Who do you love?
Rock ’n’ roll icon Bo Diddley returns to Folsom, offering a rare look at a living legend
You often hear people referring to legends and icons.
These terms get bandied about randomly, as if affixing the word “legend” or “icon” as a prefix to, say, David Hasselhoff or Paris Hilton, will bestow some sort of legendary, iconic magic upon the mere mortal whose name follows. But just because it is said does not make it so.
Words have meanings, which people easily forget.
Bo Diddley is an icon.
Diddley, né Ellas McDaniel of Chicago’s south side by way of McComb, Miss., has been making records for almost 50 years, since around the time a branch of the blues got labeled rock ’n’ roll, and playing clubs for even longer. But it isn’t sheer longevity that sets Diddley apart from his contemporaries; any Tom, Dick Clark or Harry can lay off the whiskey and cigs and barbecue and live to a ripe old age.
What positions Diddley at the top of the mountain is the sheer force of his original vision. His influence—from the “shave and a haircut … two bits” rhythm to his tremolo-heavy guitar tone, the full-gospel exuberance of his vocals, and the collision of playground jive with adult subject matter that peppers his lyrics—has turned up on rock ’n’ roll records ever since. From the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and other British Invasion bands that covered his tunes in the 1960s to modern-day punk acts that have no clue they’re ripping him off today, a thread of Diddley’s effect on popular music can be drawn from early 1955—when he began recording for the Chess Records subsidiary label Checker—to now.
Then there are the visual cues—the rectangular guitar body, the wild plaid suits and the horn-rimmed glasses. Diddley invented his own vernacular of bespectacled cool, way before Elvis Costello.
The one area where Diddley gets short shrift is in that misguided assumption that all his songs sound like his signature tune, “Hey Bo Diddley,” originally recorded in 1957. It’s easy to forget that one of Chicago blues icon Muddy Waters’ signature tunes, “I’m a Man,” was an Ellas McDaniel original.
An enumeration of Diddley’s other compositions reads like an A-list of cool cover tunes for any bar combo that specializes in blues-drenched rock ’n’ roll: “Road Runner”; “Before You Accuse Me”; “Diddy Wah Diddy,” which Diddley co-wrote with Willie Dixon; and “Who Do You Love?” which the San Francisco psychedelic band Quicksilver Messenger Service used as a framework, spread out over an entire album side on its 1969 album Happy Trails, to hang an extended guitar jam. Even lesser-known songs, such as “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,” “Diddley Daddy,” “Pretty Thing” (from whence 1960s British Invasion band the Pretty Things got their name), “Mona” and “You Don’t Love Me,” still sound good when they turn up in a set list.
Though the majority of Diddley’s choice sides were recorded from 1955 to the early 1960s (although a 1996 album on Code Blue/Atlantic, A Man Amongst Men, was a strong comeback), those songs have been more than enough to sustain a touring career. At 75, Diddley still rolls into various towns with his guitar, ready to sit in with whatever house band a nightclub will provide. In 2002, the day after Christmas, he played the PowerHouse Pub in Folsom, backed by Jackie Greene and his band.
On Sunday, Diddley will return to the same venue to sit in with Probable Cause, a band made up of regulars that play the PowerHouse’s Sunday-night blues jam. According to the jam session’s host, Steve Mears, a Sacramento-area garage-band veteran who’s now a building inspector by day but plays blues harmonica and, occasionally, bass during the evenings, the group has been working its way through Diddley’s extensive song catalog to prepare for the event.
“Most of the songs are standard one-four-five progressions,” said Mears, an admitted Diddley fan since childhood. “The only thing that worries me is getting the turnarounds right.”
One gets the feeling he and the band will be up to the charge of backing a legend.