You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

Bo Diddley, Checker 1019, 1962, #48 Pop and #21 R&B

I remember hearing this overpowering song when it came out in 1962. Even on my parents’ crappy, tinny car radio it blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“Diddley Daddy,” “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled. The guitar rocks, the bass rolls, and those maracas are relentless! “I look like a farmer but–I’m a lover!” You go, Bo.

I came across a copy of the single in the late seventies. My record’s label has a printing error: The title, split into two lines, reads “A Book By The Cover / You Can’t Judge.” Does that flaw make this a sought-after, rare collectible? Not so much. It’s a bit more valuable than the correctly printed version, but my copy’s pretty scratchy anyway. So it’s merely a nice curiosity piece. And it’s a good little time-waster to imagine melodies and rhythms into which the stilted phrase would fit.

It’s a late Diddley hit, one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write. That credit goes to ace blues songwriter Willie Dixon, and this number is all about that bass, which Dixon plays on the song, caroming above and below and around Bo Diddley’s slashing guitar chords, propelling the song to and through the fade. (The record’s producer was Ralph Bass, but he no doubt pronounced his last name to rhyme with ass.)

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” doesn’t feature the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it is unmistakable Bo Diddley, and it sits right up there with his best. He only had one more single, “Ooh Baby,” on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and it just barely slipped in at #88 in 1966. I enjoy a song he issued as a single the following year, “Wrecking My Love Life,” and count its flipside, “Boo-Ga-Loo Before You Go,” among my favorite song titles.

There is a flubbed guitar chord on one of the verses of “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” on a five-chord-to-four-chord move. The sticklers among us may ask, “Why didn’t they do another take?” But the sticklers may find it difficult to tolerate rock and blues and country recordings that tend to allow clinkers, out-of-tune guitar strings, and imprecise vocal lines and lyrics. There certainly is a joy in listening to the take-after-take perfection of a Steely Dan song, or the multi-layered productions of Brian Wilson, but it’s a different listening experience. The flubbed chords and cracking voices are left in some of the great rhythm & blues and country & western recordings because the feel of those moments is so good it may not be capturable again. The imperfections add to the effect, like a Cajun stew, as opposed to a French soufflé. Both tasty, but completely different sensory experiences.

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