BO DIDDLEY: THE BLACK GLADIATOR TAKES THE RING


Bo Diddley: You, Bo Diddley
Power House
Funky Fly
I Don’t Like You
From Black Gladiator (Checker, 1970)

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.

 

 

NATURALLY GOOD: PERCEPTION AND TODAY RECORDS


(Editor’s note: Over the next few weeks, you’ll see some new voices joining us here at Soul Sides. Today is the debut of Dave Ma, who runs his own outstanding music blog, Nerdtorious, and he’s offering his take on the new 2-CD anthology chronicling the best of the Perception/Today catalog. –O.W.)

Dizzy Gillespie: Matrix
From The Best of Perception & Today Records (BBE, 2012)

The new anthology, The Best of Perception & Today Records, opens with Dizzie Gillespie’s “Matrix”, a song penned by Gillespie’s pianist, Mike Longo. Gillespie’s rendering is harder, funkier than Longo’s original and that may be why artists like the Beatnuts and others lifted it as sample fodder. It’s also likely the only Gillespie song to ever anchor a Gap ad.

The compilation — released by BBE and compiled by DJ Spinna — isn’t just recognizable samples however; it covers the short but expansive history of Perception Productions, who, along with its subsidiary Today, ran for a mere five years as the ‘60s entered the ‘70s yet supported an impressive hodgepodge of acts in such a short run. Along the way, they captured both marquee names in the twilight of their craft and young, bold musicians who’d forge full careers thereafter. Giants like Gillespie and Astrud Gilberto certainly added acclaim but also added equally big recordings; Gilberto’s revered “Gingele” is an obvious standout as is the fluttering, mid-tempo funk number, “Alligator” where we hear Gillespie in a rare, contemporary setting.

Astrud Gilberto: Gingele
From The Best of Perception & Today Records (BBE, 2012)

Having towering figures aboard were surely something of a coup but small acts recruited for ‘one-off’ releases were equally exuberant. Wanda Robinson, a Baltimore-based poet recorded for the label in which “Instant Replay” and “A Possibility (Back Home)” are included. “Find The One Who Loves You” by the Eight Minutes, a group aiming to ape the sound and success of the Jackson 5 ultimately made slower, intimate songs as the label tried cornering markets other than jazz. Pop singer Bobby Rydell’s “Honey Buns” is a bright spot and apparently unlike any of Rydell’s previous work. Swooping, stabbing strings on “I Keep Asking You Questions” by Black Ivory, a group fronted by a young Leroy Burgess, lend their own take on the emerging Philadelphia Sound.

Bobby Rydell: Honey Buns
From The Best of Perception & Today Records (BBE, 2012)

More great moments are peppered throughout. Julius Brockington’s version of “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin is a surprise and one of the comp’s strongest cuts. The signing of Bill Curtis, legendary drummer for the Fatback Band, adds “Dance Girl” and “Nijia (Nija) Walk” to the selections. Others like Debbie Taylor’s “Too Bad To Tell”, Tyrone Washington’s “Submission”, and James Moody’s “Heritage Hum” round out the already stout release.

Tyrone Washington: Submission
From The Best of Perception & Today Records (BBE, 2012)
1

With jazz, soul, and funk (and overlaps of the three) coming from such a diverse cast, it’s hard to tell you’re essentially hearing a jazz label adapt to shifting musical trends. Later releases stubbornly held on with undercurrents of jazz but the majority of the songs defined its makers and certainly are some of the finest of its era.

–Dave Ma of Nerdtorious

  1. It’s crazy how many groups took horn licks off this one song.