“Who Do You Love” was written by American rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley. Recorded in 1956, it is one of his most popular and enduring works. The song represents one of Bo Diddley’s strongest lyrical efforts and uses a combination of hoodoo-type imagery and boasting. It is an upbeat rocker, but the original did not use the signature Bo Diddley beat rhythm.
“Who Do You Love” was recorded in Chicago on March 24, 1956, one year after recording the self-titled “Bo Diddley”, his debut single. Bo Diddley uses his characteristic sound processing effects, including echoey vocal and tremolo-laden rhythm electric guitar. Jody Williams (Joseph Leon Williams) answers the vocal lines with prominent, distinctive overdriven guitar fills and a solo. In naming Jody Williams to its list of “35 Blues Guitarists Who Definitely Started It All”, Spin magazine adds, “His solo on Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love’ is a lesson in evil”. Clifton James plays the drums and percussionist Jerome Green adds maracas.
The idea came to him in Kansas City, where he heard a group of children trying to out-brag one another using a particular rhythm. “It was like an African chant, and I wanted words that would suit it”, Bo Diddley recalled.
Inspired by Muddy Waters 1954 hit “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, as was his hit “I’m A Man” the next year, he wanted to outdo songwriter Willie Dixon’s lyrical swagger:
I’m telling this chick … how bad I am, so she can go tell the cat she’s hanging with, “this dude is something else.” That’s what it kinda meant, cat ridin’ rattlesnakes and kissin’ boa constrictors and stuff.
He also sings about a skull, a tombstone, a graveyard, and a scream in the night to convey a sense of foreboding. The use of the homonym “who do” is an allusion to “hoodoo”, a Louisiana/Mississippi folk magic belief that events can be influenced by its use. However, Bo Diddley uses imagery more common to the American Southwest, combined with exaggerated bravado. He explained that the first line,
I got forty-seven miles of barbed wire”, came quickly, “but I couldn’t get a rhyme for it. I thought of car tires and mule trains, and I couldn’t get anything to fit. Then one day I said ‘use a cobra snake,’ and my drummer, Clifton James, added ‘for a necktie'”. These are directed at a female he is trying to woo – “who do you love, me or him”. The lyrics confirm the effect: “Arlene took me by my hand, she said ‘oo-ee daddy I understand’, who do you love?
Musically, “Who Do You Love” is an uptempo song centered on one chord (A♭) with guitar flourishes that complement the vocals. It has a strong rhythm, but unlike later interpretations, it does not use the typical Bo Diddley beat. Instead, the song uses a “modified cut shuffle beat” or 2/4 time, giving it an almost rockabilly feel, similar to Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”.
Bo Diddley revolutionized the texture of pop music. He put the rhythm in the foreground, stripping away the rest, and customized the space with tremolo, distortion, echo and reverb, to say nothing of maracas. The way he chunked on the lower strings was a primary model for what was later known as rhythm guitar. He had lots of space to fill up with his guitar, because his records had no piano and no bass. Which also meant no harmonic complications. Hanging on a single tone, never changing chords — the writer Robert Palmer called that the “deep blues,” something that reached from Chicago back to the front-porch style of Mississippi and Louisiana. Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters recorded one-chord songs before Bo Diddley did, but he made them central to his repertoire.
“Who Do You Love” is listed at 132 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. A member of both the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, Diddley received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, as well as a Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
The song has been interpreted and recorded by numerous musicians in different styles, often adding a Bo Diddley beat. Popular renditions include those by Ronnie Hawkins and George Thorogood, with charting singles by the Woolies, Tom Rush, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Juicy Lucy.