There’s a good reason you still won’t hear Bo Diddley rockin’ on your (satellite) radio. The man behind the eponymous hit from 1955 is one of those rare artistic concessions — not to the mainstream, but the other way around. The placement of his debut single in rock ‘n’ roll history was a rare instance of democratic capitalism in the music industry: when creativity met a critical mass of public opinion, or when the consumers actually got what they wanted. The subsequent success of "Bo Diddley" (eighteen weeks on the R&B charts) was an exception made by a slow-to-change culture that also made a mental note, "That’s the last time we let this fucker in." And understandably so: More than fifty years later, Bo Diddley’s beat is still as vicious as ever.
I’m a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958 is a welcome reminder that covers Diddley’s formative years at Chess Records. Many of his signature hits — including "Bo Diddley," "Diddy Wah Diddy," the pre-Mickey & Sylvia version of "Love Is Strange," and "Who Do You Love" — were recorded in this fertile period and are included here. Heard together in this manner, the apparent primal simplicity surrounding the "Diddley beat" is fleshed out as deliberately carnal, like the pulsing throb of an adolescent heartbeat, and a landmark in rhythm ’n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
Granted, as an early inductee to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and a bona fide icon among current young adults through his popular Nike campaign in the ’80s, Diddley has already been well documented. Chess Box (1990) offered a thorough overview of his nearly career-long relationship with the label. However, I’m a Man brings greater depth to the conversation with an abundance of alternate takes that illustrate Diddley’s rapid development. For example, three versions of "Bo Diddley" feature subtly different arrangements and key signatures, but reveal an adventurous and prescient use of the studio. Should Hip-O continue to explore Diddley’s career in such detail and depth, then I’m a Man could become an essential serial in any popular-music fan’s collection.