Born Ellas Otha Bates in Mississippi, like many southern musicians who grew up playing delta blues and singing gospel, Bo Diddley headed to Chicago in his early adulthood and made himself an integral part of the post-WWII Chicago blues movement. Bo was more than just another blues artist, though. He’s one of the key figures of the ’50s who shaped the early rock and roll movement.
Diddley proved himself to be an innovator by blending genres, using African stylings like the “hambone” rhythm, which became one of his signature musical attributes, and experimenting with different percussive, Latin-inspired grooves.
There isn’t hardly a Hall of Fame organization in existence the singer-guitarist isn’t a part of. Read on as we detail the best Bo Diddley songs below.
10. Before You Accuse Me (Take A Look At Yourself)
We ease into the unique sounds of Bo Diddley with his unruffled, smooth blues shuffle, ‘Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself).’ Though the tune wasn’t one of his powerhouse releases, his emotional vocal performance and riveting electric guitar solo made this a go-to jam song for future blues bands and artists like Eric Clapton. Featuring a troubled relationship and a protagonist trying to work things out with his significant other, Clapton covered it with his bandmates The Yardbirds before reaching international stardom. Like many of the other Clapton covers of blues classics, his rendition took off and opened the floodgates for other artist interpretations. Even Creedence Clearwater Revival took a solid crack at the grooving number for their famed Cosmo’s Factory album.
9. Hit Or Miss
A funky, reggae-inspired anthem with a syncopated beat, Bo switches gears for ‘Hit or Miss,’ an invigorating tune that finds him declaring, “I gotta be me, baby, hit or miss.” It’s a fun track and great pick-me-up for anyone whose spirits are down. Released on his 1974 album appropriately titled Big Bad Bo, the single was first recorded by a key figure in the civil rights movement, singer and composer Odetta Gordon. The relatable track has stood the test of time, with longtime artists like Tom Jones recording their own renditions well into the 2000s.
8. Who Do You Love
A clever play on words, if you listen to the lyrics you realize the song ‘Who Do You Love’ could easily be named ‘Hoodoo You Love,’ after a popular spiritual sect across the south. Referencing many of its traditions and practices (rattlesnakes and cobras are themes), Diddley weaves an electrifying southern gothic tale driven by his fast-paced rhythmic guitar work coined “the Bo Diddley beat.” A 1950s single early in his career, Bo brings a ton of passion and entertainment to the performance, which made it one of his most popular compositions.
7. Our Love Will Never Go
Bo shows his range with this sweet tune, a pure love song that shows through it all he and his girl’s love will never die. His guitar abilities were distinctive because he didn’t just focus on solo work. He also incorporated all kinds of rhythmic layers to his compositions, especially syncopated ones like the exaggerated strums featured in ‘Our Love Will Never Go.’ Known as a key figure in the progression of rock and roll, Bo proves the powerful genre can have a gentle side with this breath of fresh air.
6. Ooh Baby
Released in 1966 alongside another single, ‘Back to School,’ this cross-genre song highlights Diddley’s innovative composing skills. He utilizes a classic early rock and roll band setup, and accents that with female backing harmonies, and acoustic percussion for his signature Latin-tinged beat. This off-beat method also incorporated traditional African stylings as well known as the “hambone” rhythm. His unique usage and reimagining of the technique caused the percussive rhythm to be synonymous with his name in the states. Executed with a vocal call-and-response technique common in the blues, Bo takes a slightly spoken word approach as he recites autobiographical lines about heartbreak, love, and failed relationships.
5. Road Runner
Let’s get into one of Bo Diddley’s evergreen pieces, the 12-bar blues kicker of a song, ‘Road Runner.’ If the vintage cartoon character comes to mind with mention of the song’s title, you’re on the right track. The classic Looney Tunes character’s signature “beep beep” soundbite is even recreated in the recording. But the tune isn’t just some novelty effort. As playful as Bo was with his music, his skillset shows he was one of the most serious practitioners in the biz. Though it’s a solid blues composition, foundational rock and R&B rhythmic elements give the song a swinging, open feel. This perfectly encapsulates the song’s theme, which finds Diddley out on the road, exploring life’s possibilities. The 1960 release charted high on Billboard’s R&B list, and the Hot 100 as well.
4. Pretty Thing
Electric guitar drives this percussive tune shifting between two worlds, the swampy Mississippi blues that influenced Bo early on, and the Chicago blues scene he took by storm in the ’50s. The rhythm in this song became a standard of multiple genres, including rock and pop, with countless artists creating their own lyrical and melodic works to the funky beat. Popular blues musician Willie Dixon had a heavy hand in writing this track, even standing by Diddley during the recording session so he could whisper upcoming lines to him. Their collaboration meant more chart success, with ‘Pretty Thing’ in particular becoming a popular single in the UK.
3. You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover
A blues-rock radio success that struts and stomps, ‘You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover’ is another Willie Dixon tune he gave to Diddley to record. Instead of Bo’s usual rhythm he often used, nicknamed the “Bo Diddley beat,’ the instrumentation takes on a more straightforward approach, with the rocker singing about all the reasons why people shouldn’t judge others based on knee-jerk reactions because there’s always more beneath the surface. Released as his career was taking on more international attention, the early ’60s single became one of several Bo Diddley “standards,” often being included in greatest hits compilations and as a top choice for musicians to cover.
2. Bo Diddley
The tune most associated with the West African “hambone” beat Bo Diddley perfected, this number 1 R&B hit of 1955 was adapted from an old folk tune Diddley loved to sing, ‘Mockingbird.’ When he brought the tune to his label to record, they suggested changing the lyrics to have a better chance for a commercial hit. He ended up naming the song after himself and referencing himself in the third person throughout the lyrics. The changes worked, and the single became a fan favorite, especially after its notorious introduction on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan wanted Diddley to play his cover of the Tennessee Ernie Ford hit ‘Sixteen Tons,’ but when Bo Diddley saw his name written on the cue card, he assumed it was the preferred song they wanted him to play, not a marker telling him to start performing. ‘Bo Diddley’ lyrics were far more suggestive than the moody, understated ‘Sixteen Tons.’ Bo was an innovative interpreter but also an inventor of sorts, making the one-of-a-kind rectangular-shaped guitar body a novelty part of his image. Like the boxy guitars he pioneered, ‘Bo Diddley’ became a trademark of his as well after its release.
1. I’m A Man
A blues standard that influenced future generations, ‘I’m A Man’ finds Diddley returning to his roots in fine form. With assertive lyrics that give an authoritative confirmation of his “m-a-n” hood, Bo drew from his inspiration fueled by Muddy Waters’ blues music for the prideful track. With a signature guitar riff that would go on to be reinterpreted by countless artists for their own recordings, the blues community quickly fell in love with the song’s confidence and swagger. Future musicians like Eric Clapton would constantly keep this number in his back pocket, always ready to play it live and recording it while with The Yardbirds. The song crossed the pond with ease, with guitarists like Jeff Beck covering the tune to much critical praise. The guitar work in Bo’s original gave blues rockers plenty to chew on for days. George Thorogood based his ‘Bad to The Bone’ lick off of ‘I’m a Man.’ The Waters-influenced tune was released in 1955, and mere months after, Muddy returned the favor by releasing ‘Mannish Boy,’ a powerful blues classic that brilliantly rewrites Diddley’s masterpiece.