BO DIDDLEY: A MAN AMONGST MEN (1996)
1) Bo Diddley Is Crazy; 2) Can I Walk You Home; 3) Hey Baby; 4) I Can't Stand It; 5) He's Got A Key; 6) A Man Amongst Men; 7) Coatimundi; 8) That Mule; 9) Kids Don't Do It; 10) Oops! Bo Diddley.
This is Bo's one and only «proper» studio LP in the last thirty years of his career — «proper» meaning «distributed on an official commercial basis» (through Atlantic Records), but also «properly recorded», meaning a professional studio instead of Bo's bedroom, and also «properly available» (meaning it's still out of print, but at least you can ruffle through used CD bins on a regular basis with high chances of success).
It ain't no great shakes, and it might even be a bit below certain expectations (and a bit above other certain expectations), but in any case, it is a respectable career bookmark. A Bo Diddley album from a nearly 70-year old Bo Diddley has only one point to prove — namely, that the rock'n'roll spirit can, and should, be still alive in 70-year olds — and it does that in the form of a test: can you guess that the album was recorded by a 70-year old, or does it sound ageless? Naturally, for everybody who has the faintest idea of who Bo Diddley is, the test is rigged from the beginning, but my own guess is that I probably couldn't guess.
As Bo was drawn in more and more into the Stones' circle of contacts — first the Ron Wood alliance, followed by a joint public appearance in 1994, singing ʽWho Do You Loveʼ — it is no wonder that much of the playing and production here is masterminded by Ronnie and Keith, and that fact alone ensures a certain level of gritty quality. Other pieces of the puzzle include Stevie Ray's brother Jimmie Vaughan, lending a proper Texan flavour to the proceedings; Johnny "Guitar" Watson, deepening and nearly-monopolizing that Texan flavour; and such old vets of the business as Billy Boy Arnold on harp and Johnnie Johnson on piano. Throw in «The Shirelles» on back vocals (quotation marks reflect my lack of knowledge as to how many of the original «Shirelles» are actually involved — one? two?), and that is altogether more guest star presence than Bo ever had to back him up at any single moment in his career, including even the primordial soup of 20th Anniversary Of Rock'n'Roll.
This actually creates a problem — the end result looks too much like a glitzy all-star jam, with Bo merely guesting on his own record, something of which you could never accuse any of his original albums right up to 1974. Worse, even though most of the songs are credited to Bo (they must have all agreed that the old man needed the royalties more than anybody else), they don't really always sound like Bo Diddley songs. There is too little syncopation, too little funk, too little «tribal jamming» involved — in fact, about a third of this stuff sounds like typical Ronnie Wood boogie, another third is «Texan roots rock» à la Stevie Ray, and the final third is «modernized Bo Diddley for today's kids» material: glossy, even, and way too loud due to a whole army of cooks stirring the broth at the same time.
That said, it is still a fun record, and a fun «Bo Diddley-blessed» record, at that. ʽBo Diddley Is Crazyʼ is rigidly based on ʽWho Do You Loveʼ, and even if Bo's own rhythm guitar nearly gets lost under all the overdubs, his singing does not — and that deep caveman rumble is certainly far from an old man's croak. And he certainly ain't lost his wits, either: verses like "All I wanna do is play my music and make people happy / I don't wanna be an old drunk like my pappy" pretty much summarize the man's lifelong credo like nothing else. So even if the backing track is not very imaginative, the whole thing is still a fun-filled fast-paced romp — as is ʽOops! Bo Diddleyʼ that bookmarks the album from the other side (although the latter is seriously overlong, with the band fooling around for over seven minutes repeating the same licks over and over again).
In between, we have some slow boring 12-bar blues (ʽThat Muleʼ, mainly for fans of Billy Boy's harp blowing); Texan blues-rock shuffle (ʽCan I Walk You Homeʼ), occasionally used as a new bag for old wine (ʽA Man Amongst Menʼ, which is basically like a sped-up ʽI'm A Manʼ); one obligatory tribute to the «Diddley beat», adorned with harmonica vs. slide guitar conversations (ʽHey Babyʼ); one slow swampy funk groove (ʽI Can't Stand Itʼ); one reggae tribute to ʽCrackin' Upʼ (ʽCoatimundiʼ, definitely running overtime); and even one exercise in funkified hip-hop, targeted at the young ones, with Bo's own grandson joining in on the messaging (ʽKids Don't Do Itʼ) — «stay in school and get your Ph.D!» hints fairly well at the scope of Bo's goal-setting. (Problem is, I wouldn't mind the corniness if I knew for certain there'd be even one kid in the world, black or white, who could ever claim that his or her life was irrevocably changed by a thorough listen to this song. As it is, I suppose it was mostly the grandfathers who heard it).
So, at the very least, even if not all of this is typical Bo Diddley material, it's still a diverse set of moods and styles, which makes for a fitting conclusion to Bo's career — reminding of the good old days when the man was ready to try out nearly everything. Add it up to the perfect vocal form throughout (Bo even makes a fairly good rapper, much as I tend to snuff that form), and the fact that, whatever be the faults and flaws of the production, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Jimmie Vaughan are far more exciting guitar players than... (well, they could have gotten him Lenny Kravitz, or a stiff academician like Robert Cray — there's millions of them out there) — and altogether, it's almost awesome that Bo did get a chance to give us a proper musical goodbye with this record. And it is not bad, either, that although he still had twelve years left to try and repeat it, he either chose not to or did not get a second chance — one was perfectly enough for a solid thumbs up, two might have been excessive: A Man Amongst Men as a «goodbye» is far more effective than as a «welcome back».
Check "A Man Amongst Men" (MP3) on Amazon