100 Greatest Artists

20

Bo Diddley

Illustration by Mark Summers

By Iggy Pop 

Bo Diddley's music is enormous. It's deeply moving. It has the sultry, sexual power of Africa. There's all sorts of mystery in that sound. People listen to Bo Diddley recordings and think, "Oh, you can just go bonk-de-bonk-bonk, de-bonk-bonk, and you got a Bo Diddley beat." But it isn't that easy. He played really simple things but with incredible authority. I first heard him on a Rolling Stones album, on their cover of "Mona." It was such a great song; I looked at the credits and it said "Ellas McDaniel," and I thought, "Who the hell is that?" But when I wanted to get into songwriting, he was the key for me. I didn't have a lot of vocal range, and I didn't know a lot of chords on the guitar. So I was looking for a way to write, and there he was, writing very complete, very memorable songs without a lot of fuss. They weren't florid. He never bothered to change the chord, for one thing — which is very heavy-metal! It's hypnotic. And, of course, there's the attitude, a chin-up, chest-out sort of thing. He was a bull; he had a bullish quality to everything he did and everything he played. Vocally, he reminds me of gutbucket Delta blues: Muddy Waters, but brought to town, rocked up. And his voice is so damn loud. It's just a huge voice, and he's got a big, deep shout.

Then there's the way he played the guitar. First of all, Bo's hands were about a foot long from the wrist to the tip of the finger. He really controlled his guitar. Bo plays his instrument, and the way the rhythm clicks is unique. What seems to pass for guitar more and more now is some wimp with a fuzz box. Somewhere around Hendrix, the line was crossed. Hendrix had both: He had the hands, and he had the fuzz box. Now all they have is the fuzz box — a lot of them.

Bo Diddley had a huge impact on Sixties rock. The Stones covered Bo Diddley, and the Yardbirds did "I'm a Man," and the Pretty Things did his song "Pretty Thing." My band in high school, the Iguanas, did a few of his songs, including "Road Runner," and you can hear a bit of him in the Stooges. You can be damn well sure that Jack White has studied Bo's records.

I've had a little personal experience with Bo. I worked with him in Vegas once, and I kept running into him on airplanes in the Eighties and Nineties — always in first class, always alone, always with a roll bag, his police hat and his sheriff's badge. I think Bo and Chuck Berry have both suffered the trivialization of people who are covered too much. His influence is everywhere, but his personal career could have used a boost. Some car or jeans company needs to put a track of his in a commercial so a lot of young dudes and dudettes can go, "Whoa — that's rockin'!"

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