Bo Diddley

Bo DiddleyBo Diddley (1958)
Crackin' UpGo Bo Diddley
Do What I SayBo Diddley Is A Gunslinger
(I Need You Baby) MonaHave Guitar Will Travel
Mama Keep Your Big Mouth ShutPye International 7N25258
Pills (or Love's Labours Lost)Chuck & Bo (EP)
Pretty ThingBo Diddley (1958)
Road RunnerIn The Spotlight
Who Do You Love?Bo Diddley (1958)
You Can't Judge A Book By The CoverBo Diddley (1962)


Bo Diddley playlist



Contributor: Peter Viney

Think of those magic pairings of greatness in rock history: Otis Redding & Wilson Pickett, The Beatles & The Stones, The Dead & The Airplane, and the one that comes first to my mind is Chuck & Bo. Chuck Berry & Bo Diddley, who defined the R&B for a generation. For the British listener, the medium of the EP on Pye International was a major introduction to the Chess catalogue, and there were three Chuck & Bo EPs at a crucial time, as well as the 1964 Two Great Guitars album. These have two long jams, Chuck’s Beat and Bo’s Beat appropriately, and this is a few years before the prolonged jam became ubiquitous.

One problem we have in listing the songs is different UK and US albums and reissues with recycled sleeves or titles. Bo Diddley was the title of his 1958 LP, and a quite different 1962 LP. The latter contained You Can’t Judge A Book and I Can Tell, two essential songs. The same cover picture of Bo on a Lambretta is on Have Guitar Will Travel the original US album from 1960 and on Bo Diddley Rides Again The British LP from 1963. They only have two tracks in common, Cops & Robbers and Mumblin’ Guitar. Sixteen the British LP in 1964 had the cream of his earlier hits. Stuff got recycled and recombined incessantly. Bo Diddley was on Chess’s Checker label in America, but Chess/Checker operated only as Chess in the UK.

Bo Diddley, or Ellas McDaniel, was born in Macon, Mississippi in 1928. His first instrument was violin, but he switched to guitar in 1945, while playing trombone in the Baptist Congress Band at his church, and running a three piece band with guitar, washboard and maracas. The three piece stayed, with the classic line up from 1962 being himself on rectangular guitar, The Duchess on rhythm and Jerome Green on maracas. The classic trio first appeared on Bo Diddley & Company in 1963 (US release only). The Duchess was said to be his sister, but in reality Norma-Jean Wofford was not related. She left the band in 1966, but he kept women in the band. Virtually every online clip adds a drummer and bass guitarist. Bo liked to have a woman guitar player … Peggy Jones pre-dates The Duchess.

The debate over the Bo Diddley rhythm, aka hambone, or Shave & A Haircut Two Bits is unresolvable, but it will be forever known as the Bo Diddley beat. The small band was augmented in the Chess studios by Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Little Walter, The Moonglows and The Flamingoes.

The hits started with Bo Diddley in April 1955. The 1958 first LP, also Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley, starts out with Bo Diddley. Phew! It shows how far he’d come in three years, every track a winner: Bo Diddley, its B-side I’m A Man, Bring it To Jerome, Before You Accuse Me, Hey! Bo Diddley and Dearest Darling, and that’s just side one. You still have Hush Your Mouth, Say Boss Man, Who Do You Love? and Pretty Thing on Side 2.

After that, Bo was circumspect about loading LPs with hits. Go Bo Diddley in 1959 has Crackin’ Up, Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger has Cadillac. It’s complicated because albums were reassembled in the early 60s.

What he was a master at was recycling supposedly autobiographical “boastin’” sessions, with the Bo Diddley / Hey Bo Diddley chorus. He ran through incarnations: Bo Diddley Is A Lover, Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger, Bo Diddley Is A Twister and Bo Diddley Is A Lumberjack. The last is a blatant rip off from Big Bad John. The Story Of Bo Diddley was the best of these.

Another template is the “conversation” rap with Jerome Green. The start of Down Home Special is a good example.

The I Can Tell narrative template got well used too. I Can Tell is also twice the length of most Bo Diddley tracks, coming in at over four and a half minutes. There are at least three different of his templates re-used per album. There were also instrumentals, blues, precursors of rap with a comic twist (like Pills), then other things which were less to a template. Take Love Is Strange a surprise co-write. He did reprise it pretty near with Love Is A Secret on Bo Diddley Is A Lover, but it’s not a standard riff. Love Is Strange would have to be The Everly Brothers version though.

I’m A Man is a surprise omission (as is The Yardbirds cover). Bo Diddley / I’m A Man was a double-sided hit. Willie Dixon wrote Muddy Water’s Hoochie Coochie Man a year earlier in 1954, and Muddy Waters’ answer song Mannish Boy in 1955. They’re all great, basically the same song and there was apparently no acrimony as Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Little Walter did a joint version in 1967. While it’s credited to Bo Diddley, I think it’s so close to its predecessor as not to be an original. It’s the Bo Diddley one that got into Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time” (#369) but I prefer Mannish Boy, as done by Muddy Waters at The Last Waltz.

So the selection:

Bo Diddley arrived in March 1955, and was his breakthrough record. If you’re defining R&B as known by the British R&B boom, you’d take Johnny B. Goode by Chuck, and Bo Diddley by Bo. Maybe it didn’t all start here, but half of it did. It is a template that Bo continually returned to. The original B-side was I’m A Man. It’s not to be confused with Hey! Bo Diddley which is based on Old MacDonald. A lot of covers bands inserted the Hey! Bo Diddley chorus into Bo Diddley.

Crackin’ Up. The relaxed semi-Caribbean lilt makes this a standout song. It’s atypical, but then so much doesn’t fit that overpowering template. The massed backing vocals import a doo-wop influence, but it’s 1959. It’s been covered by The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Corey Harris, but none can get the languid pace of the original.

Do What I Say closes Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger. It’s the Hush Mama / Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut macho template. When you go over those original albums, many now on 2-on-1 CDs, the depth and range of the material is astonishing. I was aware in choosing this that Bring It To Jerome, Cadillac, I Can Tell and I’m A Man were all well-known songs missing from the ten, but I wanted one to extend the range. It was either this or We’re Gonna Get Married from 1967 with Bo shouting responses to a girl group backing. Flipped a coin.

(I Need You Baby) Mona is one with stellar covers. The thing I love about the original is his ability to wail, or rather howl with passion. He doesn’t hit Howlin’ Wolf levels of intensity, but he’s getting there. People say that like The Wolf, Bo had a terrifying aspect. A Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks tale from a joint concert mentions one of the band retiring with a young lady, and waking up to see Bo sitting at the end of the bed, sharpening his shiv.

Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut isn’t on the compilations, surprisingly as his last Pye International single in the UK before Chess got its own imprint. It’s not even on the 54 track The Story of Bo Diddley CD (Chess). I bought the single, and while it’s another of Bo’s range of templates, it’s my favourite variation of it. The B-side, Jo-Anne, is also hard to find. Dr Feelgood turned in a good British cover, but the delicacy of the original (really!) gets swamped.

Pills (or Love’s Labours Lost) from 1961 is fabulous. Brilliant. Hilarious. The pills the “rock & roll nurse” gives him went through my head … through my head (backing stops) When I was laying in the hospital bed! It was the B-side of the US single, Call Me, unreleased in the UK. The fact that it’s on the modern compilations is due to The Who’s cover, though the main exposure was on the first Chuck & Bo EP in 1963, and someone saw its qualities at Pye: Chuck’s side starts with Roll Over Beethoven, as just covered by The Beatles.

Pretty Thing is the classic rhythm, and his second hit. The harmonica part made it much loved by British R&B singers. Played on the original by Lester Mad Dog Davenport.. It was cut in one session with Bring It To Jerome.

Road Runner. Have you ever seen a roadrunner? They look just like the cartoons. One ran in front of us in Death Valley, California and we were crying with laughter. Beep-Beep, indeed. Road Runner is a 1959 single, and opened In The Spotlight in 1960. It sounds like a novelty song on first hearing, but it’s as tough as he gets: I want to prove to you honey, that I’m a road runnin’ man … you say you fast (laugh) but it don’t look like you gonna last! (Not to be confused with I’m A Roadrunner, by Jnr. Walker & The All Stars!)

Who Do You Love? This one is eclipsed by the Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks cover, but take the lyric:

I walk forty-seven miles of barbed wire
I use a cobra snake for a necktie
I got a brand new house on the roadside
Made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top
made out of a human skull
Now come on take a walk with me Arlene
And tell me who do you love?

It combines a voodoo edge with a Western “tall tales” approach, where narrators tried to top each other with excess piled on excess. Though as sheer rock, The Hawks outdo it, listen to the way that Bo almost coos the repeated Who Do You Love? rather than belts it out. The song appears in the Ronnie Hawkins (#229) and Quicksilver Messenger Service (#68) and The Doors (#35) Toppermosts.

You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover was written by Willie Dixon for Bo Diddley in 1962 and is my favourite of the lot. The song originated the talking across the airwaves, exhorting the listener to turn your radio up, which was borrowed by Van Morrison for Caravan. It combines a Bo Diddley pattern with a loud walking bass line, presumably played by Willie Dixon. In my teen garage band days it was my favourite too, and I recall our singer making frequent trips to buy new sets of maracas, having the knack of breaking them while getting over-enthusiatic during this song. Why were they only available in red, natural wood and green bands? Was it an essential maraca colour or just the only ones on sale? A great Willie Dixon lyric too. The rhyme You cain’t judge sugar by lookin’ at the cane, you cain’t judge a woman by lookin’ at her man (main) didn’t come naturally to an English accent, but we tried! I used to write out the words and told the singer it was her mane of hair, but he didn’t believe me.

There are so many possibles … I haven’t included any instrumentals.

Ten important covers:

Bo Diddley – Buddy Holly, recorded 1956
Bring It To Jerome – Manfred Mann, 1964
Cadillac – The Kinks, 1964
Crackin’ Up – The Rolling Stones, 1964
Diddy Wah Diddy – Captain Beefheart, 1966
I Need You Baby (Mona) – The Rolling Stones, 1964
Love is Strange – The Everly Brothers 1965
Pretty Thing – The Pretty Things 1965
Who Do You Love? – Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, 1963
You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover -The Strypes, 2013


Bo Diddley – the official website

Bo Diddley – The Originator

Bo Diddley biography (Apple Music)

Peter Viney has been an educational author and video scriptwriter since 1980. He has written articles on The Band, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. He also writes novels under the name Dart Travis and writes on popular music, theatre and film at his website.

TopperPost #280


  1. Keith Shackleton
    May 19, 2014

    You can’t beat a bit of Bo! Respect to the man for leaving in all the whammy bar out-of-tune-ness of Before You Accuse Me, which must’ve taken balls of steel. “Shall we do it again, Bo?”… “Leave it Mr. C, we ain’t got time, it’s OK, let’s do sumpn else.” One more favourite cover – Pills – New York Dolls, 1973.

  2. Peter Viney
    May 19, 2014

    Yes, great cover of Pills. I started looking for The Who cover, which I remember strongly (possibly an early Bournemouth show, or Hull in 1967 or 1968) and find no reference to it. I mentioned their cover as “significant” because it was in my mind, but I can’t actually find a recording of it. Was it only live? Or false memory? Correction on “significant” then! Unless someone know better … I’m not a Who completist.

  3. David Lewis
    May 20, 2014

    I think Charles Shaar Murray (among others) has lamented the fact you can’t copyright a rhythm: Bo Diddley would have made billions…

  4. Peter Viney
    May 20, 2014

    The Wiki entries on “Bo Diddley Beat” and “Shave And A Haircut” are good histories of the rhythm. The Shave and a Haircut -Two Bits pattern could get you in serious trouble in a Mexican traffic jam when played on a car horn (chinge tu madre, cabron), plus it’s morse code,an old door knock pattern etc. I was going to suggest other songs with a Bo Diddley beat like Not Fade Away and I Want Candy, but Wiki does it better.

  5. Paul from Chicago
    Aug 29, 2014

    Bo’s records are always wildly uneven, and you have to hit the skip button or lift the needle often. But a best-of list from Bo is going to have a lot of prime stuff. His toasting/dozens records with Jerome are resistable, IMO, but Bo’s got an underlying craziness that crops up in most of his songs, one that the songs couldn’t do without. My favorite instrumental from him is Bo’s Bounce, and this track never shows up on anthologies, but it’s about 90 seconds of wordless energy. Another interesting list would be the deep LP or single cuts that never show up on anthologies, the ones you can’t believe no one knows about. Good list here.

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