Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” is a perfect song. Right away, the guitar yanks you in, then the shakers and harmonies, then it’s all Bo proving why he’s ultimately the centerpiece to all his music. It’s an early Diddley joint (1959) and is nothing like the Bo captured on the new reissue of his The Black Gladiator.
Gone are glasses and bowties. He instead looks like an extra on the set of Mad Max, unshaven, barely clothed with aggressive posturing; holding an electric guitar, yelling, mouth wide open. But this was 1970 and Diddley was going electric, with doses of psych and opera to boot. Why such sharp turns let alone the strange makeover? Changes in the musical landscape (and aging label brass) perhaps nudged him towards new sounds. But I’d like to think that this is Bo captured at his most strange; most free and far-flung for his own creative sanity after 15 years on Chess Records and its subsidiary, Checkers.
Bo certainly loves injecting his name into his work, especially when it comes to his own awesomeness. On “You, Bo Diddley,” he asks, “Who’s the greatest man in town?” The background singers respond, “You Bo! Bo Diddley!” Even at his most boastful, Bo pulls off what the sharpest, most charismatic of rappers also do: give themselves props and do it in a way that makes you root for them. Just like on “Power House” where, over a slumpy blues riff, he repeatedly sings: “I’m a powerhouse, I’m a powerhouse baby. I’m a powerhouse, I’m a powerhouse baby.” The lyrics give the song its theme but it’s personality that anchors it.
Even without words Bo still intrinsically strikes you. On “Funky Fly”, he essentially grunts and pants over an instrumental, making it work in ways cats like James Brown or Barry White can only pull off. It’s 3-minutes but more dynamic than most songs with even the strongest of lyrics. The song aesthetics—like others on the album—are grimy with organs and fuzzy riffs, matching Bo’s gravely vocals.
The standout among the 10 songs is “I Don’t Like You”. It’s an obvious left-field number, which is perhaps why it closes the album. It starts with beautiful guitar strums before Bo busts out in operatic form. It’s at first confusing, sounding like a misplaced interlude or a novelty track with its inaudible banter. I’s actually a duet with Cornelia Redmond, Bo’s longtime background singer known for her wild stage antics. The two trade dozens, slinging back-and-forth insults but Cornelia’s gets the better of Bo:
Cornelia: “Hey man, I saw your mother the other day in Juarez Mexico.”
Bo: “Oh yeah? What was she doing down there?”
Cornelia: “She had a mattress on her back!”
Bo: “I don’t like you.”
It ends with a clamor-filled coda where you can picture curtains closing down on all the shimmering onstage madness. What makes the song (and the release work) is one reason and one reason only, Bo Diddley. Bo already of course knows that. And even in mad scientist mode, he never overreaches.