Some careers are so illustrious and varied and full of ups and downs that in themselves they form an almost complete instructional primer in the music industry— Bo Diddley, the singer and guitarist who along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis virtually created rock ‘n’ roll, had one of those careers. Having just passed away this week, Bo Diddley continued to perform up until just recently, and his innovations, particularly that signature Bo Diddley beat, will live on far beyond his long and colorful life. If you want to study with a master, here are a couple of things to pick up from the life and times of the legendary Bo Diddley:
1. Rhythm is part of songwriting too.
In a way, it seems strange to point it out– given the rhythmic-orientation of contemporary hit radio. It has become almost impossible to have a major Top 40 hit today with something that doesn’t generate airplay at “Rhythm Radio”, the format that designates what might otherwise be known as pop-urban, from straight-up rap records to hip-hop flavored R&B songs by people like Fergie, Justin Timberlake, Usher, etc.
But there was a time when songwriters were predominately focused on things like melody, harmony, and lyrics, and often neglected rhythmic innovations– and that bias still exists among many aspiring writers. Especially in the singer-songwriter world, as well as for those working in a more adult contemporary style, there is often far to much emphasis placed on things like chord progressions and not nearly enough emphasis placed on matters like tempo and groove. Bo Diddley built an entire career on the creation of one signature beat– a beat that went on to fuel hits like “Bo Diddley” and “Who Do You Love”, but also Springsteen’s “She’s The One”, The Who’s “Magic Bus”, and U2′s “Desire”. In many ways, he is the father of all of the hip-hop-oriented “beat” makers who power today’s contemporary industry, from Timbaland to Danja to Scott Storch and the Neptunes.
2. Songs give character.
Perhaps the greatest gift that Bo Diddley had was that of self-invention. Not only did he create his own beat, he created his own name (and then built a whole song around it), his guitar, his signature sonic sound, and his own character– transforming himself from a young boy from McComb, Mississippi being raised by legal guardians into the sly, funny and supremely self-confident character that the rock ‘n’ roll world all knows as “Bo Diddley”. But part of Bo Diddley’s genius was that he used the lyrics of his songs, beginning with “Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring”, to define himself to his audience.
Too many songwriters forget that for the modern music industry, songs exist primarily to establish artists. One of the most important ways that songs do that is to define their artist– the persona and attitudes contained in the song will forever define the artist who sings them. In light of that function, it’s essential that songwriters learn to think a little bit like screenwriters– trying to create in the lyric not only a story, but also a point of view that will convey to the listener the attitude and persona of the singer. Think of hits like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “Skater Boy”, “London Bridge”– they tell you more about the singer and who that artist is than any press release or print advertisement ever could. Or just think about “Bo Diddley” and “Who Do You Love”, and take your cues from there.
3. Beware of the Gimme’s.
Sadly, Bo Diddley’s life also offered some fairly good lessons about the music BUSINESS– most of them fairly harsh, and many of them which still elude most artists and songwriters today. Despite being one of the seminal figures of rock ‘n’ roll, Bo Diddley never made the kind of money that even many of his 50′s peers did– and certainly never made what he felt was commensurate with his contributions. You can almost certainly chalk some of that up to the kind of chicanery that was prevalent in the music business of his era, and indeed, that’s where Bo put most of the blame– particularly on his longtime label, Chess Records.
But there was an interesting quote from Marshall Chess, the son of Chess Record’s founder Leonard Chess, in the book “Spinning Blues Into Gold” by Nadine Cohodas. In answering Bo’s frequent accusations about the underpayment of royalties, Marshall points out “What’s missing from Bo’s version of events is all the ‘gimmes’. ” As a veteran of both sides of the music industry, that rings pretty true.
What Marshall Chess is calling “gimmes” are what the modern industry calls “advances”, or even more dangerously “additional advances”. It seems that Bo Diddley had a habit of borrowing heavily against future royalties, taking money from record company in the form of additional advances to pay for everything from cars and jewelry to tours and equipment. Unfortunately, the record company kept much better track of those “gimmes” than Bo did, and would then subtract all of those advance amounts when the royalty payments finally came due. In the best of times, it would lead to some disappointment when the royalty check that Bo received was smaller than what he expected. In the worst of times, when sales of an album fell far short of what was projected (and what was advanced against), it could lead to financial disaster.
So here’s the final lesson of Bo Diddley, which should be absorbed by writers and artists everywhere:
There’s always a pay-back.
Advances are just loans that must be repaid– the more you borrow, the less you’ll ever see in the way of earnings. When times are good, record labels and publishers are happy to keep the money flowing and to loan you as much as you want– and often, much more than you really need. But when times tighten up again, that money will get paid back, and you could be waiting a long time to see your first royalty check.
Keep that in mind before you go and buy your babe a diamond ring with that new publishing advance.
As Bo Diddley said, “I tell musicians, ‘Don’t trust nobody but your mama. And even then, look at her real good’.”
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