Home Read Area Resident’s Classic Album Review: Bo Diddley | The Black Gladiator

Area Resident’s Classic Album Review: Bo Diddley | The Black Gladiator

The rock ‘n’ roll pioneer's gritty, funky 1970 release amplifies his black identity.

There is not enough love for Bo Diddley — and it’s nobody’s fault but Bo’s.

The late blues legend played way too many gigs and didn’t make enough studio albums — two of which are among my all-time favourites for guitar tone and coolness. Those are 1970’s The Black Gladiator and 1972’s The Way It All Began. Today I’m going to examine the former.

It came out four years after his last studio album The Originator, and just before Diddley moved to Los Lunas, New Mexico. Once settled there he became a deputy sheriff in county Citizens’ Patrol — purchasing and donating three patrol cruisers.

But in 1970 he made his most political album, perhaps his only one. Even the cover is a statement — a high-contrast image of Diddley looking powerful and wearing leather straps over a bare chest while playing his signature rectangular guitar and singing into a condenser mic. He’s wearing the garb on the back cover — though in a much clearer photo, bespectacled and screaming. It’s pretty damn cool. Almost metal. Certainly striking.

This was an era when Diddley’s contemporaries Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were making electric blues albums and aiming for inroads into the fanbases of The Rolling Stones, Cream and Fleetwood Mac. But Bo amplified his black identity and got grittier and funkier.

He was just the man to do it. Not a shy man, most of Bo’s songs can be classified as braggadocio, a precursor to hip-hop. But, like Jeff Beck and Prince, he also employed many incredible female guitarists during a time when it was uncommon. On the road, he’d pretend to be their partners to keep them from being the target of harassment.

With the amazing Clifton James on drums, Bobby Alexis on keys and Cookie Vee‘s (Cornelia Redmond) often hilarious vocals, the music on The Black Gladiator does not disappoint — almost, but we’ll get to that.

It opens with the raging, cool Elephant Man. I can’t stress enough just how great the guitar tones are. The other thing — specially with headphones — is the cacophony. It actually reminds me of Fear Of A Black Planet because it’s so noisy courtesy of the dual panned guitars and the constant tambourine. Next up is one of many Bo Diddley songs about his favourite subjects: Bo Diddley. This call-and-answer classic, You Bo Diddley, is also in the “Bo Diddley beat” of course. It’s a groove.

The third track is better — Black Soul. I’m certain it has ad-lib lyrics, but wonderful backing vocals. It’s followed by a blues number called Power House. Again, one of the loudest things is the tambourine and the organ never stops soloing. The last song on the first side, If The Bible’s Right, is a little like early Sly & The Family Stone. It’s an anti-war song — sung mostly by Cookie — which calls for equality and universal love, with wild organ glissandos. What’s not to love?

Flipping it over, Side 2 starts with I’ve Got A Feeling — just like Let It Be, but an entirely different song. It’s another jammy Motown number not unlike most of what’s been heard so far. It makes the album one you can put on and leave on. Next is the one unfortunate track — Shut Up Woman. It’s a supposed-to-be-funny misogynist blues number. Hot Buttered Blues follows. It’s a Chicago blues song — similar to Although The Sun Is Shining by Fleetwood Mac.

One of the album’s best jams is next, Funky Fly. It capture’s Diddley’s sense of humour. “Look at that funky fly. Catch that funky fly. Watch it now. Look at it. Funky fly.” The last song on the record is the most unusual — I Don’t Like You begins with Diddley singing in a bizarre operatic voice. It has awesome put-down exchanges between Bo and Cookie. “If a bird had your brains it would fly sideways.” Oh yeah? “If you had dynamite for brains you wouldn’t be able to blow your nose.” It offsets Shut Up Woman a little, if nothing else. I love this song so much.

This is an excellent road trip album or a record to put on while you’re cooking or folding laundry.



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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.