Bo Diddley broke new ground in rock and roll’s formative years with his unique guitar work, indelible African rhythms, inventive songwriting and larger-than-life persona.
He will forever be known for popularizing one of the foundational rhythms of rock and roll: the Bo Diddley beat. He employed it in his namesake song, “Bo Diddley,” as well as other primal rockers like “Mona.” This African-based 4/4 rhythm pattern (which goes bomp-bomp-bomp bomp-bomp) was picked up from Diddley by other artists and has been a distinctive and recurring element in rock and roll through the decades. It can be heard on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (later covered by the Rolling Stones), Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive,” the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” the Who’s “Magic Bus” and Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One,” to name just several songs.
Diddley is the author of a body of songs, including “Who Do You Love?,” “Road Runner,” “Mona,” “Before You Accuse Me” and “I’m a Man,” that are among the earliest examples of rock and roll rising out of its source material in rhythm and blues. Diddley married two worlds he knew well – the Deep South and the streets of Chicago – in his music. Born Ellas Bates in McComb, Mississippi, Diddley was raised by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, whose surname he legally adopted. The family moved to Chicago when Diddley was seven. His earliest exposure to music came via the church. The first instrument he learned to play was the violin, though hearing John Lee Hooker’s 1949 R&B hit, “Boogie Chillen” inspired him to pick up the guitar. Diddley claimed that playing the violin influenced his muted-string, choke-neck style of rhythm guitar – an early forerunner of funk that can be heard on songs like “Pretty Thing.” “It’s mixed up with spiritual, sanctified rhythms,” he explained, “and the feeling I have of making people [want to] shout.”
Diddley formed a band called the Hipsters (later the Langley Avenue Jive Cats) while in high school and landed a regular spot at the 708 Club on Chicago’s South Side in 1951. He signed with the Checker label, a Chess Records subsidiary, in 1955. Diddley’s earliest records were contemporaneous with those of labelmate Chuck Berry. His debut single was a two-sided classic that paired “Bo Diddley” with “I’m a Man.” It was the first in a string of groundbreaking sides that walked the fine line between rhythm & blues and rock & roll. Others included “Diddley Daddy,” “Pretty Thing” and “Road Runner,” which were all Top 20 R&B hits. One of Diddley’s crossover successes came with “Say Man,” a laugh-filled exchange of jive talk between Diddley and his maraca player, Jerome Green. Their verbal sparring derived from the African-American pastime of “signifying’ or “doing the dozens” and foreshadowed the battle rapping of the present day, minus the profanity.
Diddley was also an inventor, devising his own tremolo effect and playing a unique, rectangular “cigar box” guitar that he designed in 1958. His ever-fertile mind also inspired him to set up one of the first home studios. The prolific singer/guitarist released a string of albums whose titles – including Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger and Have Guitar, Will Travel – bolstered his self-invented legend. Between 1958 and 1963, Checker released 11 full-length albums by Bo Diddley. Two Great Guitars, released in 1964, was jointly credited to Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
A regular at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, Diddley also traveled with the rock and roll revues of the day. His exemplary touring band including fellow Chicagoans Jerome Green on bass and maracas, pianist Otis Spann, Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica and drummer Frank Kirkland. Diddley retained his iconic status as a rock and roll pioneer, steadily releasing albums on Checker through the mid-Seventies. Further releases, such as 1988’s Live at the Ritz (a concert recording with Rolling Stone Ron Wood) and 1996’s A Man Among Men (a studio album featuring a host of famous guests) came more intermittently in the ensuing decades. Meanwhile, Diddley continued to work the live circuit in tireless fashion. He was righteously outspoken on the subject of underpayment, bad contracts and other ripoffs that denied many early rock and rollers (himself among them) what was due them. Diddley passed away on June 2, 2008, age 79.
Bo Diddley (guitar, vocals; born December 30, 1928, died June 2, 2008)