Road Runner, the second volume of Hip-O Select's ongoing chronicle of Bo Diddley's complete Chess/Checker master recordings, covers roughly one calendar year whereas its predecessor, I'm a Man, spanned four -- a good indication that 1959 was an eventful year for Bo. During this one year, he had his biggest pop hit in the jive-talking "Say Man" and had another sizable R&B hit with "Crackin' Up," but both these sides were cut in 1958 and released as a single in 1959. As they climbed the charts, Diddley was frenetically recording, spinning off his "Bo Diddley" into "Nursery Rhyme aka Puttentang" while mythologizing himself yet again in "The Story of Bo Diddley," attempting to steal back his signature beat from Johnny Otis' "Willie & the Hand Jive" with "Willie Fell in Love," slamming out a sequel to "Say Man," trying to catch the Caribbean winds that were blowing in, hauling out his violin, pushing his amp on instrumentals -- basically doing anything that popped into his head. So many ideas were spilling out of his head that perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that by the time 1959 was coming to a close, Bo set up his own studio in his house, then delivered finished tapes to Chess -- a practice completely unheard of that year!
All this is a roundabout way of saying that if I'm a Man provided the foundation of the Bo Diddley myth with its early hits and rock & roll standards, Road Runner showcases Bo the Innovator, the rock & roller who was as fascinated with the record as a recorded product instead of a capturing a live performance. There was still plenty of high-octane blues and rock & roll cut during 1959, but the overall impression left by this double-disc set is that of a musician who could use the studio as an instrument, whether he was slyly adding piano to "Story of Bo Diddley," pushing levels to the red on "Mumblin' Guitar," or figuring out how to give "Road Runner" that dirty low-riding groove. This experimentation -- not so much fearless as giddy, testing the limits of what can be done -- is why Road Runner remains gripping even though it has long stretches of repeated alternate takes (as many as four different versions of "She's Alright" follow in succession). Some of these are simple attempts to get the right vibe but more often they're radically different, as when "Prisoner of Love" is given an infectious uptempo treatment and a noir-ish slow take. In addition to the alternate takes, there are unreleased songs, most quite good, even when he's working out "Walking and Talking" (in two takes called "Walking" here), merely sketching out a mood as on "Jungle," or injecting phrases from "Love Is Strange" in "You Know I Love You So." Many of these songs showed up on Have Guitar, Will Travel, Bo Diddley in the Spotlight, and Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, three of Diddley's strongest LPs, but presented here in session order the music has a far different effect than it does on those albums. There, the music is tight, percussive, addictive; here, it's wild, unpredictable, experimental, a musician testing his limits. And that's why this set of complete Chess masters is so valuable -- by presenting Bo's complete recordings in session order it paints a picture of Bo the Innovator that is discernible in his LPs but leaps to the forefront here. Here's hoping the series goes all the way to the end.