I’ve never had Penélope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson ask me out for the same Friday night, but one evening in 1978, I had to choose between the Sex Pistols at Winterland in San Francisco, or Bo Diddley playing a small club in Burlingame, California. After a long deliberation, I opted for the Bo show. I’ll never forget being on the dance floor in an almost hypnotic trance—this was an era when folks actually danced to live music—while the band chugged relentlessly on the “Bo Diddley Beat” for what seemed like the most primal musical hour I’ve ever experienced. I never regretted my decision.
The Black Gladiator was released in 1970 as an attempt to have Bo cross over to a more contemporary audience. (Check out the album art with Bo dressed in full-on sadomasochistic garb—whoa!) I’m not usually a big fan of blues-crossover records, because the artist can sound grafted over psychedelic nonsense. Happily, The Black Gladiator makes my jaw drop every time I hear it. Bo’s playing is a combination of Band of Gypsys meets Bill Doggett meets Hound Dog Taylor.
The super funky, powerful, and violent “Shut Up, Woman” makes you feel as if you’re trapped in a living room during a domestic struggle for dominance. The one-chord vamp of “I’ve Got a Feeling” features a note-wrangling guitar solo that’s worth the price of admission, and I suggest taste testing this track to see if The Black Gladiator is your cup of tea. There’s a great Hendrix riff on “Elephant Man” that reprises unapologetically on “Funky Fly,” while bassist Chester Lindsey and longtime Diddley drummer Clifton James groove brilliantly. Organist Bobby Alexis—who co-wrote many of the tunes—adds to the fire. I love Bo’s earlier Chess LPs, but on The Black Gladiator, his lead playing is surprisingly athletic. Hear it and you’ll ask yourself, “Is this really Bo Diddley?”
The funkiness of this album always looms over me. I tried to incorporate the “Black Soul” riff in my version of “Manic Depression” [Dream Dictionary], and Bo’s solo on “I’ve Got a Feeling” became a guitar-tone template for my track “Jim’s Blues” [American Hips]. This LP is a treasure. Thankfully, this ’70s rare bird was reissued on vinyl and CD.