Bo Diddley - I Am Looking For A Woman (Checker 832)
I Am Looking For A Woman
He called himself The Originator.
Born in the Mississippi Delta, his family became involved in the first wave of the Great Migration, and came to Chicago in 1934. As folks like McKinley Morganfield and Chester Burnett made their way to the Windy City, Ellas McDaniel was already there. Raised by his aunt on the South Side, his first musical training came through the Ebenezer Baptist Church, who bought him a violin. When he was 12 years old, he got a guitar for Christmas, and began teaching himself how to play. As a student at the Foster Vocational High School, he learned how to build his own instruments and, by the time he was 16 years old, had made a violin, a stand-up bass, and a guitar. He has said that he used to sneak into places to watch Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker play, and try to replicate what they were doing, but that his 'hands were too big' to play the blues.
Forced to develop his own wild percussive style, he formed a trio called The Hipsters, and left school to try and make a living. Changing their name to The Langley Avenue Jive Cats, they began playing for change out on the streets, in addition to holding down various 'day jobs'. They became quite popular in the neighborhood, and won the amateur contest at the Indiana Theater so many times, that they weren't allowed to compete anymore. By 1951, the band included Jerome Green on the maracas and Billy Boy Arnold (pictured at right) on harmonica. They began getting some real work, and settled into a regular gig at the fabled 708 Club on 47th Street.
They cut a couple of primitive demos in 1954, and shopped them around to a few record companies without much success. When they brought them to Phil Chess in early 1955, he liked what he heard, and told them to come back the next day, so his brother Leonard could hear them. According to Nadine Cohodas in Spinning Blues Into Gold, Leonard was impressed, reportedly saying "Turn that up a little bit, let me hear some more of this stuff..." He objected to the lyrics of one of the songs, however; "Uncle John got corn ain't never been shucked, Uncle John got daughters ain't never been... to school", which was just the type of ribald material that they played every night in the clubs, but, Leonard knew, was also the kind that would never get played on the radio.
Chess sent them back to write some new lyrics, and arranged to re-record the tunes at Universal Recording Studio in early March. This, according to Billy Boy Arnold, was when they came up with the name Bo Diddley. McDaniel himself disputed that over the years, saying at various times that he'd been called that since grammar school, or high school, or that it was his nickname as a Golden Gloves boxer... in any event, once they assured Leonard Chess that it wasn't south side slang for something off color, Uncle John became Bo Diddley, and 'the beat' was born. On the original session tapes you can hear Chess (who always prided himself on goading his artists into giving it everything they had) saying things like "Motherf*#ker, sing like a man!" and "The beat has got to move at all times!" When they recorded the B side, the fundamental I'm A Man (with Willie Dixon on bass), it was supposedly Chess who came up with the idea of spelling things out, demanding take after take, and finally pissing McDaniel off enough to get that timeless 'M-A-N' just the way he wanted it.
Chess knew Diddley was onto something. When he released Checker 814 in May of 1955, he went out of his way to grease the right wheels and, not surprisingly, Alan Freed jumped all over the record, playing it to death on WINS in New York. Other dee-jays around the country soon followed suit, and the 'double A sided' single went straight to the top, spending over six months on the Billboard charts. Bo had arrived, headlining at both the Apollo and Carnegie Hall that summer. While he was out there promoting the single, he was booked to appear on Ed Sullivan's Toast Of The Town TV show. Ed told him to play Sixteen Tons (about as black as he was willing to go back then, I suppose), and Diddley agreed... then went ahead and played Bo Diddley anyway. In those days of live television there was nothing Sullivan could do at that point, but he swore he'd never have him back, and he didn't. This kind of set the tone for McDaniel's dealings with the establishment (read: white) media from then on. He was viewed as a rebel and an outlaw... and he was.
All Chess cared about was that he was selling records and, with I'm A Man still high on the charts, he had his biggest seller up to that point, Muddy Waters, release a cover retitled Manish Boy. Although the most well known version of the song today (with that whole 'live in the studio' thang goin' on), it was released two months after Diddley had paved the way for the man he used to sneak peeks at in the clubs only a few years before. Waters' version went to #5 that August, surpassed by another new Chess signee, Chuck Berry, who took his own Maybellene all the way to #1 (with a little help from Alan Freed) during the same time frame. Bo's follow-up single, Diddley Daddy (which featured Bobby Hebb as a young member of The Moonglows on background vocals), just missed the top ten that summer.
Bo was right back at it in early 1956, when he took Pretty Thing, (which prominently featured Billy Boy on the harmonica) to #4 R&B. His long time maraca man, Jerome Green, wrote the flip, Bring It To Jerome, which is definitely one of the coolest Diddley sides, with Bo's hypnotic background vocals and Arnold's wailing harp bringing it on home. The great Diddy Wah Diddy (written by Willie Dixon) would follow but, inexplicably, failed to make the charts. Today's wild selection was the B side of that record. Talk about the big beat! You gotta love Green's maracas... and check out that guitar! Very cool indeed.
In March, Diddley cut what will go down in history as one of the truly great rock & roll records, Who Do You Love:
"Tombstone hand and a graveyard mind,
Just 22 and I don't mind dying...."
McDaniel's stark lyrics said it all, man. The focus of so much that you read about him is, understandably, on 'the beat', but his genius as a composer goes much deeper than that.
Using his wife's maiden name (as he was fed up with Arc, Chess's publishing company), Diddley wrote one of the biggest hits of 1957, Love Is Strange. He gave it to his friend Mickey Baker, who was working with a young guitar protegé named Sylvia Robinson. RCA's R&B subsidiary, Groove, was headed up by a former Billboard writer named Bob Rolontz (hey, it worked for Atlantic, right?). Rolontz built the song in the studio, layering all of those guitar parts, and creating the eternal Mickey & Sylvia classic. Few people realize, though, that it was our man Bo who came up with that whole "How Do You Call Your Lover Boy?" thing. Amazing.
It was right around this time that Diddley decided to work with a female guitar protegé of his own, Peggy Jones, who would become known as Lady Bo. She would appear on most of his records from 1957 until 1961, until The Duchess (aka Norma-Jean Wofford, who is pictured with Bo at right) took her place. Chart success, meanwhile, remained elusive for Bo, with nine Checker releases going nowhere between 1956 and early 1959. The great Say Man, which featured Bo and Jerome playing the dozens off of each other, put him right back in the top five in the fall of 1959, with the follow-up, Say Man, Back Again climbing to #23 in early 1960. He would take Willie Dixon's You Can't Judge A Book By It's Cover to #21 in 1962, and released some twenty albums on Chess before it went out of business for good in the early seventies.
As a suburban kid growing up listening to AM radio in the early sixties, I didn't know anything about any of this... I didn't know who Bo Diddley was.
As I've told you before, when I was about eleven years old, I traded my Beach Boys' Party album for a copy of Rolling Stones Now. This pretty much changed my life. I didn't know it (and The Stones sure didn't tell me), but I was being introduced to the music of Solomon Burke, Alvin Robinson, Otis Redding, Barbara Lynn, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and, yes, Bo Diddley. A liner note man even then, I pored over that album cover like it was the Rosetta Stone... names like 'W. Dixon' and 'E. McDaniels' stuck in my brain.
I didn't know it (and The Stones sure didn't tell me), but I was being exposed to some more of Bo Diddley's music when I bought my single of 19th Nervous Breakdown the following year. That whole underlying low guitar riff had been lifted directly from Bo's 1955 single Diddley Daddy, but I didn't know that. I bought Magic Bus when it came out too, and I loved it... there was no mention of ol' Bo Diddley from Townsend and the boys on that one either...
When I bought Quicksilver's Happy Trails, which was to become one of my big high school records, there was that name again, 'Ellis McDaniels'. An ambitious live album, the whole thing was built around Who Do You Love and Mona... but, once again, nobody told me who 'McDaniels' was. There was no mention of Bo in the liner notes. I thought I was cool... I was hanging out and going to concerts and stuff, but I still didn't know Diddley.
When I went to my first Dead Show at the Manhattan Center in 1971, the New Riders opened (like they did in those days), and played Willie & The Hand Jive. Nobody mentioned Johnny Otis, or Bo Diddley. When The Dead played Not Fade Away (which would end up being the version included on the Skull & Roses LP), somebody told me that it was a Buddy Holly song but, once again, nobody mentioned Bo Diddley... I was on that bus for a long time, and I never heard his name.
What I'm getting at here is that Bo Diddley is truly one of the cornerstones of this whole thing they call 'Rock Music', only nobody seems to want to admit it. When MCA began issuing their wonderful 'Original Chess Masters' series in the mid-eighties, I was all over it, buying up albums by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and, yes, Bo Diddley. It was like the scales fell from my eyes... here in black & white was that name 'E. Mc Daniel'. Here, at long last, was The Originator. It blew my mind, man. I had no idea that music like this really existed. It made all that other stuff look like the pale imitation that it was...
I got to see him soon after that at the John Lee Hooker tribute thing at Madison Square Garden in like 1990, and the energy was still there. Bo rocked the house. Although he's in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he wasn't inducted until the second round in 1987 (imagine?). He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1996 and from The Grammys in '98. Still, Bo worried about his legacy. He didn't think he received enough credit, and he remained outspoken about the fact that it was because he was Black.
He was right.