Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the performer Bo Diddley and his self-titled song. This is a terrific ‘roots rock’ song, one of the most important tunes that marked the transition from R&B to rock music. After discussing Bo Diddley and his career, we will switch to a closely-related song, Willie and the Hand Jive. We will review the original by Johnny Otis, plus covers by Eric Clapton and The Band.
Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley:
Bo Diddley was one of the great early rock and roll pioneers. He was known among his peers as ‘The Originator,’ because of his many contributions to rock music and R&B. In fact, one could argue that the song Bo Diddley is representative of the quintessential rock music beat.
Ellas Bates from McComb, Mississippi moved to Chicago’s South Side in 1934, where he joined the orchestra of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. However, once he heard John Lee Hooker, he was hooked on the electric guitar. He then adopted the stage name `Bo Diddley.’
In the early 1950s Bo began working in blues clubs in the Chicago area, where he rapidly gained a following. He recorded a few cuts at Chess Studios, and when the song Bo Diddley was released in 1955, it ran all the way to #1 on the R&B charts.
Although he enjoyed limited commercial success, Bo Diddley was a legendary figure in rock and blues circles. In 1963 he was one of the headliners, along with Little Richard and the Everly Brothers, on a tour of Britain. A promising young British group called the Rolling Stones was one of the opening acts on that tour.
Bo was famous for his trademark rectangular Gretsch guitar shown in the 1957 publicity photo above, a distinctive shape that Bo referred to as a “Twang Machine.” He was extremely innovative, one of the first guitar players to introduce echos and
he developed many special effects and other innovations in tone and attack.
The song Bo Diddley is really a masterpiece. Note that it consists almost exclusively of a single chord, repeated over and over again. Bo’s use of similar rhythms was so pervasive that it is referred to as the `Bo Diddley beat.’ This ‘clave rhythm’ originated in African tribal music, and can be found in progenitors such as the clapping-slapping song Hambone.
The Bo Diddley beat is so influential that one can find echoes of this song over and over in subsequent rock music tunes. The syncopation in Bo Diddley is quite hypnotic; and the lyrics are exceptionally simple, consisting of a series of rhyming boasts regarding Bo’s prowess.
Bo diddley caught a nanny goat,
To make his pretty baby a Sunday coat,
Bo diddley caught a bear cat,
To make his pretty baby a Sunday hat
However, despite the deceptive simplicity of the lyrics, they are a weird and wonderful mish-mash of black voodoo slang, sung in a stream-of-consciousness style.
Here is a video clip of Bo Diddley performing his song at the TAMI show in 1965. The TAMI show (for “Teen Age Music International”) was an all-star revue televised in 1965. The producers of that show assembled a blockbuster group of acts, ranging from James Brown to the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones.
The producers rounded up an audience by handing out free tickets to California high school students. Bo Diddley was one of the headliners of the show. As you can see, he amazed the audience with his vigorous and creative guitar work.
Isn’t this pretty spectacular? This tune demonstrates the predominance of rhythm in rock music, and strips the song down to its essence – no fancy chords, no memorable lyrics, just an irresistible beat. You can see the teenagers trying out various clapping and hand gestures while they listen to the song.
So, let’s summarize the tune Bo Diddley: no clear song structure; one chord; no recognizable guitar `solo;’ no real distinction between `verse’ and `chorus;’ just one unique, pulsating rhythm. Wow!
Next I want to show a terrific use of the song Bo Diddley. It is from the 1972 X-rated animated film Fritz the Cat, based on the cartoon of the same name by R. Crumb. Here is a shot of the over-sexed Fritz from the trailer of the film, directed by Ralph Bakshi.
In this clip, the song Bo Diddley is played while we watch a hipster crow snapping his fingers and lounging around. The crow seems to be standing under an intermittently functioning streetlamp. The scene then shifts to a gritty urban cityscape.
In my opinion, this is a most effective use of this song; it fits perfectly with the scene being portrayed.
Like many ‘roots’ legends such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley was not happy with the compensation he received from his pioneering efforts. He watched while white artists like the Rolling Stones become zillionaires playing music that borrowed heavily from his own work. In the meantime, Bo’s commercial success was rather limited, at least during the 50s and 60s.
However, eventually Bo Diddley got the recognition he deserved. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and in 1998 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Bo Diddley died of heart failure in June, 2008.
Johnny Otis and Willie and the Hand Jive:
Johnny Otis was a prominent West Coast bandleader, who made significant contributions to R&B and rock music. Otis had a fascinating life. He lived in the black community, married a black woman and primarily worked with black musicians, so it was widely assumed that he was African-American.
In fact, Otis’ real name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. His father was a Greek immigrant who moved to California and was the proprietor of a grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley. Otis chose to live and work in the African-American community. He wrote,
“As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.”
In the 1940s, Johnny Otis became a prominent musician in California. He had an extremely successful band, and he discovered a number of singers, including Etta James (who was 13 at the time she began working with him) and Big Mama Thornton. In fact, Johnny Otis co-produced Thornton’s recording of Hound Dog, and he claimed to have also co-written that song with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
In the 1950s he had a highly popular TV program, was an influential DJ in Los Angeles, and was also a successful record producer. Otis definitely qualifies as one of the hippest white guys of the 1950s.
Here is a montage of Johnny Otis memorabilia, showing him in 1957 (lower L), with his band (center), and posters along with the marquee of the Apollo Theater advertising his show from 1953.
Willie and the Hand Jive was written by Johnny Otis. Although it sounds very derivative to Bo Diddley, there are recordings by the Johnny Otis band with similar rhythms that pre-date the song Bo Diddley by several years.
Otis said that he got the inspiration for the tune from a chain gang song that he heard. The idea of the ‘Hand Jive,’ a series of hand movements done to the song, originated when Otis was told that British audiences at rock music concerts were forbidden from getting up and dancing. So the audience members would do clapping and coordinated hand gestures, while remaining in their seats.
The song became a big hit for Johnny Otis Show, reaching #5 on the Billboard R&B charts and # 9 on the Top 100 list. The lyrics describe a character named “Way-Out Willie,” who becomes famous due to his ability to master these hand movements.
I know a cat named Way-Out Willie,
Got a cool little chick named Rocking Millie.
He can walk and stroll and Susie Q
And do that crazy hand jive, too. …
[CHORUS] Hand jive, hand jive, hand jive,
Do that crazy hand jive.
At Otis’ concerts,
performers would demonstrate Willie’s “hand jive” dance to the audience, so the audience could dance along. The dance consisted of clapping two fists together one on top of the other, followed by rolling the arms around each other. Otis’ label, Capitol Records, also provided diagrams showing how to do the hand jive dance.
Today, of course, you can find a pictorial “How To” description of the “hand jive” on the Internet, here. By the way, the hand movements described on the Internet look pretty simple but are deceptively difficult to master, at least for me.
Here is Johnny Otis’ recording of Willie and the Hand Jive. Johnny plays keyboards and sings the song, at what is purported to be an audition. The tune is accompanied by some cheesy Broadway-style choreography.
As you can see, the tune is propelled by sophisticated drumming by Earl Palmer, combined with some great rhythmic guitar work from Jimmy Nolen. In fact, I would nominate Nolen’s guitar work on this song as some of the most creative I have ever heard.
The net result is irresistible: it’s nearly impossible to avoid clapping along with the music.
Eric Clapton and Willie and the Hand Jive:
We have covered Eric Clapton before on our blog, first as the lead guitarist with Cream in our post on the great Robert Johnson blues classic Crossroads. Next we encountered Clapton as the lead guitarist for Blind Faith in our post on The Rolling Stones’ song Under My Thumb. Finally we reviewed his work as the leader of the band Derek and the Dominos.
So we will very briefly review Eric’s career for this post. He is one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and the only person ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times (once with The Yardbirds, a second time with Cream, and a third for his solo career).
Here is a photo of Eric Clapton performing in 1974.
Clapton burst onto the rock music scene while still in his teens, through his blues guitar work with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He became the subject of a cult following when graffiti proclaiming “Clapton is God” began appeared in London underground stations.
In the 60s and 70s, Eric Clapton developed a pattern of moving from one group to another. Having left the Yardbirds and John Mayall, he teamed up with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in the blues power-trio Cream. When that group broke up three years later, he spent a year with the group Blind Faith, and next formed the quartet Derek and the Dominos.
Eric has been primarily a solo act for the past few decades. He re-united with his Cream mates for a few concerts in London and New York in 2005, and has toured a couple of times with Steve Winwood, his band-mate from Blind Faith. Although Clapton has a remarkably eclectic playlist, ranging from pop songs to country-rock music to reggae, he repeatedly returns to his first love, the blues.
Clapton’s version of Willie and the Hand Jive was issued as a cut on his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard. The single went up to #26 on the Billboard pop charts. The song appears frequently in his concerts, and here is a live version.
Eric slows down the song considerably. In this version, in addition to Clapton’s inimitable guitar work we get significant contributions from piano, saxophone (a great sassy solo in the middle of the song), horns, and a very funky bass line. Despite the slow tempo, the beat is still as infectious as ever.
Let’s finish off with one additional ‘bonus track.’ Below we have The Band playing Willie and the Hand Jive. It was the final song from their reunion concert, which was produced by the great impresario Bill Graham at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium on New Year’s Eve, 1983.
Here is a photo of The Band taken in 1978. From L: Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.
The Band convert Johnny Otis’ tune into their patented brand of funky `roots rock.’ Levon Helm sings the melody and plays drums, accompanied by Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel on piano, and Garth Hudson on organ. In this concert Robbie Robertson, the original Band lead guitarist, has been replaced by Earl Cate.
The Band were a really rocking ensemble who began playing in the 50s and continued into the mid-70s. They were originally assembled by Ronnie Hawkins, and first became famous when, as The Hawks, they were Bob Dylan’s backing band when he forsook folk music for rock. They accompanied Dylan on his famous electric U.S. and European tours in 1965 and 1966.
In the late 60s, several of The Band members shared a house called ‘Big Pink’ in upstate New York, very near the house that Bob Dylan lived in while recovering from a motorcycle accident. There, they recorded with Dylan the legendary ‘basement tapes’ that circulated as bootleg copies for years before finally being released decades later.
The Band had no individual superstars, but specialized in very creative arrangements and great musicianship. Their redneck-rock synthesis was really memorable. The Band’s final concert on Thanksgiving Day Nov. 25, 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, which is surely the best music documentary of all time.
Sadly, it seems that the reputation of The Band may be fading away. My friend Glenn Gass tells me that students in his ‘history of rock music’ class tend not to have heard about The Band.
That’s too bad, as the group brought an energetic and creative touch to everything they produced. To me, their music still sounds fresh and lively today. It would have been great to see them continue for decades, much like the Grateful Dead (who opened for The Band at the concert in the video above).