Musicians reflect on Bo Diddley's influence

DETROIT (Billboard) - Mention Bo Diddley’s name and most everyone thinks one thing -- the beat. Bomp ba-bomp-ba-bomp, bomp bomp. Applied to such songs as “Bo Diddley,” “Hey Bo Diddley” and “Who Do You Love,” it’s perhaps the most influential musical motif since the devil purportedly handed Robert Johnson the I-IV-V chord progression at the crossroads.

Legendary blues guitarist Bo Diddley performs at the 35th annual Bumbershoot Seattle Arts Festival in Seattle September 4, 2005. REUTERS/Anthony P. Bolante

It earned Diddley -- who died June 2, 2008, of heart failure at age 79 -- his rightful moniker as the Originator and his spots in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, as well as other lifetime achievement honors. But there was more to Diddley than the beat.

During a career that stretched some four and a half decades, he produced a rich body of spirited, aggressive work that fused a blues sensibility with rock ‘n’ roll energy and ran far deeper than the well-known hits. Diddley acquitted himself as a progressive bandleader as well as an inventor, not only of the square-shaped Gretsch guitar that was his trademark but also of a variety of effects that subsequently became commonplace pedals and rack mounts for electronic components.

A year after his death he’s remembered as all of that and more by other musicians who knew him, admired his accomplishments or both.

Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top): “He hit the scene with that infectious beat he brought to the forefront, but it goes back to when he landed in Chicago and was part of the Maxwell Street scene playing at the flea market on the corner. It was Bo Diddley, Clifton James on drums and Jerome Green on maracas -- and that was it. Who ever heard of a guitar player and two percussionists? And you listen to those early records now, with the knowledge there was no bass guitar, no rhythm guitar, no piano, no nothing except those three guys, but you turn it up and you say, ‘Well, I don’t miss anything. It sounds like a full orchestra to me.’”

George Thorogood: “No artist has fascinated me more than Bo Diddley. When I got into his stuff, everybody in 1967 was listening to two monumental rock history albums -- one was (Jimi Hendrix’s) ‘Are You Experienced?,’ the other was (the Beatles’) ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ But I had this album, Bo Diddley’s ‘16 All-Time Greatest Hits.’ I’d go to Wildwood, New Jersey, and buy maracas by the pound because I was fascinated with this sound and this thing that was Bo Diddley. This was before I got into John Lee Hooker, and I was amazed by the sound of this guy who sat on one chord, maybe two. But, like James Brown, he could do one chord for 15 minutes and it never gets boring. That’s where I learned my whole routine from. I mean, what is ‘Bad to the Bone’ except, really, Bo Diddley?”

Todd Snider: “There are four important things about Bo Diddley that I hope everybody knows. The first, of course, is that he invented a beat. Second, and less known, his song ‘Bo Diddley’ was a first in that his name was the title and chorus which, in my opinion, makes him one of the inventors of rap. Third, three months before Elvis Presley played (on) Ed Sullivan, Bo Diddley did. He was told to play a different song than ‘Bo Diddley’ and said he would, but when the cameras rolled he played ‘Bo Diddley,’ thus inventing rock ‘n’ roll’s attitude. Fourth and most important, he was so sexy that he told Arlene he had a chimney made out of human skulls -- and she still went for a walk with him.”

Billy Corgan (the Smashing Pumpkins): “What he really did was bring a rock ‘n’ roll attitude to rhythm and blues, and that influence is everywhere. Imagine the Stones without the influence of Diddley’s swagger, and you can see his true impact. His prime, like Chuck Berry’s, was at a time when African-American artists playing rock ‘n’ roll was more comfortably accepted by a white public if these men were playing nonthreatening observers whose commentary came through in riddles and encoded language. The hipsters picked up on the fact that they were being spoken to. I never thought much of Bo Diddley till I got his boxed set in the early ‘90s, and I found certain songs struck me like Escher drawings in that the more I heard them the more I saw. His is the kind of music that in its primitive urgency never gets old and in its lyrical narrative will never become outdated.”

Joe Satriani: “Bo Diddley gave us so much. He was an essential part of rock ‘n’ roll. It couldn’t have happened without him.”

Bonnie Raitt: “Bo’s music will continue to influence people as long as someone can beat out that signature rhythm on whatever instrument they can. He was one of the greats and a wonderful man as well.”

Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead, Phil & Friends): “That groove is everywhere. It’s so fundamental. It permeates. You can hear it in all different kinds of music, and it moves so nicely. Personally I kind of like to do things inside it; I like to take the groove and move it over an eighth note and set up that tension between the thing that starts on the downbeat and the same pattern that starts an eighth note later, and then you can build that up and it’s very satisfying. It’s very fruitful, shall we say.”

Bob Weir (Grateful Dead, Ratdog): “He was famous for that one rhythm, but he was actually a pretty eminent blues artist. He had an amazing sense of dynamics. When musicians get together and they’re working up stuff, it’s quite common to hear somebody say, ‘I want you to play this Bo Diddley,’ and everybody knows what that means. It rumbles and rolls, and the notes don’t come real fast so you get a little time to be real choosy about what notes you play and it allows you to dance with your instruments. It’s a fun rhythm to play, so we tend to stretch it out and live in it for a while.”

Nils Lofgren (E Street Band): “That groove, however Bo fell into it, I’m sure he realized he had a gem ... and he called it his own and sold it to us, and it was a beautiful thing and still is. It’s a signature beat that you can play against a four-count bar, but you can’t lose it. If someone’s playing that beat you can improv around it with funk, rock, melodic playing, nasty stuff, pretty stuff -- but not at the expense of the beat. The drummer doesn’t have to play it; the guitar player can play it against regular backbeat drums, and it’s going to color the entire picture.”

John Doe (X, the Knitters): “He came to Los Angeles once in about ‘83 and played this place called the Music Machine, and everybody was just out of their minds because Bo Diddley hadn’t played in L.A. since who knows when. They had put together a group of guys that played the blues OK but really didn’t have a clue to what to do with Bo Diddley and, with all apologies, it was terrible. That same night Dave (Alvin) and a few of us went to the owner of the club and said, ‘Get him back six months from now and we’ll put together a band and it will be great,’ and we did. And it was.”

Ted Nugent: “Bo Diddley’s incredible impact on music and America is immeasurable. As my American blues brother Billy Gibbons exclaimed, accurately, a newborn infant exposed to the Bo Diddley rhythm would begin to gyrate accordingly. We often hear the term ‘primal’ associated with good rock ‘n’ roll music, but clearly Bo handed off the purity of primal direct from our aboriginal campfires straight to the masses via his electric guitar grind. It is pure. I was privileged and deeply honored to jam with Bo and actually play bass guitar in a few of his concerts back in 1970. It changed my life. I wallowed in the belly of the beast and was instantaneously moved to better appreciate and more effectively implement the soulfulness of his music into my own. All dedicated musicians, knowingly or otherwise, directly or indirectly, cannot make stirring music without the immense touch of Bo Diddley guiding them one way or another.”

Jack Ingram: “One way I look at it is when I listen to Tom Petty, we don’t have ‘American Girl’ without Bo Diddley -- and that could be said about thousands of other classic American rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Without Bo Diddley, we’d be missing an entire segment of the soundtrack of our lives. My kid brought me a guitar he made in class the other day; he’s 3 years old, and in preschool they were making guitars that look like Bo Diddley’s. So his influence is bigger than I can fathom. It’s bigger than the money he made or the records he sold.”

Keith Urban: “In ‘97 I was in a band called the Ranch. We were opening for Bo at a club in New York City. We finished our set, and I made sure to get out into the audience to see Bo play. After his show, we were packing up backstage, and in walks Bo and he says, ‘Hey, boy, was that you just pickin’ on that there guitar?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Mmm, you’re a good guitar player, boy,’ and then he just nodded and walked away. I remembered this photo that was taken backstage that night; I’d had it on a table in my apartment for years, but when I moved it was packed up. I actually found it after I was asked by the organizers of the Grammy Awards to play with B.B. King, Buddy Guy and John Mayer as part of a tribute to Bo. It really was a full-circle moment for me.”

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)