Published October 5, 2017 in Warp & Woof
Who Do You Love? Bo Diddley’s Masterpiece
On Chicago’s South Side, in the 1940s, a rich culture of recently arrived African-Americans from the rural South made for an enduring musical legacy. While not the sole birthplace of what we came to know as “Rock-and-Roll,” the neighborhood contributed a disproportionately large share of the artists who would ultimately spawn that new musical form. One of them was Ellas McDaniel. He was only six years old when his family moved from Mississippi to the South Side, and his early musical talent was fostered by playing in his school orchestra (violin and trombone).
Sometime in his teens, he heard a performance by great bluesman John Lee Hooker. He was impressed and inspired. So, he formed a band of his own with school friends. After playing on street corners, they soon found gigs in neighborhood venues, before Ellas was even out of high school. He had taught himself guitar, and was heavily influenced by the rhythmic cadence of music heard in his Pentecostal church.
His band kept playing. By 1955, at age 26, Chess Records finally discovered him. In one account, Leonard Chess decided that, since McDaniel’s first recording for them was a song entitled “Bo Diddley,” he would give the unknown artist the same name. Other accounts of the origins of the stage name credit it to McDaniel, his fellow band members, or unknown origin, but referencing the crude handmade single-string instrument from Mississippi called the “Diddly Bow.”
Chess was taking a risk releasing recordings from such non-entities, but some of them achieved great success. Bo Diddley would, too, but it was slow coming, by record industry standards. In 1956, when he first recorded “Who Do You Love?”, Chess was already skeptical. This may have partly been because McDaniel was banned from the Ed Sullivan show the previous year, after misunderstanding his cue card, reading “Bo Diddley,” to mean he should play his song by that name – rather than “Sixteen Tons,” as the script had directed!
In the late fifties, McDaniel (by then well known in Rhythm and Blues circles as Bo Diddley), moved to Washington, D.C. He was prosperous enough to have his own basement recording studio on Rhode Island Avenue, N.E. Here he recorded his album “Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger” and discovered some local artists — including Marvin Gaye, his valet, who sang in a Doo Wop group called The Marquees.
Part of the early Chess Records promotional campaign for McDaniel was to christen his unique syncopated R & B style the “Bo Diddley Beat.” This can be loosely described as a certain five accent clave. That first single, “Bo Diddley,” is a good example. But, in fact, McDaniel did not invent it – it was a previously recorded Afro-Cuban rhythm heard, among other places, in the Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca Cola” (1944). Leonard Chess did encourage McDaniel to claim credit, however, as part of the general promotion of his name.
Since the original version of “Who Do You Love” did not even feature that “Bo Diddley Beat” (it was closer in style to Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”), there must be something else about the song that caused it to become the best-known of all Bo Diddley works – based on the number of covers it’s received by different musicians.
Could it be the bizarre lyricsthat make it such a masterpiece? They were, according to the songwriter himself, based on children’s schoolyard bragging in Kansas City, animated by a rhythmic body language. We don’t know why McDaniel had been in K.C., or that schoolyard! But, the lyrics clearly have some strong Voodoo overtones (or, “hoodoo,” the Mississippi/Louisiana variant) – rather dark and threatening, describing a harrowing journey through barbed wire, wearing a cobra snake for a necktie, living in a house made of rattlesnake hide with a chimney “made out of a human skull.” Fearless, he is “just 22 and I don’t mind dying” – harsh to his girlfriend, Arlene, “don’t give me no lip”” – and the scene filled with cognitive dissonance: “the night was dark, but the sky was blue” and “you should have heard just what I seen.”
The original song also is easily adaptable, not only to the classic “Bo Diddley Beat,” but also to many different styles of rock music that developed through the sixties and seventies. It was a particularly popular cover for some of the California “psychedelic” bands. Perhaps this is attributable to the vaguely Southwestern imagery of rattlesnakes and barbed wire in the lyrics.
The California connection for Who Do You Love was contemporaneous with another by a New England coffee house folk singer, Tom Rush. Rush recorded an early cover in 1966. His Who Do You Love had some of his smoother folk attributes. But, when recorded by Elektra Records, Rush’s version was transformed into a Rock-and-Roll staple, with that “Bo Diddley Beat.” This was the first version of the song I ever heard, played on WHFS-FM radio. Rush adopted a low-pitched growl for his vocal rendition, which captured both the blues culture and the dark Voodoo lyrics perfectly. It ultimately led to my wanting to learn more about the song, and about Bo Diddley.
At about the same time, Bo Diddley was becoming a cult on the Left Coast. One of the prime examples of the San Francisco psychedelic scene in the sixties was Quicksilver Messenger Service. Their second album, “Happy Trails,” features the entire first side dedicated to an extended jam on Who Do You Love, in six parts. Most of it is inspired more by Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead than by Bo Diddley, but if you listen carefully, through the haze, you can just barely make out the Bo Diddley Beat in parts, and the lyrics are faithfully reproduced – in between the extended guitar riffs. The great flexibility of the song to differing interpretations is on display in Quicksilver’s performanceat Fillmore East in 1968.
My two favorite Who Do You Love covers are both by iconic figures from California. The Doors picked it up for a series of live performances in 1970. By this time in their career, Jim Morrison was drunkat many concerts, and the backup band – especially John Densmore (drums) and Robby Krieger (lead guitar) – often had to rescue him. Who Do You Love made that role easy. Morrison’s slurred speech fit the surreal lyrics well, with Densmore and Krieger were masterful in multiple recordings of the band doing the song on tour. The Bo Diddley Beat is unmistakable. As is the inherent raw power of the song.
By the late seventies, the blues revival was nearing its end – Led Zeppelin was on the verge of breaking up – but one California artist was having some success keeping it going. That was George Thorogood, with his band, The Destroyers. His second album, “Move It On Over,” contained many great blues numbers, often mashups of different Chicago blues classics, with altered lyrics, and transition chords created by Thorogood. “Who Do You Love,” one of his most enduring numbers was also here – Thorogood’s version adds a line to the lyrics: “good time music with a Bo Diddley Beat,” and a couple other minor changes – they fit perfectly, and the beat itself is adapted seamlessly. Thorogood’s “Who Do You Love” is a masterpiece all by itself. He may have been the best of the California R & B revival artists – maybe the last authentic “Who Do You Love” cover?
So, where are they today? Yes, we’ve seen blues guitarists more recently – notably Jack White – but, I’m not aware of any recent R & B or rock covers of Bo Diddley. The Proto-Punk, Punk, and Metal trends in rock seem to have passed him by. Who Do You Love would be eminently adaptable to any of these later styles, I could have seen Motorhead doing a cover of it, for example.
But, alas, though such attempts may have been made, they were never released. Is it time for another revival? Surely, George Thorogood can’t be the last in a line … maybe another musical style would work better? How about jettisoning the “Bo Diddley Beat” altogether, like Elise LeGrow is doing? Not rock-and-roll, but …