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I'm a Man - The Chess Masters, 1955-1958

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Album Review

When a musician has a beat named after them, there's no doubt that they have their own signature — a calling card that is recognized as their own even when others play it. It's rare that a musician gets credited with something so unique, but such an honor can also be a mild curse, as it implies that's all there is to their music. Bo Diddley, the man who patented a propulsive variation of the shave-and-a-haircut beat so instantly identifiable as one of the main strands of rock & roll's DNA, suffers a bit from that curse. Not that anybody denies that Bo is one of the architects of rock & roll, but the omnipresence of the "Bo Diddley" beat can lead some listeners to dismiss him as a one-trick pony. Also, the sheer primal urgency of his rhythms and his no-nonsense persona could be overshadowed by the flamboyance of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, or the quick-fire verbal skills of Chuck Berry. Diddley has had moments of resurgent popularity, his songs have been covered by generations of rockers; bands play his music without realizing their debt, but he's never quite had his work undergo a critical reappraisal, one that would let more than the diehards know how rich and varied his work is. With any luck, Hip-O Select's new double-disc set I'm a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958 will help usher in that long overdue reappraisal.

"I'm a Man" chronicles the first four years of Bo's career, when he was cutting singles instead of albums, just like almost all other rockers in the late '50s. Such emphasis on singles gave sessions a purpose: there was no room for filler, nothing recorded with the intent of padding out an album, so they were often concentrated and intense, as Bo's were. This covers sessions recorded between March 2, 1955 and December 1958, proceeding in chronological order so the alternate takes pile up quickly and there are a lot them — roughly twelve, some of them unreleased, some of them previously appearing on various compilations over the years, including the excellent Rare & Well Done. Sometimes, alternate takes differ only minimally from the master, but that's not the case with Diddley's early Checker/Chess recordings. Here, there are some startling differences, notable almost immediately with the two previously unreleased alternates of his calling card, "Bo Diddley." Both are almost brutal in their rhythms, which is where the real difference on these takes lie: over the course of three takes, it's possible to hear the "Bo Diddley" develop, as the rhythm becomes lighter and danceable, more rock & roll and less blues. The rest of that first session is hard blues, highlighted by "I'm a Man" which turned into nearly as big an anthem as "Bo Diddley."

Bo never backed away from the blues after that session — his rock & roll always had an earthy, gritty grounding in the blues — but in the wake of the success of "Bo Diddley," he started opening up his music almost immediately, with his second session producing the A-side "Diddley Daddy," a much lighter rock & roll tune where the presence of Little Walter on harp is mediated by the Moonglows' cheerful harmonies, a bit of a surprise considering the down-n-dirty precedent of "Bo Diddley," "I'm a Man," "Little Girl," and "You Don't Love Me (You Don't Care)." As the next few years rolled on, Bo was often full of surprises like that, turning out some of the hardest, toughest, early rock & roll singles, but he could also be light on his feet, boisterously, bawdily funny and sometimes just flat-out strange, as on the murky, ominous "The Great Grandfather" and the sawing violin of "The Clock Strikes Twelve." Much of this is evident on the best Bo hits comps, but it comes into sharper relief on I'm a Man because of the context. Hearing Diddley's music develop — and rather rapidly, for that matter — illustrates his depth and range and provides no small share of revelations, either. Chief among these, of course, is the first release of Diddley's original version of "Love is Strange," a hit for Mickey & Sylvia that bears the writing credit of Ethel Smith, who was Diddley's second wife. Bo's version isn't a duet and it's heavier on the rhythm than Mickey & Sylvia's, plus it lacks Mickey Baker's guitar riff that ushers out the chorus — all essential differences that illustrate how Diddley's music had an essential, earthy core. He may have been grounded in this blues and rhythm — and more than any of his peers, he placed equal emphasis on both — but he expanded it to encompass dusty, atmospheric, almost cinematic instrumentals like "Spanish Guitar," rock & roll love songs like "Dearest Darling," or the sweeter-still, previously unreleased "Our Love Will Never Go" whose dreaminess was echoed in "Crackin' Up," only there he flips the sentiment around and blames the girl for a relationship going south, proving that you can't take the swagger away from Bo — after all, during these four years he had no less than sixsongs with his name in the title! Of course, much of this was delivered with his tongue firmly in cheek, and this was hardly the only instance of his wicked sense of humor: whenever he and Jerome Green (his main man on maracas) trash talked, the results were riotous, whether it was on the very funny "Cops and Robbers" or the immortal "Say Man," also heard here in a very different alternate take with a few different jibes.

Here, Bo's humor and easy experimenting stand out because of the session-by-session context, but they also serve a dual purpose of emphasizing just how hard his core classics rock. In this setting, "Bring it to Jerome," "I'm Bad," "Who Do You Love," "Hey! Bo Diddley," "Mona," "Before You Accuse Me," and "Diddy Wah Diddy" pack an enormous wallop, sounding bigger and badder than they do on most regular Diddley comps. That restored vitality is nearly as instructive as the clear, evident progression of Bo's music over these four years, which is why this is a necessary historical document, but to belabor that point is to make I'm a Man seem academic, which it decidedly is not. It's "Bo Diddley" music, after all, so it's a party that never ends. Let's just hope the party continues on further volumes that extend into the '60s.

Biography

Born: 30 December 1928 in McComb, MS

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

He only had a few hits in the 1950s and early '60s, but as Bo Diddley sang, "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover." You can't judge an artist by his chart success, either, and Diddley produced greater and more influential music than all but a handful of the best early rockers. The Bo Diddley beat — bomp, ba-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp — is one of rock & roll's bedrock rhythms, showing up in the work of Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, and even pop-garage knock-offs like the Strangeloves'...
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