An Homage to Bo Diddley

I can’t remember when I first heard the song “Bo Diddley” with its hambone beat, hypnotic riffs, and Jerome Green powered maracas, but it thrilled me. I realize that Chuck Berry’s more wide-ranging musically and possesses a deeper canon, but Bo’s early songs with their African rhythms reverberated in my marrowbone like nothing else in early rock-n-roll. 

Later in high school, my friend Tim Miskel turned me onto the album Animal Tracks. On the final cut of Side 1, Eric Burdon provides a five-minute bio of Bo, which initiated a mild obsession.

One day, one night
Came a Cadillac, four headlights
Came a man with a big long fat cigar.
He said “Come here son, I’m going to make you a star.”
Bo Diddley said, “Uh, what’s in it for me?”
The man said, “Uh, shut your mouth son and play the guitar
And you just wait and see.”

                                    From “The Story of Boy Diddley,” Animal Tracks

Whenever I’d go into a new record store, I’d see if they had any Diddley. No luck ever until one day I wandered into Fox Music House on King Street in Charleston. Their inventory was eclectic, old-fashioned, but sparse. You could cop some Doris Day but not the Stones. As I was flipping through their loosely organized bins, I found a first edition copy of Bo Diddley’s Beach Party (recorded live at the Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, SC). Fox sold albums for the exorbitant price of five dollars a pop.[1]  I actually tried to talk the clerk into a discount. “No one’s ever going to buy this record,” I argued. “It’ been sitting here since since 1964.” It was no dice, but I snatched it up anyway. By the way, the vinyl was heavy on those discs of yore; you could beat someone senseless with a pre-70s LP.

Alas, one debauched night in the first semester of my freshman year, I left Beach Party on the floor of the suite adjoining our dorm rooms, and someone stepped on it. The damned thing cracked like a glass plate.

Chalk it up to the wages of carelessness or drunkenness or gangafication or a combination of the three.

Later, in graduate school, all hepped up on Dada, my friends Jake Williams, Keith Sanders, and I had a mini Bo revival. We nearly wore out Keith’s Diddley’s records. We’d meet on Sunday evenings, prepare dinner, imbibe second tier scotch, and jive talk our way into the wee hours while listening to Keith’s world class vinyl collection.

A few flips of the calendar later, in the pre-children early years of my marriage to Judy Birdsong, I got to see Bo play live at a club in North Charleston. In between sets, I approached him as he walked off stage.

Wesley: Oh, man, Bo, I’m such a big fan. This is such an honor.

Bo: silence.

Wesley: Hey, Bo, where’s Jerome Green, your maraca man?

Bo: deceased.

Wesley: How about the Duchess?

Bo: Chicago.

Wesley (finally getting the hint): Well, thank you so much!

Bo: head nod.

Well, in the course of the years that followed – childbirth, school days, graduation, empty nest, cancer, the death of Judy – my Bo Diddley obsession faded away,[2] though I still listened to him now and then and sometimes included one of his songs on the mixed tapes and later mixed CDs I made for my students who won vocabulary bees. 

When Caroline, my second wife, took me to meet her father Lee Tigner for the first time in the wilds of Awendaw, I discovered that he, too, was a Diddley devotee and could match me lyric for lyric. He also had met Bo in person but received a somewhat warmer albeit taciturn response. After Bo’s demise, Lee made the pilgrimage to Bronson, Florida, to visit the grave of the master. We’re talking about serious admiration. 

Lee Tigner at Bo Diddley’s grave

Anyway, Lee and I bonded over Bo, which is perhaps a small compensation to him in light of my being an unintrepid indoorsman. 

A couple of weeks ago, on an internet hunt, I found a copy of the late departed Bo Diddley’s Beach Party for sale and ordered it. It finally arrived today. So now, when Lee’s birthday comes around, I’ve gotten him a gift that I know he’s gonna dig, at least more than he did the last Christmas president I got him, an autographed copy of a mystery set on Folly Beach that Lee pegged as the worst novel ever published in the United States.

I’ll leave you with this:


[1] Back then, most albums cost under three bucks.

[2] If you’re gonna get all grammatical on me and say the “away” is unnecessary, I’ll respond by saying that it’s an allusion to Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which uses the Bo Diddley beat. 

The 5 Greatest Rock-n-Roll Covers of All Time

BigMamaTwoWillie Mae “Big Mama Thornton” by Nick Young

A couple of weeks ago when I was luxuriating in vast open freedom of spring break, the musician Howard Dlugasch and I sat at the bar at the newly opened Jack of Cups Saloon (nee Brew Pub) on Folly discussing the difficulties local musicians face in performing original compositions at bar gigs. “No,” he said, “They don’t want to hear originals. They all want to hear covers. They all want to hear Journey.”

Howard Dlugasch

Howard Dlugasch

Howard’s lament got me thinking about covers themselves, and I began cataloging what I consider the greatest covers of all time, a Herculean task if you stop to think about it.  I immediately jettisoned jazz, decided to limit my purview to rock and folk. After racking my brain, I decided to limit my list to five, and certainly many will disagree with the following choices.

Before I announce my top five, though, I ought to provide the criteria I used in the construction of this pantheon.

1) The original song had to be significant in both its music and content.  By content I mean both the degree of significance of the lyrics’ poetic purpose and the poetic quality of the lyrics themselves.  Alas, this criterion eliminates Hendrix’s great cover of “Wild Thing.”

2)  The cover of the song had to make the song, as Ezra Pound would say, new.

3) The musicianship had to be first class.

Rather than attempting to rank the covers from “grooviest” to least “groovy,”¹ I’ve copped out by presenting the 5 Greatest Covers of all time in chronological order from oldest cover to most recent.

¹I retrieved these vintage terms from the Teen Beat files located in the adolescent wing of my memory museum.

  • Elvis Presley’s cover of Big Mama Thornton’s recording of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog”  Thornton’s 1953 recording is killer, backed by badass bass and drumming and some imitative barking.  Hit the arrow for a 20 secondish listen:

elvis-presley-songs-hound-dog

Before Presley, others had recorded the song, and some critics claim that Presley was actually covering a Bob Wills cover or a Freddie Bell and the Bellboys cover. Nevertheless, Presley was aware of and liked the Thornton original, and so I contend he’s covering the original, not a covering a cover.  At any rate, Elvis and his producer Steve Sholes have twanged the tune to rockabilly with some aggressive drum rolling.

  • Next comes the Animals cover of the traditional folk song “Rising Sun Blues,” a song whose roots go to 18th Century England and a popular genre called “the Unfortunate Rake.” Immigrants  transported the song across the Atlantic and transplanted the setting to New Orleans.  Some contend the song’s narrator is a woman turned whore after being abandoned by a rake, which is the scenario Dylan employs in his cover, a recording that precedes the Animals’. The earliest recorded version is by Clarence “Tom” Ashley in 1934, which tells the tale from a male perspective.  Here’s a snippet from an early ’60’s version by Ashley and the great Doc Watson.  Note the featured lyrics are much different from the Animals version.

 the_animals

Ashley/Watson:  

The Animals:

Electric guitarist Hilton Valentine’s minor key arpeggio and Alan Price’s organ transform the song into what the critic Dave Marsh called “the first rock folk hit.”

  • Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 recording of Bob Dylan’s 1967 release “All Along the Watchtower.”

jimi-hendrix

Dylan:

Hendrix: 

Now, that’s what I call making it new.

  • The Doors 1970 live version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”  This selection is perhaps the most controversial.  However, I’m going with it.  Listen.

images

Bo Diddley:

The Doors: 

  • Also, perhaps, controversial, I rank Patti Smith’s 2007 cover of Nirvana’s 1991 “Smells like Teen Spirit” in the top five.  Here Smith substitutes banjos and fiddles for electric guitars and replaces Cobain’s solo with a poem that elevates the song from an anthem of teen angst to some sort of post apocalyptic nightmare.

6a0120a7b5f86a970b015437e241f9970c-800wi

Nirvana:  

Patti Smith:  

Well, there you go.  Would love to hear some comments.  Obviously, I also stayed away from soul music because rating covers there would be almost as hard as jazz.  Also, I’ve dissed Janis, whose cover of “Piece of My Heart” should probably bump Morrison and Smith off this list.