Bo Diddley's 'I'm a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958' and 'Road Runner: The Chess Masters, 1959-1960'
By Robert Hilburn, Special to The Los Angeles Times
A pair of Bo Diddley retrospectives offers an especially revealing look at the late Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member’s studio experimentation. In "I'm a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958," we hear two unreleased versions of the Mississippi native's debut single, "Bo Diddley." Though they are both dynamic enough to have attracted some attention on R&B radio stations in 1955, they aren't as immediately compelling as the third version, which has become a rock 'n' roll classic.
The first iteration opens with a slow but steady drumbeat, which is soon joined by the sound of maracas and, finally, the roar of Diddley's shadowy, tremoloed guitar and gruff, aggressive vocal. The treatment is interesting but not urgent enough.
In the second attempt, we hear someone in the studio giving a "one, two, three, four" countdown, which is followed by the musicians coming in at once and stepping all over one another. Midway through the track, Diddley's vocal turns into a strange but gimmicky howl that breaks the mysterious aura of the song.
On the third version, Diddley's guitar and vocal hit hard from the start and the other musicians fall in line in a way that pulls together the feverish, chank-a-chank, a-chank, a-chank-chank rhythm that provided the song's infectious backbeat, among the most distinctive sounds in all of rock.
That mix of Latin, blues and African rhythms was employed in such later recording jewels as Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," Bruce Springsteen's "She's the One" and U2's "Desire." Producer T-Bone Burnett put elements of Diddley's reverberating guitar to excellent use when Robert Plant teamed with Alison Krauss on last year's "Raising Sand" album.
The third version of "Bo Diddley" went to No. 1 on the R&B chart, but pop disc jockeys didn't seem to know what to make of the unusual sound and pretty much ignored the single. Even after half a century, however, the record -- and that classic Bo Diddley sound -- is a wonder.
"I'm a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958"
The back story: In his liner notes to this two-disc package, Chris Morris points out that if Bo Diddley (the stage name assumed by Ellas McDaniel) had never released another note of music after his first, twin-sided hit ("Bo Diddley" on one side and "I'm a Man" on the other), he would have thoroughly defined himself as an artist formed in his own image and no one else's.
Of course, Diddley's recording career continued long after that first single, and this collection brings together his session work on Chess Records' subsidiary label, Checker, from March 1955 to December 1958. That adds up to seven R&B hits as well as eight previously unreleased tracks and 12 alternative versions. Two of the hits did cross over to the pop field: "Crackin' Up," which reached No. 62 in 1959, and the humorous "Say Man," which climbed to No. 20 the same year.
"Road Runner: The Chess Masters, 1959-1960"
The back story: Given Diddley's influence, it's easy to assume this second two-disc set, which contains more than a dozen previously unreleased selections, would be a treasure chest of lost material. Instead, it's a case study of how far an artist can wander from his brilliant core sound in search of a hit.
The opening track, for instance, is apparently an attempt to come up with something so novel that no one could resist it.
In the disastrous "Mama Mia," Diddley doesn't even play guitar as he devotes his full attention to a lavish, operatic style vocal on a song that is so lame it invokes the name of an old Elvis hit ("All Shook Up") in hopes of appealing to the teen market.
Elsewhere, Diddley goes through all sorts of unproductive side trips, including playing violin rather than guitar on the pop song "To Each His Own" and giving us rival slow and fast versions of an even earlier pop number, "Prisoner of Love."
Still, Diddley delivers some gems in the set, including the boastful "She's Alright," which he nails on the fourth try, and the zesty "Road Runner," which ranks with his best work.
Though these collections vary greatly in quality, they are both invaluable from a historical standpoint. A third volume, which will take us through Diddley's 1963 sessions, is planned for release next year.