Bo Diddley, who died Monday at age 79 in Florida, was as essential to the creation of rock `n’ roll as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little Richard, though he seldom got the credit or the accolades that were showered on his better-known peers.
The singer-guitarist, who died of heart failure at his home in Archer, Fla., had been ill since last year, when he suffered a stroke and later a heart attack. Until then, he had spent most of his life on the road, playing rock `n’ roll, the music he loved and helped invent.
He was a hard-scrabble visionary from the streets of Chicago’s South Side who literally had to fight for everything he got. He created rock `n’ roll’s essential rhythm, pioneered an approach to electric guitar playing that was at least a decade ahead of its time, and developed a vocal style and stage persona that influenced everyone from Elvis to Chuck D.
Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Miss. He never knew his father and his mother was a teenager when she gave birth to him; the boy’s primary caretaker was his mother’s first cousin, Gussie McDaniel. He was renamed Ellas McDaniel and moved with McDaniel to Chicago when he was seven to escape the sharecropping life. As a child, he was mocked for his “country” ways and found himself scrapping with grade-school bullies several times a week. By the time he was a teenager, however, he had become an accomplished boxer, and a boy nobody wanted to mess with.
“When I started fighting back, there wasn’t anyone around to whup me and they didn’t try, so the kids started calling me `Bo Diddley,’” Diddley wrote in the liner notes to the 1990 compilation, “Bo Diddley: The Chess Box.”
At the same time, the budding pugilist was taking violin lessons at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, and later built himself violins and guitars at Foster Vocational High School. These were the first of many custom-made guitars the aspiring musician would wield, and he developed a playing style as distinctive as the box-shaped instruments he made. His large hands made the finger-picking style of country-blues guitarists difficult to master, so he developed a more percussive approach that drew on Afro-Caribbean rhythms and the choppy wrist strokes he adapted from playing the violin.
“When I was about 15, I was trying to play like Muddy Waters, but it didn’t work,” he said in a 1985 interview. “I figured I was on my way to becoming a first-class fool trying to play like Muddy and them. So I invented my own style. I always felt it was better to do your own thing than try to copy someone else, but I had no idea my thing would change rock music.”
Diddley called his syncopated groove a “freight-train” sound, others described it as a “shave-and-a-haircut” rhythm. The beat had been around for centuries, most notably in West African drumming, but Diddley mastered it and augmented it for the rock `n’ roll era. He perfected his sound by playing on Maxwell Street and South Side streetcorners for pocket change with his band the Hipsters.
By the early `50s, he was gigging regularly at the famed blues tavern the 708 Club with a band that included maracas player Jerome Greene, bassist Roosevelt Jackson and drummer Clifton James. His custom-built guitars and amplifiers sounded like no one else’s, heavy on reverb and distortion. When he stepped into Chess Records studio in March 1955 to record for the first time, Diddley and his band were already seasoned entertainers of 11 years with a sound all their own. His songs were filled with tall stories, jokes, insults and good-natured bragging. Diddley portrayed himself as a larger-than-life character, and sang with a mixture of cartoonish joy and hoodoo-man menace.
“I’m a man,” he declared in one of his more famous songs, and spelled it out slowly, “M-A-N,” as if daring anyone to doubt that he was the toughest of them all. “Who do you love?” he growled rhetorically in another signature hit. When he declared his ardor for “Mona,” there could be no doubt of his intentions.
On stage, he wore horn-rimmed glasses, a Black Stetson and a huge smile. He was a master showman whose high-spirited boasts and self-referential songs echoed folk songs, nursery rhymes and childhood games such as the dozens even as they prefigured the rise of hip-hop. He played box-shaped guitars with his teeth and behind his back or swung them suggestively through his legs, while making the amplifiers howl in a way that wouldn’t be heard again until `60s innovators such as Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix came along.
But it was Diddley’s feel for rhythm that truly set him apart. His drummer focused on the tom-toms and bass, rarely the snare or the cymbals. Jerome Green’s hypnotic maracas were mixed way out front on the recordings so that they were made to sound unusually full and vibrant. They danced in and out with Diddley’s guitar lines, which were drenched in reverberation. Other percussion instruments also factored into the mixes, all orchestrated by Diddley into rhythms that anticipated the bottom-heavy thunder of heavy metal, the clipped syncopation of funk and the lighter skip of reggae.
The “Bo Diddley beat” was copied by countless artists and underscored many hits: Buddy Holly used it on “Not Fade Away,” Presley on “His Latest Flame” and Johnny Otis on “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Other artists who incorporated it were Duane Eddy (“Cannonball”), the Strangeloves (“I Want Candy”), the Who (“Magic Bus”), the Stooges (“1969”), David Bowie (“Panic in Detroit”), Bruce Springsteen (“She’s the One”), the Smiths (“How Soon is Now”), Guns N’ Roses (“Mr. Brownstone”) and U2 (“Desire”). His songs were also covered numerous times, by artists such as the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, the Doors, the New York Dolls, Springsteen, Aerosmith, Tom Petty and Bob Seger. The Clash invited him to tour with them at the height of the U.K. punk band’s fame.
But as Diddley found, it was difficult enough to get paid for writing a song, let alone to receive credit for popularizing a rhythm. He claimed that he never received royalties for any of his Chess recordings, and his rhythmic innovations became so ingrained in rock `n’ roll’s DNA that generations of fans grew up hearing them without knowing his role in their creation.
Though he had dozens of classic songs, Diddley never approached the level of fame enjoyed by Presley, Little Richard, Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, among other `50s contemporaries. His sole appearance on the “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the prime-time television star-making vehicle, did not go well. Sullivan insisted before the 1955 appearance that Diddley play a Tennessee Ernie Ford hit, “Sixteen Tons.” Diddley agreed, but once the cameras rolled he played his signature song, “Bo Diddley.” Sullivan was enraged and the singer never appeared on his show again.
Diddley avoided the scandal and notorious lifestyle that bedeviled some of his peers, but his hits dried up in the `60s and his career faded in the `70s. He settled in Florida in the `80s, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1998, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
He continued to record sporadically and toured frequently on weekends. During the week, he lived quietly in Florida, writing music, repairing vintage cars, and attending church. At home, he was the antithesis of the showboating rock star he played on stage. His neighbors described Diddley as a self-effacing man always ready to help others.
“When I first became famous, it really freaked me out,” he once said. “I mean, it didn’t seem real. I said, `Wow, I got a hit record! Little ol’ me!’ I didn’t know what to do with it, but then I turned around and faced it. I come from a very religious background, and I figured I was being given a chance and I wasn’t about to let it slip by. Maybe that’s why I’m still around and others aren’t.”
Diddley is survived by his children, Evelyn Kelly, Ellas A. McDaniel, Tammi D. McDaniel and Terri Lynn McDaniel, as well as 15 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and 3 great-great-grandchildren. Services are planned for this weekend.
// Notes from the Road
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