Much has been made of the classic Bo Diddley beat, the now-clichéd shave-and-a-haircut rhythm. Popularized by Diddley, the beat’s place in rock ‘n’ roll was staked when his eponymous 1955 debut for Checker Records turned into a surprise success. Affirmed early on in hits by Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”) and Buddy Holly (“Bo Diddley”), the Bo Diddley beat would be enshrined for good with the appropriations of the Rolling Stones and seemingly every other mid-’60s British beat group and American garage band.
Less is made of the sound of Bo Diddley’s guitar playing, though, and the specific raw, pulsating, electric beauty of it. This is the factor that, for me, lies squarely at the core of Bo Diddley’s eternal appeal. Before the Velvet Underground or Jimi Hendrix, few other rock ‘n’ roll guitarists – besides, perhaps, Link Wray – were so consistently, deliberately and gleefully moving the weird electric frontier of rock ‘n’ roll forward.
Bo Diddley, 1961, guitar hero as gunslinger. An appreciation of the pioneering guitar sound of Bo Diddley this week.
With their raw, trebly fidelity and cavernous echo and tremolo, Bo Diddley’s classic ‘50s and ‘60s recordings for Checker Records, like many of the blues and R&B records of post-War Chicago, crackled with electricity. Some of this was in keeping the studio production standards of the time. More, simply, had to do with Diddley’s own tastes.
Different ingredients factored into Diddley’s proclivities. As an artist he was clearly attracted to certain sounds, rhythms and, moreover, the possibilities of electricity. In interviews he’s acknowledged early violin lessons, freight trains and influence of John Lee Hooker. As a tinkerer, Diddley understood electronic technology, maintaining his own home studios, wiring his equipment and designing his guitars.
And, so, consequently, much brilliant music came from these predilections. Bo Diddley’s recordings – percussive expositions of sustain, odd tunings, feedback, distortion and crashing reverb – weren’t necessarily accidents, even if they started out that way. The instrumental interludes and workouts that lined Bo Diddley’s numerous LPs from the ’50s and ’60s are especially rich. Guitar solos were treated as rhythmic breaks rather than individual clusters of notes; the break in a song like “Give Me a Break” became an opportunity for strange, percussive, awesome sound. The hypnotic effects of repeated, overdriven chords and electronic noise were explored in different, otherworldly ways. Drones and odd harmonics were generated and then incorporated into the logic of a song like “Back to School.” The first ten seconds of“We’re Gonna Get a Married” highlights some of the most beautiful guitar tone ever. And so on.
As an appreciation, this week we look at a few prime examples of ‘50s and early ‘60s R&B. Listen for the guitars. They’re overdriven, suffused in tremolo, echo and other early analog effects, they’re played with rhythmic gusto, with trance-like repetition favored over melody. All three selections, to some degree, owe a debt to the experiments of our hero Bo Diddley.
1. Wilbert Harrison, Happy in Love (Fury 1047 F-1093)
Wilbert Harrison was the idiosyncratic vocalist, songwriter, guitarist and pianist best known for 1959’s “Kansas City” and 1969’s “Let’s Work Together.”
Identifying Wilbert Harrison’s orbit in post-War music is somewhat difficult, as he didn’t really follow any of the typical patterns of his R&B contemporaries; if any, his career and, in some small way, style were analogous to Fats Domino’s, though that’s simplifying things, too. Despite countervailing trends and decades of commercial releases between the early ‘50s and mid-‘70s, Harrison never really reinvented himself or changed his style – his vocals always stayed low-key and curiously hypnotic, his productions charmingly nonchalant.
Wilbert Harrison was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1929. Following service in the Navy, Harrison settled in Miami for a spell in early ‘50s, where he’d pick up some of the Afro-Caribbean beat that later seeped its way into his recordings, and where his debut 45, 1952’s “This Woman of Mine,” would be released by the local label Rockin’ Records. Harrison decamped to Newark, New Jersey, and a long, steady, consistent schedule of 45 releases would ensue for over twenty years, the best of them recorded between the early ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and these largely for two New York City-based labels – the R&B- and jazz-oriented Savoy Records and its late ‘50s upstart rival, Fury Records.
The Savoy sides were first-rate, at times presaging Harrison’s late ‘50s sound, but did little commercially. Harrison’s stock soared upon his move to Bobby Robinson’s Fury Records in the late ‘50s. His debut for the label was his version of Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City,” which topped the charts in 1959. Driven by a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section, the single was an extension of the sound that Harrison had been developing, just sleeker and leaner.
“Kansas City” set the stage for many Harrison 45s that followed in turn. To a certain extent that includes this selection, 1961’s “Happy in Love,” a Harrison original. There’s the same loping rhythm and the expressive-but-slightly-detached vocals of Harrison. Supported by an unknown group, there’s bit of a call-back to the echo- and tremolo-drenched guitars of a prior Harrison high-water mark, too, 1959’s “Don’t Wreck My Life.” But the dual guitar work here is even more extraordinary, with a droning, ecstatic quality that is like little else from the time, Bo Diddley notwithstanding. Surprisingly, the 45 has received little attention over the years.
Harrison continued to release 45s steadily into the mid-‘70s, for an array of mostly small independents. There was some minor chart action, along with a few concessions along the way – 1963’s “Say It Again” featured girl-group-style back-up singers – but Harrison’s style – his vocals, his casual production sensibilities, his laid-back, shuffling rhythms – always prevailed. A surprise hit came in the form of “Let’s Work Together,” a two-part single that reached the pop charts in 1969 and that was, with characteristic Harrison nonchalance, performed as a one-man band.
Harrison’s recordings tapered off in the mid-‘70s. He died in 1994 in Spencer, North Carolina.
2. Art Neville, Arabian Love Call (Specialty 656 5174)
Born in 1937 into a famous Louisiana musical family, Art Neville’s decades-long career has largely been spent within the world of New Orleans rhythm & blues. Neville remains active with a number of music-related project to this day, including some newer incarnations of the Meters, but he is perhaps still best known to the general public for his role in the Neville Brothers, an ongoing group formed with his younger brothers Charles, Cyril and Aaron in the late 1970s.
The Neville Brothers would ease comfortably into their role as national ambassadors for New Orleans music, but, earlier on, between the mid-‘50s and the mid-‘70s, Neville was, along with his brothers, situated on the vanguard of New Orleans music, absorbing R&B as it evolved through soul and funk, integrating the Afro-Caribbean tinge and syncopated rhythms of New Orleans, generating vibrant new forms in turn.
Art Neville in the '60s. Image courtesy of Red Kelly's mighty The B Side.
Art, though never as well known as his brother Aaron, can point to his own benchmarks in the national spotlight. At one end, there was 1954’s “Mardi Gras Mambo.” Featuring the teenaged Neville’s lead vocal, it was a big hit (and subsequent carnival oldies staple) for his group the Hawketts. At the other end there was, perhaps most significantly, his handiwork as keyboardist for and founding member of the Meters, whose late ‘60s and early ‘70s hits “Sophisticated Sissy,” “Cissy Strut”, “Look-Ka Py Py” and “Chicken Strut” remain riveting, definitive moments of New Orleans instrumental funk.
Neville’s time between the late ’50s and the late ’60s would see a string of lesser-known New Orleans R&B and soul 45 sides recorded for several different record labels, among them Specialty Records and, later, Instant and Sansu Records.
Which brings us to “Arabian Love Call.” Art Rupe’s Specialty Records, for whom Neville recorded this track in late 1958, would, along with several other West Coast labels, help get New Orleans R&B to the national market in the rock ‘n’ roll era. Of the three different 45s that Neville recorded for Specialty, “Ooh-Whee Baby” and “Cha Dooky Do” were small novelty-oriented hits, but the third and best of these 45s, “Arabian Love Call,” represents something else entirely.
Recorded at the storied Cosimo Recording Studios in New Orleans, the session, in addition to Neville on vocals, included first-rate support from Roy Montrell (guitar), Frank Fields (bass), Ed Blackwell (drums), Allen Toussaint (piano) and Alvin “Red” Tyler and Rufus Gore (saxophones). With its minor key, sly Latin rhythm and stunning, Diddley-esque tremolo guitar work by Roy Montrell, “Arabian Love Call” transcends its lyric, exploring all sorts of weird, resonating modes, its sound, like the best of such experiments, becoming almost psychedelic in the process.
3. Marvin and Johnny, Ain’t That Right (Modern 45×974)
An excellent ‘50s Los Angeles R&B duo, Marvin and Johnny were influential in the R&B market in their time, anticipating the sound of rock ‘n’ roll without ever enjoying much crossover success.
The singers responsible for Marvin and Johnny’s “Ain’t That Right,” were Marvin Phillips (b. 1928) and Emory Perry (b. 1931). This was, in fact, not the first line-up of Marvin and Johnny – Marvin Phillips, at the duo’s core, would perform with several different “Johnny” counterparts at various points – but it would be the most prolific and stable of the duo’s incarnations. (Further confusing matters, Phillips had previously anchored the duo Marvin and Jesse with R&B legend Jesse Belvin.)
Marvin and Johnny, from a mid-'50s promotional photo. Image courtesy of the great French music blog Roll Call
Transplanted Southwesterners both (Emory Perry was from Texas, Marvin Phillips from Oklahoma), both also played saxophone, working at one point alongside each other for popular Los Angeles R&B bandleader Richard Lewis in the late ‘40s.
Emory Perry officially joined Marvin Phillips after Marvin’s previous “Johnny” (Carl Green, with whom Phillips recorded “Baby Doll” for Specialty Records, a 1953 R&B hit) had left the duo. Phillips and Perry would go on to chart with both sides of their “Cherry Pie” b/w “Tick Tock” 45 in 1954 for Modern Records, another big Los Angeles-based R&B label, and one of the several sister R&B labels run by the Bihari brothers in the ‘50s.
No further hits ensued for Marvin and Johnny, but they would continue to perform, tour and record and release 45s throughout the next several years. (Marvin Phillips worked again for a bit with Jesse Belvin during this time, too, and would also record solo as Long Tall Marvin in 1956.)
Most of the many mid-’50s Marvin and Johnny sides were representative of Los Angeles’s commercial post-War, pre-rock ‘n’ roll R&B: a mixture of smooth ballads and raucous sax- and guitar-driven uptempo R&B, usually with high-quality session support. Recorded in 1955, “Ain’t that Right,” like all of this week’s selections, was representative, too, yet also somehow different within the artist’s oeuvre. The stuttering Bo-Diddley-style riffs are mostly an exercise in percussive sound here, with the strange, sinuous unison guitar-and-vocalization breaks adding an otherworldly dimension to an already unusual approach. Heady stuff for mid-’50s commercial R&B.
As the sound of rhythm and blues evolved rapidly in the early ’60s, Marvin and Johnny’s own commercial recordings would taper out; both remained in the Los Angeles area for years to come, though largely retired from the music business.