Ellas Otha Bates died on June 2, 2008, and with him died a legend. The legend was mostly of his own making, of course, as Bates renamed himself Bo Diddley sometime back around 1951 and began singing self-composed odes about his own amazingness.
Long before rap music, with its stylized braggadocio, Bo Diddley was standing before the world and proclaiming his legend, most famously in the song “Who Do You Love,” in which he declared, “I walked forty-seven miles of barbed wire / I got a cobra snake for a necktie.” Bo Diddley was a heavyset, myopic man with hangdog features and, at the start of his career, a tendency to wear a checkered jacket and nerdy bow tie, but he played a unique, square guitar with a propulsive rhythm that has come to be associated with his name (and is one of the defining sounds of rock and roll), and when he told you that his was a figure of legend, man, you believed it.
Let me start out by telling of my own experience with Bo Diddley, which is suitably ghoulish for this time of year. I went to see him in concert years ago, sometime in the early ’90s, at a small bar in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. I arrived quite early, so I went to the back of the bar and began to play a video game. Some of you will remember the game, which was called Rampage. In it, you played a giant monster — you had a choice of being King Kong, Godzilla, or, unaccountably, a giant werewolf. You spent the game smashing buildings, attacking soldiers, and eating things. I played for a short while, and then a figure in black, wearing a massive black cowboy hat, sidled up next to me and joined the game.
It was Bo Diddley.
He and I played in silence for a while, and then he turned to look at me.
“Say,” he said. “Do you get more points if you eat the women?”
“Yes you do, Mr. Diddley,” I answered.
We returned to the game and played quietly for a half an hour. He ate quite a few women.
Several years ago, I sent this story in to Joel Orff, a cartoonist who illustrated the wonderful “Great Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Joel immediately illustrated it, and I will include a few frames from the cartoon.
And now, I want to discuss a song that seems appropriate called “Bo Meets the Monster.” As much as he might have been associated with the chugging rhythm guitar part that bears his name, and formed the basis for songs such as “I Want Candy” by The Strangeloves and “Willie and the Hand Jive” by Johnny Otis, Bo Diddley enjoyed exploring a diversity of musical styles, and was a guitarist whose style was rooted in the Chicago blues of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. His approach to this music, though, tended to strip the blues structure down to its barest core — he might have been the first rock and roller to base entire songs around tight, repeated riffs. Many of his most famous songs were based around a single chord, which was a sort of musical minimalism that even punk couldn’t manage. This is certainly why so many garage bands gravitated toward Bo Diddley’s songs, and tended to perform excellent covers of his material. Bo Diddley and fuzzed-out guitar rock are just natural couplings, and Bo Diddley provided a wealth of extraordinary riffs.
Additionally, his lyrics tended to borrow from folk tunes, such as nursery rhymes — his “Hey Bo Diddley” is a rewrite of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” except on Bo’s farm are women, while his similarly named “Bo Diddley” rewrites “Hush Little Baby.” But if the source material was sometimes juvenile, Bo Diddley’s revision of it never was. His lyrics are generally associated with the African-American tradition of the “toast,” a poetic oral form that generally expresses boastful tales, but I suspect he was also acquainted with the tall takes of the American frontier, in which fights often began with long and highly stylized bragging.
“Bo Meets the Monster” was clearly inspired by the success of Sheb Wooley’s 1958 hit “Flying Purple People Eater” — the monsters voices are identical in both songs, created by speeding up the recording. When Bo Diddley recorded his version, he initially titled it “Purple People,” and the monster in Bo’s song is actually referred to as a “Purple People Eater.” The early days of rock and roll were filled with these sorts of answer songs, in which characters from a hit song appeared in other songs by other artists, and Bo Diddley, whose famous riff had been stolen a thousand times, probably had more right to borrow from another songwriter as anyone. It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening nowadays, though, without record company lawyers calling foul and instantly retiring to a back room with a hundred lawyers to prepare a lawsuit.
And that’s a shame, because “Bo Meets the Monster” is “Purple People Eater” as seen through Bo Diddley’s huge lenses, and the results are hysterical. Sheb Woolley’s sees the monster and reacts with abject terror, but Bo responds in the manner a legend should — he leaps into a private airplane and takes off flying after it. It ends badly for Bo, as, when there is a monster loose, you shouldn’t leave your girlfriend alone in a house, even one made of rattlesnake hide. But nonetheless, the song leaves us with an excellent image, and it is the way I like to imagine Bo Diddley going. He might actually have died in bed in his hometown of Archer, Fla., but I like to image Bo Diddley leaping out of bed, grabbing his square metal guitar, tossing his black cowboy hat on, and running to his airplane to take to the skies after a rock and roll monster.
That’s the way a legend should go.