Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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*****

BO DIDDLEY
The Definitive Collection
Geffen

A buyer's guide to the rhythm king

Bo Diddley was the least popular and most avant-garde of the major rock & roll originators. He had only one Top 40 hit--the groove-based comedy record "Say Man," in 1959, well after his magical name and ubiquitous beat became famous. The dozens of origin myths surrounding these two wonders boil down to one: Afro-America. Habanera, hambone, sanctified handclaps, Congo retentions, Chicago playground games, forgotten black vaudevillians, 19th-century street shtick, broom wire nailed to the side of a house--all this and more went into the 20 songs variously compiled as The Definitive Collection, released in April 2007.

Everybody knows the beat, a swung three-and-two--like for instance, the Rolling Stones ("Not Fade Away"), Bruce Springsteen ("She's the One") and U2 ("Desire"). The man born Ellas Bates didn't invent that beat. He merely isolated it, orchestrated it and built his own less-is-more, rhythm-first style around it. The archetype is the 1955 R&B sensation "Bo Diddley," which arranges Bo's beat for toms, maracas and his loudly distorted guitar--no bass. Its B-side, however, was unsyncopated: his much-covered Chicago blues "I'm a Man." Three quarters of The Definitive Collectionreconfigures the beat--for drum kit on "Hey! Bo Diddley," for guitar and voice on the Stones' beloved "Mona," on and on. But it also shuffles, boogies, shouts and rips off the Everly Brothers.

Bo Diddley wasn't one for catchy tunes. So although his big voice was made for electric blues, and his commercial conscience made room for any black pop mode that might sell, the choicest of the 25 additional tracks on the now-download-only Chess Box are Diddleybeat variations--"Cadillac"'s sax, "The Clock Strikes Twelve"'s violin--and one-upping routines like "Signifying Blues" and "Say Man, Back Again." Early Bo was the best Bo, and so it goes. The strongest proof of what a powerhouse he remained anyway is the blues-dominated 1984 concert Bo's the Man!: Bo Diddley Live on Tour. But he was a man until he died of heart failure on June 2.

Blender, Aug. 2008