BO DIDDLEY: THE BLACK GLADIATOR (1970)
1) Elephant Man; 2) You, Bo Diddley; 3) Black Soul; 4) Power House; 5) If The Bible's Right; 6) I've Got A Feeling; 7) Shut Up, Woman; 8) Hot Buttered Blues; 9) Funky Fly; 10) I Don't Like You.
For an «early rocker» from the 1950s to do something worthwhile in the age of Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, and Amon Düül II, he would really have to divide himself by zero — children of the «un-accelerated era» as they were, in most cases, their mentalities just could not cope with the idea of having to modify and adapt their styles every two years or so. By 1967, Bo's engine had stalled completely, and he wisely retired from the business, biding his time, rethinking his attitudes, and waiting for a suitable opportunity.
The opportunity eventually came in the emergence of the funk scene — with James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton, etc. establishing a whole brand new, powerhouse market for black music, Bo Diddley sensed that there just might be a small corner in that market for himself as well. After all, wasn't Bo Diddley the original «funkster»? Single-chord groove-based African dance music and all? So he didn't exactly invent syncopation or the «chicken-scratch», but these are just tiny technical details — of course, The Originator had a right to stake his claim here, and that is just what he is doing on The Black Gladiator (a title that James Brown must have envied).
Few people know about this record, and a small handful of those that do has predictably dismissed it — «Bo Diddley having nothing better to do than to jump on the funk bandwagon, with expectedly laughable results etc.». Hold on, brothers and sisters. Maybe this is just a chronology effect: after so many same-sounding, self-plagiarizing, openly mediocre albums from Bo in the mid-Sixties, The Black Gladiator simply comes through as a stunning ray of light by sheer contrast. But it is also an objective fact, I suppose, that as the first hole-burning electric laser beams of ʽElephant Manʼ cut through the speakers, everyone will just have to realize that, at the very least, Bo has managed to turn over a heavy page here — the likes of which most of his original colleagues were never able to deal with.
The trick is that The Black Gladiator is not really an attempt to make a «generic funk album with Bo Diddley's name on it»; it is an attempt to make a Bo Diddley album with a strong funky undercurrent. ʽElephant Manʼ, ʽBlack Soulʼ, ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ (nothing to do with the Beatles song), and ʽFunky Flyʼ — all of these «jams with vocal support» are really quite close in melodic structure to the «old» Bo Diddley. But the guitar tones are tougher, snappier, occasionally even acid-drenched; the old pianos are replaced with loud, jerky, stuttering organ passages; and the overall level of volume, «dirt», and grittiness is completely in keeping with the standards of 1970, even if one good listen is enough to understand that the man in charge must have had his basic schtick worked out at least a decade earlier.
Nor is the album particularly monotonous. The four titles listed above do sound very close, but there is also a mad, ear-piercing «dance-gospel» celebration (ʽIf The Bible's Rightʼ); several old-fashioned 12-bar blues numbers, either just modernized for the psychedelic blues-rock era (ʽHot Buttered Bluesʼ — a somewhat misguided retort to Isaac Hayes' ʽHot Buttered Soulʼ), or milking the «Bo Diddley persona» for exaggerated comical misogyny (ʽShut Up, Womanʼ); an update of the «hey, Bo Diddley» routine (ʽYou, Bo Diddleyʼ — "who's the greatest man in town"?) with a well-engineered funkified variant of the Diddley beat.
Oddball-est of all is the next installment in the ʽSay Manʼ series: ʽI Don't Like Youʼ is a joke dialog between Bo and another of his female sidekicks (possibly Cookie Vee) which is not only set to a funky groove as well, but also unexpectedly shows Bo's operatic side, as he occasionally breaks out in mock-Spanish serenading — taken out of context, this would simply look dumb, but in the context of this totally freaked out, hyperbolic extravagance makes for a grand flashy finale to the album, fifty percent silly pomp and fifty percent hilarious self-irony.
All in all, this is an exhilarating experience. It ain't much in the way of new melodies, but it is a near-perfect update on Bo's personality — somehow, The Black Gladiator manages to sound completely different from the old stuff and yet, at the same time, preserve each and every element that is necessary to make a Bo Diddley out of an Ellas McDaniel. But remember — this record must be played loud from the very first notes, because if you are not sucked in by the first beats of ʽElephant Manʼ, you might miss the train altogether. Thumbs up.