Bo Diddley just may be the most original artist in all of rock ‘n’ roll. He took the bravado and first person narrative tradition of the great blues artists he worshiped to a whole different level, then married that with an original sound based around his distinctive “Bo Diddley beat.” Like all great artists, Bo took from all the influences around him to create his own unique stew. Bo was born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago’s South Side. Although he grew up in a poor and vicious neighborhood, the local Baptist church sprang for violin lessons for the young lad. When he first started playing guitar he tuned it to an open chord, in the tradition of the delta bluesmen, and attacked the strings as if he were bowing a violin.
The now-famous sound that resulted was a mixture of this tuning and approach, fused with the rhythms of the street corner hustlers he grew up around, and soon joined ranks with, in the South Side. The biggest street performer in Bo’s neighborhood during his youth was a man called “Sandman.” Sandman carried a bag of sand, a plank of wood and a broom. He’d set up on the corner, cover the board with sand and dance, letting the sand – which sounded like a maraca – accentuate the rhythms of his feet. Then he’d sweep it back into the sack and move on to the next corner.
This mixture of rhythm, showmanship, and ingenuity shaped Bo’s style; accentuated by Calypso and Latin rhythms ala maraca player and sidekick Jerome Green, a makeshift tremolo device he custom built (before the first commercial tremolo was on the market) from car parts and a wind-up clock spring, and Bo’s infinite imagination and story telling. Ever the showman street hustler, he placed his carefully cultivated “Bo Diddley” character into a seemingly endless series of comical and absurd situations.
There was “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger,” which finds Bo shooting it out at the OK Corral, “Bo’s A Lumberjack,” “Bo Meets the Monster,” “Bo Diddley is Loose,” and the autobiographical “The Story of Bo Diddley.” He issued a series of concept albums in the 1950’s and 1960’s including “Bo Diddley’s Beach Party,” “Gunslinger,” “Have Guitar Will Travel,” and “Bo Diddley is a Lover.”
I’d say it was a ‘mixed-up’ rhythm: blues, an’ Latin-American, an’ some hillbilly, a little spiritual, a little African, an’ a little West-Indian calypso…an’ if I wanna start yodelin’ in the middle of it, I can do that too. I like gumbo, you dig? Hot sauces too. That’s where my music comes from: all the mixture. I got those beats so jumbled up on ‘Bo Diddley’ that they couldn’t sort ‘em out!
The various incarnations of the “Bo Diddley beat” can be heard on countless diverse and immensely popular records, including Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” The Who’s “Magic Bus,” Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One,” U2’s “Desire,” George Michael’s “Faith,” and The White Stripes’ “Screwdriver,” just to name a few. But Bo Diddley was far more than just a one-chord, one-groove, one-trick pony. His catalog – as varied and versatile as the artists he influenced – is peppered with distinct grooves and polyrhythms just as imaginative and complex as the “shave and haircut” riff for which he is best known.
Oddly enough, despite all this imagination, creativity and appreciation for theme records and musical character development, Bo Diddley never recorded a Christmas album; or even a Christmas single.
Enter The Tractors. The Tractors are the brainchild of guitarist, vocalist, and producer Steve Ripley, consisting of a revolving cast of seasoned backup musicians. They scored some success on the country music charts in the 1990’s with their mix of traditional country, blues, boogie-woogie and other American roots music styles, earning two Grammy nominations.
The Tractors have recorded two full albums of Christmas music: 1995’s Have Yourself a Tractors Christmas, and 2002’s Big Night. The latter contains a fun oddity: “Bo Diddley Santa Claus.”
Bo Diddley Santa Claus?
Although Ripley conceived of and wrote the song, credit is shared between Steve Ripley and Ellas McDaniel (Bo Diddley’s given name and the one he used for authorship and copyright purposes). The plot of the song should be obvious. Santa has fallen sick and is thusly unable to make his rounds delivering toys on Christmas Eve. With this cataclysmic disaster looming, Santa calls on the only person he knows who is capable of completing his route: “Bo Diddley will you drive my sleigh tonight?” And of course, the mighty Bo Diddley, he don’t hesitate.
It seems implausible that Bo Diddley never thought of this idea and wrote a similarly themed song. Thankfully, Steve Ripley’s imagination saved the day for everyone who ever wanted a Bo Diddley Christmas song. The Tractors lay down a serious Diddley-esque groove, thanks to legendary Tulsa drummer Jimmy Karstein, and the quality of the playful lyrics are up there with the work of The Man himself.
While working with Bo in the studio on an unrelated project, Ripley managed to get a copy of the song to him and, of course, Bo dug it. They set up a date for Bo to record his own vocal on the song, but his first flight out was canceled due to bad weather. Shortly thereafter, on June 2, 2008, Bo Diddley passed away at his home in Florida from heart failure.
Bo Diddley’s version of “Bo Diddley Santa Claus” was not to be, but we still have this fantastic yuletide groove from Steve Ripley and The Tractors.
Merry Christmas, with a gumbo beat.
Have you heard the news about old St. Nick?
For the first time ever Santa got sick
Call up the doctor, the doctor said
Santa Claus go straight to bed
Panic quickly turned into fear
Who’s gonna drive the sleigh this year?
Santa says there’s only one man
Who can do this job half as good as I can
Only one man that’s in the zone
Get Bo Diddley on the telephone
Hey, Bo Diddley!
Santa say Bo Diddley have you heard?
Bo say no say what’s the word?
Santa say Bo I’m feelin’ down
Must have caught somethin’ that was goin’ around
My head is spinnin’ and I got the shakes
But we can’t miss Christmas whatever it takes
There’s only one way to do it right
Bo Diddley will you drive my sleigh tonight?
Bo Diddley he don’t hesitate
He said I’m ready, willin’, able, & I’m feelin’ great
Hey, Bo Diddley!
Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley Santa Claus
Givin’ it all for the Christmas cause
Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley where you been?
All around the world and back again
Bo Diddley spreading Christmas joy
To every good little girl and boy
Now there’s a brand new rhythm from the reindeer feet
Rudolph groovin’ to the Bo Diddley beat
On Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
On Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen
Hey, Rudolph, hey Bo Diddley!