Influence often subsists in the shadows. Behind every mainstream success there is likely a relative, teacher, local celebrity musician, obscure genre artist, or forgotten one-time star that helped shape their sensibilities. In 1956 a gifted but relatively obscure R&B singer and songwriter from San Diego by way of Oklahoma with a colorful sense of humor named Kent Harris recorded and released one of the more influential 45s of the mid-50’s R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll era. He did so under his equally unsung stage name: Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew. The single’s A-side was only a minor local R&B hit in Los Angeles but the 45 was a hugely influential two-sided record that would inspire Bo Diddley, The Rolling Stones, and, indirectly, The Coasters to record their own versions of the songs.
Harris issued a string of singles as Boogaloo in the 1950’s and developed a decent career as a producer and songwriter for other West Coast R&B, soul and jazz acts. But he was self-admittedly first and foremost a songwriter, a gift that seemed to come to him naturally.
I started doing that when I was just a kid…around the neighborhood where I lived. There were a lot of kids around there, playing around and stuff. And I used to make up songs about ‘em, make up different songs about different ones and the stuff they do. Everybody kind of liked it. It was a fun thing, and I just kept on doing it until I got a break.
The B-side to his fabled 45 is a comical proto-rap called “Cops and Robbers” in which Harris recounts his misadventure in picking up a hitchhiker who in turn pulls a gun on him and forces him to wait in the car while the hitchhiker robs a liquor store. The joke, ultimately, is on the carjacker who in his confusion mistakenly gets into a police car after having robbed the liquor store.
I was driving down the boulevard late one night on my way back home
When I spied this guy on the corner thumbin’ all alone
As I passed on by I heard him holler out, “Hey!”
He said, “By any chance, are you goin’ my way?”
I said, ” Well sure, hop on in buddy and give me a cigarette”
He reached into his pocket and that was the moment that I regret
He hollered, “Reach for the skies!”
And I said but I don’t seem to understand
And then he told me, he said, “Just don’t try no monkey business, ’cause I got this stopper in my hand!”
The song has been covered numerous times; most notably by Continue reading →
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!
The art of the “yo’ mama” joke is a sociological phenomenon dating back centuries. According to The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama by Elijah Wald, the tradition has its roots in ancient Africa and pre-Islamic Arab societies, with traces found in those parts of Europe such as Spain and France once conquered by the Moors. Even Shakespeare was fond of the word “whoreson.”
In America, this oral tradition developed among African American culture as the “Dozens,” and was fueled in popularity by the blues. The blues itself is rife with paradox and the Dozens is no exception. It is at once an insult and an exhibit of deep affection and respect. While there is seemingly no more offensive gesture than to insult one’s mother, one would never allow such an insult unless there was already a shared respect for one’s opponent. If this were not so, every round of the Dozens would end in a fistfight. But the Dozens is not only about respect for your opponent, it is also about self-respect and personal ability. If you can go a full round of the Dozens with a worthy adversary, then you have accomplished something of worth. It keeps you razor sharp, quick witted, on your toes the way sparring does for a boxer.
The great jazz clarinet player, author, and drug dealer Mezz Mezzrow related the act of swapping insults back and forth in front of an audience to the great jazz tradition of “cutting heads,” where players jam with each other trying to outdo their opponent with intricate riffs and runs. But cutting heads isn’t about simply playing faster and louder; you don’t play over your opponent, you feed off each other, and the audience reaction. It is a joint performance as much as a demonstration of individual dexterity. Same with the Dozens.
The idea right smack in the middle of every cat’s mind all the time was this: he had to sharpen his wits every way he could, make himself smarter and keener, better able to handle himself, more hip. The hip language was one kind of verbal horseplay invented to do that…On The Corner the idea of a kind of mutual needling held sway, each guy spurring the other guy on to think faster and be more nimble-witted…cutting contests are just a musical version of the verbal duels.
The natural rhythm of the process, much like the boxer’s jump rope (or the schoolgirl’s jump roping rhythmic rhymes, which can be equally obscene), lends itself inherently to song. Songs utilizing the Dozens date back at least to the pre-recorded vaudeville and minstrel show era; however, the first record to hurl the Dozens into the public consciousness was Speckled Red’s boogie piano recording of “The Dirty Dozen” in 1929. Continue reading →
As Halloween approaches once again, it’s time to revisit a near-extinct art – the holiday novelty song. Second only to Christmas, Halloween was made for accompanying musical madness. So why do fright and folly go so well together? Sociologists have analyzed and over-analyzed our instinctive attraction to fear – why we watch scary movies or ride roller coasters – but it essentially boils down to this: we love to be scared, but we prefer to be in on the joke. So here are a few favorite Halloween novelty songs to get you in the trick-or-treating mood.
1. Buck Owens – (It’s A) Monsters’ Holiday
Not to be confused with Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Christmas-themed song of the same name, this 1974 country rocker is pure Buck Owens. The infectious, bouncy groove and playful lyrics are made complete with the requisite spooky sound effects and voice-over. And no monster is left out of this party. Fee-fee-fi-fi-fo-fo-fum…
2. Bo Diddley – Bo Meets the Monster
Long before The Beatles or The Ramones successfully created cartoon caricature alter egos of themselves, Bo Diddley was inventing a sort of third-person comic book superhero persona; placing himself in all sorts of absurd scenarios backed by a gritty, low-down, sweaty groove. From gun-slinging at the O.K. Corral to lumberjacking in the woods to facing down that ghastliest of monsters – the Purple People Eater. Almost a decade before Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page would popularize the pick slide, Bo Diddley brilliantly used this Foley device to mimic the sound of a creeping door opening slowly.
3. Bob McFadden and Rod McKuen – The Mummy
Mummies, vampires, werewolves and…beatniks? Perhaps the scariest of all monsters Continue reading →