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The Top Ten Greatest Bo Diddley Songs

Musical milestones in the career of The Originator


Whether you agree with his self-imposed title of "The Originator" or not, Bo Diddley was certainly one of early rock's true great innovators, not merely for his oddly-shaped guitars, pioneering use of females in his act, or his seemingly endless self-promotion, but his creativity in the one place it always counts most -- the songs. Here are Bo's ten most lasting musical gifts to the world. (All of these are available on the CD The Definitive Collection, or, if you want the bulk of his recorded output, the box set The Story Of Bo Diddley. Click on a song title to hear a clip and, if you like, purchase the download.)

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2. "I'm A Man" (Checker 814, 1955)

The flipside of his original debut 45 has been eclipsed somewhat over time by Muddy Waters' answer song, "Mannish Boy," especially the roaring 1977 version you hear now. But Bo laid the groundwork, creating a fusion of blues and rock that somehow doesn't swallow up either. And was there ever a better example of blues boasting infiltrating pop music? One of Bo's purest blues numbers, and a perennial concert favorite. Covered by a thousand British Invasion bands, most notably the Yardbirds.

3. "Who Do You Love" (Checker 842, 1956)

A rich mixture of black Americana folklore, riding an even harder Bo Diddley brand beat and creating an even more powerful sense of mythical voodoo sex magik -- if "Bo Diddley" was charming, this follow-up is ferocious, demanding, grabbing you by the throat and assuming your eventual submission. George Thoroughgood later amped it up even more, but the original contains more swampy menace.

4. "Before You Accuse Me" (Checker 878, 1957)

Later covered by everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Eric Clapton, this deathless gem strolls rather than pounds, proof that Bo had more than one rhythmic trick up his sleeve. And which of us, caught in the throes of romamtic turmoil, can't get into the sentiment here (the punchline to the title is "...take a look at yourself")? The seemingly out of tune guitar dips and dives only add to the song's general unease.

5. "You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover" (Checker 1019, 1962)

Not from what many consider Bo's "classic" period, but rather from a time in the early Sixties when Bo was desperately trying to appeal to surfing and twisting fads (among others). Yet this remains his last great hit, the most traditionally songlike of his fabled tracks and one that features some of his finest hollering and guitar slinging. Indeed, there may be more of Bo's personality on this side than any other. "You got your radio turned down too low," he shouts at one point, carried away by himself. "Turn it up!" Good advice. Almost got him back in the Top 40, too.

6. "Mona" (Checker 860, 1957)

Another beloved fave of the Brits, which makes sense: in dear old Blighty, this rockabillyesque number most have seemed like it came from another world. Singsongish like his earlier hits, employing a series of his traditional "Mockingbird" style couplets, but there's something different here, a wild passion that Bo must have been calling up from the depths of his own desire -- he shrieks and moans in a way that makes most rockers of the time (including Elvis, who no doubt stole a couple of moves from this) sound positively plastic.

7. "Pretty Thing" (Checker 827, 1955)

Thick and dark enough to be a progenitor of swamp-rock yet authentic enough to have been birthed in the rich blues loam of the Mississippi Delta, this highly influential track builds on Bo's usual rolling rhythms to create a backwoods hoedown of sorts. One made even more primal by the alternate vows of fidelity spit out by the man himself: it sounds like love, but it feels like lust. So influential was this track that the seminal Britpop band The Pretty Things took their very name from it.

8. "Bring It To Jerome" (Checker 827, 1955)

Jerome is, of course, Jerome Green, Bo's maraca player (yes, maraca player) and eternal right hand man during the glory years. He takes half the vocals here, imploring the female object of his desire to "bring it on home, bring it to Jerome." You can probably guess what "it" is, but as usual with Bo and company, the groove's most of the message. One of his more blues-oriented tracks (and that's saying something).

9. "Hey! Bo Diddley" (Checker 860, 1957)

Bo practically invented punk with this hyperactive two-step, another chapter in the Bo mythology that tells of a woman who "rustled and tussled like buffalo bill" and also eventually began "slippin' and slidin' like an automobile." The call-and-response backing vocals, gospelish in nature five years before the birth of soul yet steeped in a nearly hillbilly howl, only add to the glorious confusion.

10. "Say Man" (Checker 931, 1959)

Bo would, as was his wont, later claim to have "invented" rap with this novelty number, astonishingly the only Bo record to make it all the way to the Billboard Top 40. It's true Bo and Jerome are talking over the beat instead of singing over it -- but they're not on the beat at all. This charming, piano-laden samba, in fact, is culturally significant in other ways: it's the first widescale introduction to the African-American tradition of comic insults, or "playing the dozens." Turns out Bo's girl is so ugly she had to sneak up on a glass of water to get a drink.

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