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Bo Diddley

Biography

Bo Diddley
Altman/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Bo Diddley's signature beat is a cornerstone of rock and pop, a simple, five-accent rhythm that's the driving force behind Diddley's own "Who Do You Love," "Mona," "Bo Diddley," and "I'm a Man" — as well as Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," the Who's "Magic Bus," the Strangelove's "I Want Candy" (later covered by Bow Wow Wow), Bruce Springsteen's "She's the One," George Michael's "Faith," Primal Scream's "Movin' on Up," and many, many other songs. Diddley was one of the most influential guitarists of his generation, and his lubricious vocal style has informed blues and rock singers for over a half-century. Long a popular live act, Diddley was also a fixture on the road for six decades.

Born December 30, 1928, in McComb, Mississippi, Ellas McDaniel was adopted by a Mississippi sharecropping family and moved with them to the South Side of Chicago. As a child, he began studying violin under Professor O.W. Frederick at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In grammar school he acquired his Bo Diddley nickname (a "diddley bow" is a one-stringed African guitar). When he entered Foster Vocational School in his teens, he learned to make violins and guitars, building his first rectangular guitar at age 15. When not in school he would play his guitar on Chicago's Maxwell Street. After several years of performing on street corners, he played at the 708 Club in 1951 and became a regular South Side artist for the next four years.

In July 1955, Leonard Chess signed Diddley to the Checker label. The artist's first single, "Bo Diddley," was an immediate Number One R&B success. Its B-side, "I'm a Man" (1955), also fared well on the R&B chart; later recorded by the Yardbirds, among many others, it became a blues-rock standard. Diddley's biggest pop success came in 1959, when "Say Man" (Number Three R&B) hit the Top 20 late in the year. He had a lesser pop hit in 1962 with the rollicking "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover" (Number 48 pop, Number 21 R&B). He also wrote Mickey & Sylvia's 1956 smash, "Love Is Strange."

Diddley toured steadily through the late-1950s and early-1960s, playing rock package tours and one-nighters at R&B venues. The band that recorded with him in the mid-Fifties included drummers Clifton James and Frank Kirkland, pianist Otis Spann, Bo's half-sister "The Duchess" on guitar and vocals, and Diddley's eternal sidekick, bassist and maracas shaker Jerome Green (who also provided call-and-response repartee on "Say Man," "Hey Bo Diddley," and "Bring It to Jerome," among many others).

Diddley's legacy was enhanced considerably during the mid-Sixties, when many of his songs were covered by British Invasion groups like the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things (who named themselves after Diddley's "Pretty Thing"), and the Yardbirds. In 1964, the Animals paid tribute to him in an album track entitled "The Story of Bo Diddley." Through the years, his material has been recorded by countless other artists.

Diddley recorded erratically from the early-Sixties on. In the middle part of the decade he recorded traditional blues with Little Walter and Muddy Waters on Super Blues. In the early-Seventies Diddley toured frequently, concentrating on Europe. One such outing was documented in the splendid (though hard to find) 1973 concert-and-backstage film Let the Good Times Roll. Around the same time he also appeared in D.A. Pennebaker's Keep on Rockin'. He even served as a deputy sheriff in Valencia County, New Mexico, in the mid-Seventies, giving truth to the title of his classic 1960 LP, Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger.

In 1976 RCA released 20th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll, a tribute to Diddley that featured more than 20 artists. Diddley also opened several dates for the Clash's 1979 U.S. tour. He made cameo appearances in George Thorogood's video "Bad to the Bone" (1982) and played a pawnbroker in the Dan Aykroyd-Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places. In 1998 he appeared in Blues Brothers 2000. He tried recording over electro-funk grooves on 1992's This Should Not Be; critics agreed with the album's title.

Bo Diddley's stature as a founding father of rock & roll is indisputable despite his relative lack of commercial success and he gained a healthy boost with 1990's Chess Box, a double-CD outlining his greatest works. (Shorter best-ofs also abound.) He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1996 he released his first major-label album in two decades, A Man Amongst Men, with guest artists including Ron Wood, Keith Richards, and the Shirelles. The album was nominated for a 1997 Grammy in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. The following year, he received the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award. He also was the recipient of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award; the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters' Pioneer in Entertainment Award; and a BMI Icon Award. Diddley is enshrined in the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame and the North Florida Music Association's Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone named Diddley the 20th Greatest Artist of All Time.

He organized a fundraiser for the town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in January 2006, to help pay for damage done by Hurricane Katrina.

Diddley attributed his long career to abstinence from alcohol and drugs, though later in life he suffered from diabetes. He died of heart failure in his home in Archer, Florida, on June 2, 2008.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.

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