure. He was one of those artists who came along and everything sounded differently after that. I think that's the quickest way I could sum it up. But you can point to all kinds of things that he did that people hadn't done before.

MARTIN: Well, let's use music as a way to kind of guide the conversation. Let's listen to this song, "Bo Diddley."

Mr. SUBLETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song "Bo Diddley")

Mr. DIDDLEY: (Singing) 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.

MARTIN: So, I see you moving.

Mr. SUBLETTE: Oh, man.

MARTIN: You're moving, we're moving here in the studio when we listen to that.

Mr. SUBLETTE: Well, you've got to move to that rhythm, because that's the magic rhythm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What - let's talk about that rhythm. What is the rhythm?

Mr. SUBLETTE: You know, Bo Diddley gave - he was kind of a trickster, and he gave a different account to every interviewer that ever asked him, I think, of where the rhythm came from. And I think they were all true, because it was his own personal synthesis, but it was his own personal synthesis of something that you hear across a wide swap of West and Central Africa. In Cuba, they call it the clave, and in Cuba, that is the spine of Cuban music. All Cuban music has that undulating two-bar rhythm, one bar straight, one bar syncopated.

MARTIN: Had he spent any time there?

Mr. SUBLETTE: Bo Diddley? No, he didn't have to. It came to Chicago.

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. SUBLETTE: But there's things different about this beat. You know, he didn't play it like a Cuban did. Cubans play it straight, boom, boom, boom. Bo Diddley swung it, boom, boom, boom. He played it like an African-American. It was also hand bone, but it was neither. It was the Bo Diddley beat by the time - and he never played it the same way twice.

If you listen to various records that have Bo Diddley beat, you know, the - all those - every succeeding generation of rock-'n'-roll record that evoked the Bo Diddley beat locked down more and more - well, by the '80s, rock-'n'-roll was pretty much all formulas, anyway, you know. It had all been reduced to boom, boom, boom, boom. But, the - but Bo Diddley never played the Bo Diddley beat the same way on two different records.

MARTIN: Wow.

PESCA: Did he choose the name Bo Diddley because it's evoked the beat? How did he come up with that?

Mr. SUBLETTE: That is a very interesting question. He was probably not the first African-American entertainer to use the name Bo Diddley. He was just the first one that became widely known. He says he didn't know what a diddley bow was, but it certainly fit him. A diddley bow is one of the most traditional African-American instruments.

Again, you know, the heritage of Western and Central Africa, speaking in the Deep South, a diddley bow was a monochord, a piece of wire that you'd attach to the side of a house and beat with one hand and played with a slider. And that's how Bo Diddley played the guitar. He played it like it was a diddley bow. He tuned it to an open chord and slid his bar finger up and down while he chopped with the right.

PESCA: It's almost a percussion instrument, the way he played it.

Mr. SUBLETTE: It was very percussive, the way he played it.

MARTIN: Let's get to another song. This is another very, very well-known Bo Diddley song, "Who Do You Love?" Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song "Who Do You Love?")

Mr. DIDDLEY: (Singing) I walked 47 miles of barbed wire I used a cobra snake for a neck tie. I got a brand new house on the roadside, Made out of rattlesnake hide. I got a brand new chimney made on top, Made out of human skulls.

Now, come on, take a little walk with me, Arlene, And tell me, who do you love?

Who do you love? Who do you love? Who do you love?

MARTIN: What do you love about this song?

Mr. SUBLETTE: So many things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUBLETTE: First of all, that is poetry. That is real poetry. And what kind of poetry is it? I mean, he's bringing these things lurking beneath the surface of African-American culture. He's bringing this vocabulary of hoodoo images upfront, like cobra snake for a necktie, you know, got me a house by the roadside made out of rattlesnake hide. You know, as a poet, Bo Diddley was inspired.

You know, the previous song we listened to, "Bo Diddley Buy a Baby a Diamond Ring," that, of course, is the old nursery rhyme, hush little baby, don't say a word, papa's going to buy you a mocking bird. If that mocking bird don't sing, papa's going to buy you a diamond ring. But it becomes, Bo Diddley buy the baby a diamond ring. If that diamond ring don't shine, Bo Diddley take it to a private eye. If that private eye can't see, he'd better not take that ring from me.

So it's like a hipster's rewrite of the nursery rhyme, but in the process of doing that, he also brings out that other thing. By the third verse, he's talking about black cat bone. So there's all kinds of stuff going on underneath the surface in Mr. Diddley.

MARTIN: Who are the musicians who really took what he did and embraced it? Who did he most influence?

Mr. SUBLETTE: I'd say the second greatest white rock-'n'-roll artist, Buddy Holly.

MARTIN: I've got to ask. The first being...?

Mr. SUBLETTE: Elvis.

MARTIN: Elvis, OK. Just checking.

Mr. SUBLETTE: I mean, Buddy would have said that, too. I grew up - I'm from Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly's town. And so we heard a lot of Buddy. I didn't live in Lubbock, but I was always there visiting my grandma or something, and we heard a lot of Buddy on the radio in Lubbock. Now, I first heard the song "Bo Diddley" by Buddy - Buddy covered it. And Buddy is singing, Bo Diddley buy baby a diamond ring, you know, right? And so, I knew - for me, what Buddy was singing about was this mythological character named Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley was very meta. He made himself into a legend.

PESCA: So to you, Bo Diddley was like Stagger Lee, a character in a song.

Mr. SUBLETTE: Well, you know, in the song we're going to listen to in a minute in one of the verses he says going down to Kansas to bring back second cousin Little John the Conqueroo. I mean John the Conqueroo, besides being a root that the Root Doctors use, John the Conqueroo was this legendary figure, an African king who had been sold into slavery and Bo Diddley was leaving no doubt that this mythical character Bo Diddley was a second cousin of John the Conqueroo.

MARTIN: Before we hear that, I do want to illustrate just how Buddy Holly interpreted "Bo Diddley." Let's listen to songs from 1957, a classic example of the Bo Diddley beat by Buddy Holly.

(Soundbite of song "Bo Diddley")

Mr. BUDDY HOLLY: (Singing) I'm going to tell you how it's going to be.

MARTIN: So you can really hear it there.

Mr. SUBLETTE: That's the for real Rumba rock via a Bo Diddley to Clovis, New Mexico.

MARTIN: I want to go out with a song that you wanted to play. Let's listen to his song "I'm a Man" by Bo Diddley. Let's get a sense of that first.

(Soundbite of song "I'm a Man")

Mr. BO DIDDLEY: (Singing) Now when I was a little boy.

MARTIN: So, Ned, what is critical about including this song in any remembrance of Bo Diddley?

Mr. SUBLETTE: He was a man. I spell M-A-N. And Bo Diddley lived a long life and a good life, and I'm here to pour a libation for him, and I'm sorry he didn't live long enough to see a black man elected president.

MARTIN: And we will leave it there. Ned Sublette is the author of "The World that Made New Orleans" and "Cuba and its Music." Thank you for helping us with this assisted living - assisted living? Assisted Listen.

Mr. SUBLETTE: Some mornings it feels like assisted living.

MARTIN: Oh Lordy!

Mr. SUBLETTE: Shout out to all my secret nocturnal people putting on a brave face in the daytime.

MARTIN: Thank you, sir. Take care.

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Rock Pioneer Bo Diddley Dies at 79

Bo Diddley arrives at the 20th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

hide captionBo Diddley arrives at the 20th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in New York City in March 2005.

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Bo Diddley performs during the West Coast Blues & Roots Festival in Perth, Australia in April, 2007. i i

hide captionBo Diddley performs during the West Coast Blues & Roots Festival in Perth, Australia in April 2007.

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Bo Diddley performs during the West Coast Blues & Roots Festival in Perth, Australia in April, 2007.

Bo Diddley performs during the West Coast Blues & Roots Festival in Perth, Australia in April 2007.

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Bo Diddley performs during the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., in August, 2005. i i

hide captionBo Diddley performs during the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., in August 2005.

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Bo Diddley performs during the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., in August, 2005.

Bo Diddley performs during the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., in August 2005.

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Bo Diddley pictured in the late 1950s, poses with his guitar. i i

hide captionBo Diddley, pictured in New York City in the late 1950s.

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Bo Diddley pictured in the late 1950s, poses with his guitar.

Bo Diddley, pictured in New York City in the late 1950s.

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Allen Toussaint on Bo Diddley

One of the fathers of rock 'n' roll died Monday at the age of 79. Bo Diddley was born Ellas Bates in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago, where he played guitar on street corners before being discovered by Chess Records. He leaves behind a sound that helped build a musical movement.

Diddley's signature rhythm, among the most distinctive beats in rock 'n' roll, can be heard on songs like "Who Do You Love?" and "Bo Diddley." Scholars trace the pattern to church tambourines, West African drumming, and a hand-patting rhythm called Hambone that goes back to slavery. But Diddley told the public radio show American Routes that he found it someplace else.

"I was trying to play 'I Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle' by Gene Autrey, and stumbled upon that beat," Diddley said.

The beat may have come from a television cowboy, but later, Diddley described it as "basically an Indian chant."

"Just picture dancing around a daggone big fire, dancing around with their spears," he told Morning Edition in an interview.

Regardless of the beat's source, music historian Peter Guralnick says that Diddley made it big enough for everyone.

"That was just an invitation for people to step into," Guralnick says. "Lots of people imitated it; lots of people carried it on."

These people included Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Bruce Springsteen.

"It's almost as if he foreshadowed James Brown in the sense in which rhythm predominated over melody and the usual conventions of pop songwriting," Guralnick says. "I think it's a tribute to Bo Diddley that it has lasted as long as it has."

But Diddley said that while rhythm was important, the secret to good songwriting lay in something else.

"A story with some funny lyrics, or some serious lyrics, or some love-type lyrics," Diddley said. "But you gotta think in terms of what people's lives is based on."

He took his own advice: Many of Bo Diddley's most famous songs were about Bo Diddley. Diddley was sent to Chicago as a child and adopted by his mother's sister. Deeply religious, she tried to steer the young man from the devil's music with violin lessons. He built violins and guitars at a vocational high school.

Diddley later met Gene Barge, a staffer at Chess Records.

"He was gifted with his hands," Barge says. "He loved to work on things: cars, record players, amplifiers. And he made his guitars. He crafted his whole sound."

Some of Diddley's guitars were custom-built to his specifications by the Gretsch company: shaped like stars or covered in fur. Barge says that long before Diddley worked audiences, he worked odd jobs and construction.

"He told me he was working one of the air hammers in the middle of the street that makes all this terrible noise," Barge says.

Diddley's music drew from the sounds of the Chicago streets where he first performed, and his name came from street-corner slang.

"Bo Diddley means that a guy was something extra-special or a real pistol," Barge says.

Barge says that in addition to playing rock, blues inspired by John Lee Hooker, calypso, and Latin-tinged blues, Bo Diddley was something of a comedian. He joined up with a female sideman –- the Duchess -– and Jerone Greene on maracas for songs like the 1958 hit "Say Man," which featured Greene and Diddley trading playful insults.

"Say Man" was Diddley's only Top 40 pop hit. His other classic tunes never crossed over from the R&B charts, and his style of rock eventually fell out of fashion. Diddley became bitter over how others had profited from his sound. He sold the rights to his songs to pay his bills, and his living came from constant touring. Toward the end of his career, Diddley toyed with rap and even returned — more or less — to his early classical training.

"I wrote a concerto that I wrote on the guitar," Diddley said. "It's called 'Bo's Concerto.'"

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