Before Buddy Holly did it, before the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and a million unknown garage bands, there was Bo Diddley - and the beat that bears his name.
Diddley, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and one of the genre’s undisputed icons, died on Monday at his 76-acre spread in rural Archer, Fla., about 10 miles out of Gainesville. He was 79.
The inventor of the Bo Diddley beat - chunk-a-chunk-chuck, a-chunk-chunk - had suffered a heart attack in August. Three months before that, he had a stroke while on tour in Iowa. It had affected his speech, and he had returned to Archer to recuperate.
Even so, musicians and music fans were shocked and saddened by the news.
“It’s a very depressing day,” said William McKeen, author and journalism chair at the University of Florida, where he teaches an annual course on rock history. “I wasn’t ready for Bo Diddley to go.”
In Orlando, guitarist Brian Chodorcoff, a club fixture in such revered bands as the Legendary JCs, expressed the admiration of guitarists everywhere:
“He was the originator,” Chodorcoff said. “The bridge between the blues and rock `n’ roll was Bo Diddley.
“He’s got songs that are just a beat, just that thing. Listen to a song like `Who Do You Love’ and you realize that it doesn’t have chord changes! It has groove and it has attitude.”
Before the beat, he was born Ellas Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Miss. He first listened to music in church and received his initial guitar as a Christmas gift from his sister when he was 11:
“My mama like to kill her,” Diddley told the Orlando Sentinel in 2002. “I came from a real religious family and they didn’t allow no guitar playing in the house.”
(Ken Love/Akron Beacon Journal)
In 1955, Diddley signed with Chess Records in Chicago. He traced the signature beat behind “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man” to his attempts to play the country sing “I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle.”
The arrival of Diddley and Muddy Waters at Chess began the evolution of blues into rock `n’ roll, although the early black musicians were overshadowed by the arrival of Elvis Presley.
“Elvis was fantastic, but he did not start it,” Diddley told the Sentinel. “He was 2 ½ years behind me.”
Bitterness over unfair deals marked Diddley’s latter years, which he spent in Archer on property he cleared himself in the late 1980s. McKeen occasionally invited his famous neighbor to speak to his rock history classes, without success.
“I don’t think he needed the stroking of being in a university classroom to remind him of his place in rock `n’ roll history,” McKeen says. “If you could copyright a style, then he could’ve sued everybody for copyright infringement.”
On Monday in Orlando, Diddley was the subject of a low-key tribute he might have appreciated more:
“I gotta go teach some lessons today,” says guitarist Chodorcoff, “and I can tell you what groove we’ll be working on.”
In April, 2002, Orlando Sentinel music critic Jim Abbott traveled to Bo DIddley’s home in Archer and the spent the afternoon interviewing Diddley. Here are some of the musician’s memories:
First musical influence: “I used to sneak off and listen at this church down the street. They had a tambourine and a piano and that was all. I said, `I have to do that.’ The piano was raggedy and out of tune, but they was having fun.”
On Muddy Waters: Diddley’s arrival at Chess Records, along with Chuck Berry, shifted the label’s emphasis from bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and helped usher in the rock `n’ roll era: “I was a kid, but me and Muddy got along real good. But it felt like I was invading his turf when I went to Chess.”
On Ed Sullivan: There was controversy when Diddley appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TV variety show in the 1950s after Sullivan asked him to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” instead of his own hit. “I thought I was supposed to do two songs, so I did `Bo Diddley’ first. He was freaking out, but I was going to do my song.”
On Elvis Presley: “I admired the man, but they’re making him out to be bigger than Jesus.”
On the music business: “We got ripped off something terrible, and I try to tell all the musicians nowadays: Watch everybody.”
On prejudice: “That old black and white thing needs to be wiped out in this nation. That is one of America’s worst cancers. That color barrier is a-dangerous.”
On the secret of his sound: The violin lessons. “It’s all in that wrist action. That comes from 12 years of violin.”