Jimmy McGriff -- 04.03.36-05.24.08
Seminal jazz organist Jimmy McGriff died Saturday, May 24, 2008, of apparent heart failure. He was 72. He had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years earlier.
One of the giants of the Hammond B-3 organ, McGriff was mostly known as a jazz musician, even though he always considered himself first and foremost a bluesman. Indeed, his numerous jazz records always had a funky, bluesy edge to them. Comparing himself to another great jazz organist, Jimmy Smith, McGriff once said, "Jimmy Smith is the jazz king on the organ, but when it comes to blues, I can do things where he can't touch me."
Another strong influence on his playing was the Black church. As he stated in a biography posted on All About Jazz, www.allaboutjazz.com, "They talk about who taught me this and who taught me that, but the basic idea of what I'm doing on the organ came from the church. That's how I got it, and I just never dropped it."
Jimmy McGriff was born in Philadelphia on April 3, 1936, and played both piano and organ as a young child. Later he learned both saxophone and bass. He was enthused about the sound of the organ, and, encouraged by his father, he switched from piano to organ. As McGriff told All About Jazz in 2006, "He was hearing something I wasn't hearing. He told me to play the organ, because I had that gospel thing."
McGriff was an MP in the U.S. Army in Korea from 1953 to 1956 and served for two years as a police officer in Philadelphia. He trained in music at Julliard and the Combe College of Music in Philadelphia, and also took private lessons from Jimmy Smith and another great organist, Richard "Groove" Holmes. Another important musical influence was Count Basie, whom McGriff once met.
"It was big band music," McGriff told All About Jazz about Basie. "And I liked that big band kinda thing. That's what turned me on."
McGriff was playing an instrumental version of Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman" in a nightclub in Trenton when he was spotted by a talent scout for Sue Records. He was signed to that label, and his first album contained another hit, "All About My Girl." He had many other notable recordings, including the funky "MG Blues."
For years he played with saxophonist Hank Crawford and many other jazz and blues notables, including the Buddy Rich Band and bluesman Junior Parker.
In his early career, McGriff played the Hammond B-3; in the 1970s, he played electric keyboards, and later the Hammond XB-3, but his preference was always the B-3. He also founded his own jazz supper club in Newark, New Jersey. He played a lot of different musical styles in his career, but the blues/gospel core that was the heart of his sound always remained.
Bo Diddley -- 12.30.28-06.02.08
A week after Jimmy McGriff's death, another seminal Black musician passed away, on Monday, June 2 -- rock 'n' roller Bo Diddley. He was 79 and had been in ailing health for the past year. He also died of apparent heart failure.
Bo Diddley was born Elias McDaniel in McComb, Miss., on Dec. 30, 1928, and moved with his family to Chicago when he was 7. His musical career started in the famed Maxwell Street Market there, also playing on street corners with two others who would go on to become notables of the blues -- harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold and guitarist Otis Rush.
He signed with Chess Records in the mid-1950s and recorded many R&B and early rock 'n' roll classics (most of which he wrote), among them "I'm a Man," "Bo Diddley," "Who Do You Love," "Diddy Wah Diddy," "Diddley Daddy," "Mona," "Before You Accuse Me" and "Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover."
He was noted for his signature rectangular electric guitar, plaid sports jackets and, most memorably, as the creator of the distinctive Bo Diddley Beat, based on the old shave-and-a-haircut rhythm played uptempo with maracas and riffing guitar. It is the only percussive rhythm actually named for a person. He was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, then worthy of renown here is his influence on the music of George Thorogood and the 1960s psychedelic band Quicksilver Messenger Service, which recorded a memorable cover of "Mona."
A friend and co-worker of mine, Bill Bastian, who lived in Germany in the 1970s, was a friend of Bo Diddley's, who was playing Europe annually during this period. He recalls that Bo Diddley always wanted two things when he played -- a large pot of coffee and an American-style pizza, not the easiest thing to come across in Berlin!
The hyperbolic braggadocio of many of Bo Diddley's most memorable songs brings to mind the classic blues line, "Laughin' just to keep from cryin'." By being the Clown Prince of rock 'n' roll, Bo Diddley recalled the steadfast humor that was such an integral part of Black America's survival mechanisms, and its ability to take the white man's stereotypes of the shuckin' an' jivin' Black minstrel and turn them around into a positive affirmation of just this Blackness -- just as other Black R&B artists of the mid-1950s produced lasting music over the howls of the "respectable" white critics who derided R&B and rock 'n' roll as "jungle music." (See the highbrow 1955 Britannica Book of the Year for a truly outstanding example of this type of dismissive "criticism.")
Bo Diddley was musically active his whole life until suffering a stroke in 2007. Like Jimmy McGriff, Bo Diddley produced memorably unique music that has deep roots in African American culture and will continue to live as long as men and women have soul.
George Fish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.