It's the beat, the beat, the beat.
OK, so Chuck Berry had the licks and Elvis got all the chicks. Buddy Holly had the twang and Little Richard made 'em shake that thang. But Bo... Bo Diddley had the beat. The Bo Diddley beat.
If you've ever heard the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy" or Buddy Holly's "Not Fadeaway," then you've heard the Bo Diddley beat. If you've ever heard Johnny Otis' "Willie & The Hand Jive," U2's "Desire," or even George Michael's "Faith," you've heard the Bo Diddley beat.
This is rock 'n' roll's drive at its most primal, unmistakable, and immediate. You could say it's the heart of rock 'n' roll, but cheesy '80s flashbacks might stop you. So let's just say it's the heart's throb.
You'd think Diddley inadvertently culled his trademark hip-shake groove from the "Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits" ditty, but Bo's not so sure.
"I don't know, man," he says from his Gainesville, Florida, home. "I just stumbled upon it like anything else, you know. Like a scientist of music."
Bo bounced onto the scene in 1955, when early rock 'n' roll was beginning to rumble below the surface. Within a year it would explode. Racial segregation was rampant and Whitey was suspicious of the jungle beat: Bo Diddley's beat in particular.
"They hollered because the beat made people feel primitive --- as we all are" he says. "They was sayin' a lot of funny shit like 'What the hell is this,' and 'This is jungle music.' And that's the reason why they'd use the word primitive. People beat on tin cans and buckets and things before instruments came along and made rhythms, you understand? So everybody didn't understand what the hell I was doin' on the guitar. And then I added the drums to it and they started to call it 'the beat.' But it's the beat and the melody all in one."
Diddley's first single on Chess Records, "Bo Diddley" b/w "I'm A Man," exploded with crossover appeal that was unheard of at that time. Young white kids were rapidly picking up on the beat and soul of black artists like Diddley, on what was then referred to as "race music."
Though bespectacled, bow-tied, and sporting a square guitar, Bo Diddley looked ominous and mean. Bourgeois panties were in a bunch.
"Yeah, because Tchaikovsky got shoved in the corner," Diddley says. "They didn't like boom de boom de boom de boom boom."
The beat threatened to ruin a generation. Hysteria prevailed.
"They'd run around talkin' 'bout their daughters getting pregnant because they was listenin' to jungle music," he says. "And that's just the biggest crock of crap in the world."
And though Bo's beat was salacious --- bodacious, if you will --- as far as he was concerned, it wasn't dirty.
"None of my songs ever had any dirty lyrics," he says. "It was what you wanted to make out of it. If your mind was dirty, hey, that was it."
The Bo Diddley beat loomed huge, lending heavy influence to virtually all types of rock 'n' roll bands. It could be said that Diddley was instrumental in sparking the British invasion. The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Pretty Things, and so on all covered Diddley tunes and incorporated his beat into their own sound.
Bo Diddley recorded for the legendary Chess Records label from 1955 to 1974 and has sold millions of records. But as was frequently the case for pioneering rock 'n' roll artists, he didn't see diddly.
"My fans have bought millions and millions of dollars throughout the 49 years I've been performing," he says. "And ain't no checks come to my Goddamn house. So where's the damn money? In America you have the chance to become somebody and I did my best. But there's something else called thievery and lies and deceit."
Shrewd label honchos and publishers had the upper hand.
"They'd get you in such a vice," he says. "They'd never pay so you didn't have money to get no lawyer, you dig? See, lawyers don't wanna work for you unless they get paid. And there ain't no Goddman way if you didn't never get paid for your work."
But Diddley's got the cure.
"I'm coming out with something but it won't be on no record label," he says. Bo's next record will be available only through his web site. "That's the only way people will be able to get my product. That way I don't have to be ripped off."
Which brings us to Bo Diddley's relevance today. Very little contemporary rock music sounds like that of its Diddley daddy. Though without him it's safe to assume it would not be here today. Bo isn't particular.
"I like good clean music," he says. "Good clean American music. There's some pretty good dudes out there doin' some nice things. I like a lot of country music. I like Vince Gill and Wynonna. I'm crazy about her and Dolly Parton."
But Bo don't like rap.
"A lot of the dirty rap lyrics is what I don't like," he says. "I call it rap crap. These guys need to clean up their act and be a role model for the kids in America. I'm a parent myself and a grandfather and a great-grandfather and I don't like the shit."
Not everybody dug Bo Diddley right off the bat, either.
"I guess I'm just like the people was when I came out," he concedes with a laugh.
While most of the rock 'n' roll pioneers have softened over the years or found God or dope or simply up and died, Bo Diddley remains a rocking constant, like his namesake beat. He's a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and still touring at age 75. He's working and "puttin' stuff together, some old stuff, some new things that I do." We'll no doubt hear "Mona," "Who Do You Love," "Pills," and "Cops and Robbers." And if we're lucky, we'll hear my favorite Diddley disc "I Can Tell." Bo says no.
"Don't nobody know how to play it," he says. I assure him his backing band for the evening, The Hi-Risers, is one of the best roots-rock outfits around and they know everything by everybody --- in all keys.
"Yeah, but I might be the one that don't know it," Diddley says.
Bo Diddley, backed by The Hi-Risers, plays two shows on Saturday, February 14, at the Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Street, at 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tix: $35-$40. 232-8380