For those of you who don’t know who Bo Diddley is, he was never shy about telling you; Bo Diddley is a man, a lover, a gunslinger, the originator who used a cobra for a necktie and made a chimney out of human skulls. Bashful, he is not.
But beyond the fact that about ninety percent of his songs were made up of personal boasts (most certainly a precursor to the braggadocio that would later appear in hip-hop), Bo Diddley was first and foremost one of the finest electric bluesmen, an architect of rock music, and a guitar pioneer. His career began in true in 1955 when the legendary Chess label issued the single “Bo Diddley” b/w “I’m A Man”, and he continued churning out incredible rhythmically focused music for the next decade, often employing the signature beat that was named after him. But in the post Sgt. Pepper era, the blues was increasingly dominated by white groups like Cream, Traffic, Led Zeppelin etc. who were not only incorporating the contemporary sounds of psychedelia, but were also getting “heavier”, that subjective term.
All in all, the old blues guys were starting to look rather anachronistic. Some of them were pushed into ‘updating’ their sound around this time, which resulted in some of the weirdest and most divisive blues records ever made, like Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, Howlin’ Wolf’s This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album and this, Bo Diddley’s Black Gladiator. However, whereas the first two delved into ‘white’ music and even used some of the most famous British bluesmen of the day as sidemen, Bo Diddley’s album went in the opposite direction and drew largely from the “black” music of the day, such as Sly Stone, James Brown, etc. What he came up with was an album rife with hard funk that largely wouldn’t have sounded out of place with George Clinton’s P-Funk ensemble and even sounded like a cruder, looser version of Miles Davis’ works of this era such as Jack Johnson and On The Corner. People picking up this album in 1970 must have had a real hard time figuring out what they were getting into when they found it in the record store, with the bright yellow cover punctuated by the melting blacks and Bo himself front and center wearing some kind of nightmare S&M gear. And for those record buyers who were familiar with Bo’s previous work, they were probably even more shocked when they took it home and put the record on their turntable.
The album is, by and large, a radical departure for one of the preeminent bluesmen of the classic ‘50s Chicago scene. But that’s not to say that Bo has given up some of his trademarks. Check out the opening track, “Elephant Man”, which is surely one of his finest songs ever, in which he explains in detail how he made the titular animal. Yes, you read that right. Bo Diddley is such a bad motherlover that he invented the elephant. The music meanwhile, is a pounding conjunction of hyper-organ riffing and a swinging rhythm section that is somehow extremely tight yet extremely loose, held together largely by Bo’s powerhouse, longtime drummer Clifton James. The verses are punctuated by Bo’s wailing (both vocally, and with his guitar, as he lets loose some fierce solos).
But the main draw that differentiates the album from others in his catalog is the organ of Bobby Alexis that flawlessly comps and seriously brings the funk, as does the rampant, incessant tambourine of backup singer Cookie Vee, who takes a larger role in the next song, “You, Bo Diddley”. As Bo asks such questions as “Who’s the greatest man in town?”, Cookie answers him repeatedly by singing the title back at him. As if there were ever any doubt, Bo.
Elsewhere, Bo keeps up the idea of incorporating black music with another slice of funky, empowering music appropriately titled “Black Soul”, where he embraces the nascent black power movement of the immediate post civil rights era. He also remains affiliated with the music of the past, wondering “If The Bible’s Right”. For a song that so easily lyrically fits with gospel, the accompanying music is preposterously secular. It’s the kind of thing that one would hear in a club, not in a church, the kind of thing that only a singular talent like Bo Diddley could get away with.
A few of the songs here actually follow traditional blues structures; “Hot Buttered Blues” is a slow 12/8 workout that wouldn’t have been out of place on a much earlier album, while “Power House” works over the same simple, classic groove that Bo used for “I’m A Man” and a number of others (conspicuously absent on this album is the actual “Bo Diddley beat”). But it is the two closing songs that might be the most entertaining. Firstly there is another bouncy, funky jam called “Funky Fly”, which probably got its title as it sounds like it was made up completely on the fly. Over a series of simple, circular riffs Bo shouts gibberish and spouts lines like “Make it funky now… back to work!”
Then, album closer “I Don’t Like You” just has to be heard to be believed. It begins and ends with Bo doing his best impression of an opera singer, which basically means that is sounds like someone who has never been to an opera trying to sing like Pavarotti. What’s even stranger is that the rest of the song is taken up by Bo and Cookie engaging in “the dozens”, another precursor to hip-hop, where they trade insults in some good-natured ribbing, much like Bo did years ago with his maraca player Jerome Green on Bo’s biggest hit, “Bring It To Jerome”. There is very little on this planet more entertaining than Bo Diddley saying “You gonna play football and get kicked”, to which she replies “You gonna play mountain and get climbed on”, only to have Bo immediately retort “Start climbin’, baby!” The divine mixture of high art in the form of operatic singing and the low art of schoolyard verbal sparring works brilliantly here and is something that could only have happened at a period when everyone playing the music game was expected to take risks and think outside the box and more importantly, outside their comfort zone. This is exactly what Bo Diddley accomplished on this album, and most explicitly on this song, a bizarre bastard child of two diametrically opposed genres.
All in all, this is a nearly flawless album that was and has been unfairly disparaged simply because it so far removed from everything else that the artist had done previously and would go on to do. The negative criticism is the result of blues purists having the proverbial stick up a certain orifice. The elements that make this stand out, like the organ and the highly syncopated funk attack, are combined with the aesthetic approach of a true artist. The from-the-gut compositions and the rough, visceral production are hallmarks of rock music as it should be made (unsurprising, since it was made by one of the guys who invented the damn genre). The only real flaw of the album is the bit of misogyny of “Shut Up, Woman”, which, while offensive and completely unnecessary, completely pales in comparison to the abject hatred of women that would be spewed forth by hip-hop groups decades later. If you can look past that, and try to get over the fact that this is not the typical album of twelve-bar blues after twelve-bar blues, this will be a highly rewarding experience. Just make it funky now, and get lost in the grooves.
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