Friday, June 13, 2008

“Last Dance For A Diddley Daddy – Part One”

c. 2008 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was a humid morning on the Northcoast. A Monday full of promise for dreamers, and anguish for those on a schedule. My stance was pedal-down, and rolling – I had traded the home-office desk chair for a spot on the highway. The motor in my pickup defiantly gulped air and fuel as if gasoline hadn’t climbed to four dollars per gallon. But the need to escape couldn’t be denied. It came like a miraculous thunderclap of resurrection.

Voice-mail handled my personal business.

I was gone…

On the road, news crackled from my radio. Politics, business, hometown athletic woes, and the wayward acts of pop-culture figures. Then, something more… a multi-second soundbite that started my muscles twitching to the rhythm of an unseen guitar.

Bo Diddley had passed away.

My heel kicked the floor mat. I tapped out a syncopated rhythm on the steering wheel, while watching the telephone poles zip by with abandon. Silent music reverberated from door to door. Salty moisture burned in my eyes. All I could do was drive, and listen to the poetry of this working-class composer:

“I walked 47 miles of barbed wire,
Used a cobra snake for a necktie.
Got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made out of rattlesnake hide.
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of human skulls.
Now come on darling let's take a little walk, tell me,
Who do you love,
Who do you love, Who do you love, Who do you love…”

Afterward came a greater flood of memories, and tears. ‘Mona’ and ‘Diddley Daddy.’ ‘You Can’t Judge A Book by the Cover’ and ‘Road Runner.’ ‘Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger’ and ‘I’m A Man.’ These songs communicated the gritty, African-American experience to legions of developing young Rockers who were hungry for the kind of authenticity not heard from polished white performers of the age.

Yet in my own life, they were a sort of spiritual fuel. Such songs gave cause to breathe, and love… and hope.

I drove on, and reflected, with the city fading in my rear-view mirror. Diddley was magic in motion. But… how could I embrace his legend in a useful way for readers of this newspaper? It was humbling to consider.

Then, the answer struck like plucked note charged with tuneful, electric energy – Diddley’s legacy was accessible through The Edu-tainer, Dennis Chandler!
I’d written about this Cleveland icon before. Yet much remained for future days when those stories were finished. Now, I recalled that Chandler had bonded with Bo, during his formative, bygone days.

With purpose, I steered toward home.

That… was the connection I needed. A plug-in to the cosmic energy that exuded from this bluesy son of Mississippi by way of Chicago.

On the household computer, a cyber-trip to the Chandler website began to reveal clues about their relationship:

“The Kid Who Wouldn't Take No From The Man Who Knows - When as a teenager Dennis first heard Bo Diddley, little did he know that he would not only meet Bo but also that Bo would become his first guitar teacher. That unique lead-and-rhythm timing technique Bo based on a hambone rhyme ‘shave and a haircut...two bits’ (Da Da Da Da Da pause Da Da) intrigued Dennis-the-pianist. Wanting to play that syncopated style; he wanted to learn guitar. But, how? While attending Miami University, Dennis would steal away nightly to catch Bo's act at Spatz Show Bar in Hamilton, Ohio. Bo noticed him (the only person not of color) sitting front and center studying Bo’s hands. After a few nights he invited him backstage. He challenged Dennis saying, ‘Figured it out yet? I'll show you but once. Learn it right!’ Bo'd even loan him that famous ‘square’ Gretsch guitar for overnight practice.”

I was rocking in the chair. Hours after learning that Bo had graduated to eternity, the patented Diddley beat still echoed in my head. Every strum touched my soul with purpose. I continued reading from DC’s biography, for greater understanding:

“It was many years after those first days together at Spatz Showbar that Dennis had the opportunity to be ‘tested’ by this ‘teacher.’ It happened when he and his band backed Bo for a concert in Cleveland (1985). He ‘graded’ him an A+. With paternal-like pride, Bo said, ‘Dennis is the best exponent yet of the Diddley style (besides my daughter) and Bo knows!’”

Urgency swelled my heart. We had traded stories of vintage guitars, amplifiers, and vinyl records. Our shared heroes were many – Les Paul, Lonnie Mack, B. B. King, and Link Wray. Now, the sad moment of loss brought us closer, again. I sent him a query, then started working on my own improvised obituary for Bo:

“So much has already been written about this incredible icon of popular music. Along with Chuck Berry, he took the bedrock of blues guitar and forged it into something new. Something irresistible. Something kids in the 1950's couldn't embrace quickly enough.

Rock 'n' Roll.

Rock music was the soundtrack for a generational revolution. It helped spur masses of talented young people across the world to think beyond the strict paradigms that had bound their parents.

Diddley (Ellas Otha Bates / McDaniel) came from Mississippi to the hard streets of Chicago. There, like so many others, he ingested the culture of 'electrified blues' as it was reinterpreted in a northern setting.

The result was something familiar, but new. A chunky, syncopated beat rhythmically strummed on the amplified guitar.

The album 'Two Great Guitars' featured Diddley chopping out two-chord compositions, while Berry offered his own three-chord visions.

Together, the pair laid a foundation built upon by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and generations that followed.

Much can be said of this rebellious hero-with-a-supercharged-plectrum. But perhaps the best way to remember Diddley's prolific and enduring career is through remembering the man in his own, colorful words.”

Shortly afterward, Chandler left a voice-mail message on my phone.

“Hey Rod… I’d be glad to help you because Dennis knows Diddley. I have pictures (and) I have every album he made, and every one of them is autographed…”

Now, I could be the pupil, once more. Chandler was my edu-tutor, in all things Diddley… school days were back in session!

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