Ten Reasons Bo Diddley Is the Forgotten Heavyweight Champion of Rock

Bo Diddley passed away this Monday at the age of 79. In his honor, we present this essay from our 2002 series, Hard Hitting Blues.

1. Bo Diddley got his very name from fighting.

Eight-year-old Ellas McDaniel moved to Chicago from McComb, Mississippi, with his mother’s cousin. This wasn’t unusual — the South Side was full of kids from Mississippi. But Ellas was as Country as Country could be, and he learned that that don’t play in Chi. Littler kids were whippin’ up on him, so he learned to fight back. One day, while proving something to some kid with his fists, a neighborhood girl said, “Man, you’re a bo diddley!” No one knew what she meant, but the name stuck.

2. Bo did the boxing thing, and quit for the right reason.

He actually used the name “Bo Diddley” when he started boxing, and it gained him some notoriety — his big ol’ country fists gained him even more notoriety. Don’t be fooled by the glasses and the plaid suits, people: this was a bad man in the ring. But he quit when he got married — Mrs. Diddley didn’t like it, and that’s the only respectable reason for a man to give up the game. But that’s where he met Roosevelt Jackson, his first bass player and they formed the Hipsters together in 1945.

3. He had the greatest corner man in early rock history.

When Bo taught Jerome Green to play maracas, he did more than just add a band member — he invented Flavor Flav and Keith Richards and all the other great second bananas in modern music. Jerome was there when Bo needed him, and knew when to fade into the background or step up. The constant rhythmic rattle is crucial to Bo’s sound, whether it’s the rudimentary triplets on “I’m a Man” or the relatively complex shaking of more uptempo stuff. And Jerome knew when to speak up, too. Witness the great vocal turn on “Bring it to Jerome”, and is it any surprise that Bo’s only Top 20 hit was “Say Man”, which consists solely of Bo and Jerome insulting each other in a way that white America had never heard before?

4. No one had a harder first punch.

No one. He just came out swinging with his first single, undeniably the greatest two sides ever released together: “Bo Diddley” backed with “I’m a Man.” They’re hard as hell, dude, and no mistake. Check the combo of the African drum sound with that echoey guitar sound on “Bo Diddley” — what the hell is that, an e-bow? Damn. Unapologetic apple-cart upsetting, with his very first song. And “I’m a Man” is so ballsy that I’m surprised our nation survived it at all. Check the opening: guitar/harmonica/maracas/drums doing that “da DA da da” Muddy Waters beat, and then arguably the best opening lines ever written by anyone, including Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and Gabriel García fuckin’ Márquez: “Now when I was a little boy / At the age of five / I had something in my pocket / Keep a lot of folks alive.” This song became the immediate blueprint for heavy metal: that guitar is fuzzy and stingy and wobbly and it’s just all about power. “I’m a Man” is the uppercut to the jab of “Bo Diddley” and neither one has ever been beaten.

5. He created Muhammad Ali… and Mike Tyson.

Bo Diddley didn’t need to scream to make America’s blood run cold. He just stood there and declared himself the toughest mother alive: “I walk 47 miles of barbed wire / I use a cobra snake for a necktie / I got a brand-new house on the roadside / And it’s made out of rattlesnake hide / I got a brand-new chimney made on top / Made out of a human skull” is just some sick-ass punch-drunk signifying, especially when you realize that this was recorded in 1956. (It’s much better than that “I wanna eat his children” shite that Iron Mike was trying to run on Lennox a couple of months ago.) This kind of writin’-is-fightin’ approach has a long gloried history in black culture, but Bo put it out there first, and he turned it out pretty damn nice. So a few years later when a brash young loudmouth named Cassius Clay came out of Louisville spouting some brash braggart street poetry, people shouldn’t have been gasping in shock — they’d already heard it on their radios. This isn’t far-fetched, people: Ali is known to have appeared on the BBC with Bo in the early 1960s, talking about how he loved the music of his friend Bo. So there.

6. Who invented rope-a-dope?

You know who. Everyone always puts Bo Diddley in that “everything he did sounded the same” box… but that just proves that they never actually listened to anything he recorded. The man was a chameleon, a Proteus of pop. We’ve already established that he’s a rocker and a bluesman, but he was also a crooner along the lines of Jackie Wilson and Elvis Presley on “Mona”, a doo-wop guy on “Crackin’ Up”, and a specialist of the talkin’ blues on “The Story of Bo Diddley” (from 1959, when Bob Dylan was just graduating from high school). He might have invented surf guitar with “Mumblin’ Guitar” and “Aztec”, both recorded before 1960. He launched the Rolling Stones; a cover of “Mona” was their first big hit, but they called it “I Need You Baby”, which is probably the first reason I ever had for why I hate on the Stones. Both Buddy Holly and the Animals covered “Bo Diddley”, which is weird, because you wouldn’t think two different guys would have a hit with a song named for its songwriter. (Holly is actually double-guilty on this one, because “Not Fade Away” is basically an uncredited cover of “Bo Diddley” anyway, what with its blatant beatjacking.) Speaking of which…

7. That beat is straight out of Africa… and the gym.

Okay, okay, the “Bo Diddley beat.” Whether you believe musicologists who say that the three-beat/two-beat “bomp bomp bomp, bomp bomp” thing arises directly out of Afro-Cuban tradition, or Bo himself, who claims variously that he heard the beat in a movie about Indians or that he invented it accidentally while trying to play “The Green Green Grass of Home” on guitar, you must realize that that thing is one of the basic building blocks of modern music. It became his signature style due to his use of it in “Bo Diddley”, “Who Do You Love”, “Cadillac”, “Back Home”, and other songs, but it seems to come from a deeper place, a more fundamental part of the heart. But think about it — doesn’t it sound kinda like a boxing cadence? It always sounds to me like Bo’s working the speedbag on these numbers: bam bam bam is the set-up, and then wham wham is the payoff.

8-10. Bo Diddley is more important than the Stones, more crucial than the Beatles, more fundamental to rock as a lyricist and an instrumentalist and a conceptualist than Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly or Brian Wilson.

So where’s the love for the champ?