Otha Ellas Bates, better known as Bo Diddley, was born on a farm December 30, 1928 on the outskirts of McComb, Mississippi. He was adopted and raised by Gussie McDaniel his mother’s cousin and then went under the name Ellas McDaniel. The family moved to the South Side of Chicago in the mid 1930s during the depression where they were involved in the church.
Young Ellas was fascinated by the violin and after the church took up a collection to buy him one, the minister of music gave him lessons during his teenage years. After seeing John Lee Hooker perform his sister gave him a guitar as a present and he began to play it. He was interested in playing drums but because he couldn’t coordinate his hands, he developed a unique style of guitar playing. It was derived from hambone, an “African/American rhythm technique” using the hands that were adopted by the slaves when they were deprived of drums for communication.
He adopted the stage name Bo Diddley around the time that he began to perform on street corners and clubs with “The Hipsters” and “The Langley Avenue Jive Cats.” This led to a recording contract with “Chess Records” a subsidiary of “Checker Records,” that Willie Dixon worked for. After a string of 45 rpm singles beginning in 1955 that charted he released a self titled compilation album containing all the songs on “Chess” in 1958.
Bo Diddley became known for the Diddley beat that was adopted in some way or another by every major rock act that followed from Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly to the “Rolling Stones” and the “Clash.” He was also the first rock & roll artist to include female musicians in his band. During his career, he recorded 27 studio albums and over 30 live and compilation albums as well as being inducted into the “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” in 1987. He continued to tour until his death in 2008.
Here are Blues Rock Review’s top 10 Bo Diddley songs.
10. “Bring It To Jerome”
“Bring It To Jerome” was recorded and released in 1955 on the “Chess” label and in 1958 on his eponymous compilation album. It’s about Bo Diddley’s maraca player Jerome Green, who co-sang the song and was in his band until 1964. Green had been playing with McDaniel since they were in the “Langley Avenue Jive Cats” in the early 1950s. As with many of Bo Diddley’s songs, this one was directed toward a female as an object of desire. The song has been covered by others over the decades from the “Manfred Mann Band” to most recently in 2018, Billy Gibbons.
“You know pretty baby (bring it to Jerome)
I’m so crazy ‘bout you (bring it to Jerome)”
9. “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover”
“You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover” is a Willie Dixon composition that appeared on Bo Diddley’s 8th studio album and 2nd album released in 1962. It was also his 2nd self-titled album not to be confused with the 1st one which was a compilation. The song admonishes the listener to not be judgmental and was most likely inspired by the Bible passage found in the New Testament’s “Sermon on the mount” where Jesus spoke the classic line: “Judge not, that ye be not judged…” in Matthew 7:1. The song is one of the last from what is considered Bo Diddley’s classic period.
8. “Road Runner”
“Road Runner” was written in 1959 by Bo Diddley when Warner Brothers Saturday morning cartoons featured the “Road Runner” along with Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. It was released as a 45 rpm record on the “Checker” record label in 1960 and also appeared on his 4th LP titled Bo Diddley in the Spotlight. It was a popular song to cover over the decades by everyone from the “Animals” and the “Who” to Walter Trout and Aerosmith.
7. “Pretty Thing”
“Pretty Thing” was co-written by Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley and recorded and released as a 45 rpm single in 1955 on “Checker Records.” Its performance was in the style of “swamp-rock” influenced by the blues of the Mississippi Delta and interpreted through the Chicago blues sound of that era. The song also became a hit in the United Kingdom in 1963 when it appeared on the “UK Singles Chart.”
“You pretty thing
Let me buy you a wedding ring.”
6. “Before You Accuse Me”
“Before You Accuse Me” is another gem from Bo Diddley’s eponymous debut album from 1958. It’s been covered by a few other “blues rockers” over the years including “Creedence Clearwater Revival” on Cosmo’s Factory and Eric Clapton’s Journeyman album to name a couple. Clapton had been performing the song since his days in the “Yardbirds” but never recorded it on one of his solo albums before. In a 2006 interview with this writer, Bo Diddley explained that he has never collected a dime of royalty payments for the song since he first wrote and released it nearly 50 years earlier.
5. “Say Man”
“Say Man” appeared on Bo Diddley’s 2nd album, Go Bo Diddley. It was his first album on the Checker label and unlike the 1st album on “Chess” it contained previously unreleased material. The song itself is a precursor of “rap” and used what at that time was a common “African/American insult humor” in a style similar to “rap” but called “signifyin’.” The exchange of insults take place between Bo Diddley and Jerome Green his maraca player over a driving samba emanation from a piano.
4. “Hey Bo Diddley”
“Hey Bo Diddley” is another cut from Bo Diddley’s seminal self-titled debut album that contains the previous 3 years of singles. The song was inspired by a combination of the traditional “American folk song ‘Mockingbird’” and the children’s nursery rhyme, “Old McDonald.” Bo Diddley performed it during his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1955 contrary to Mr. Sullivan’s request for “16 Tons” instead. Because of this, Sullivan banned Bo Diddley from ever appearing on the show again.
“Mona” was the B-side of “Hey, Bo Diddley” released as a 45 rpm record on the “Chess” label in 1957. It was inspired by a 45 year old exotic dancer from Detroit that Ellas was infatuated with. The song is performed in a “rockabilly” style using multiple “Mockingbird style couplets.” It contained his signature beat and was covered by everyone from the “Rolling Stones” and “Quicksilver Messenger Service” to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.
“Tell ya Mona, what I wanna do
Get-a my house a-next door to you.”
2. “I’m a Man”
“I’m a Man” is a landmark song written and recorded by Bo Diddley in 1955. It predated the “Civil Rights” movement, yet expressed the same sentiments in the form of the statement “I’m a Man.” The song was inspired by Muddy Waters’ 1951 composition “She Moves Me” which Muddy in turn was inspired by McDaniel to rework and release as “Mannish Boy.” It was initially released as a 45 rpm single in 1955 and in 1958 it appeared on Bo Diddley’s eponymous debut album. The song was covered by the “Yardbirds” who recorded it twice, once with Eric Clapton and once with Jeff Beck.
1. “Who Do You Love”
“Who Do You Love” appears on Bo Diddley’s self-titled debut album which is a compilation album made up of all the singles that he released between 1955 and 1958 and was released on the “Chess Record” label. The title itself is a play on words substituting Hoodoo for Voodoo and the imagery is dark and threatening as Bo Diddley brags about what a bad dude he is to impress a woman. The song has been covered many times over the years by everyone from George Thorogood to the legendary Haight Ashbury hippie band “Quicksilver Messenger Service” that had a nearly half hour extended and improvised psychedelic version of the song on their Happy Trails album in 1968.