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Remembering Bo Diddley: 1928-2008

He invented his name, his guitar and a beat that changed music forever. The Stones, the Dead, Robbie Robertson and others remember one of the founders of rock & roll

Bo Diddley in 1957.
Gilles Petard/Redferns
June 26, 2008

For a young black singer and guitarist from Chicago with only a minor hit, getting booked on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955 was a career-making opportunity. Sullivan asked him to sing Tennessee Ernie Ford's country smash "Sixteen Tons"; instead, the young star unleashed the guitar maelstrom that introduced him to the world, and whose title bore his name: "Bo Diddley."

The audience went wild, and Sullivan fumed, promising that Diddley would never appear on television again. Later, Diddley recalled the aftermath: "He says to me, 'You're the first colored boy ever double-crossed me on a song.' And I started to hit the dude, because I was a young hoodlum out of Chicago, and I thought 'colored boy' was an insult."

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Diddley was pure masculinity, with songs that shouted his name and proclaimed his skills. With a cigar-box-shape guitar he designed himself, a Stetson on his head and a sound that permanently reoriented the world's sense of rhythm, Bo Diddley called himself "the Originator." And when he died at age 79 on June 2nd from heart failure at his home in Archer, Florida, music lost a one-of-a-kind pioneer. "He was by far the most underrated of any Fifties star," says Phil Spector. "The rhythmic invention, the excellence of the writing, the power of the vocals — nobody else ever did it better."

Diddley had only one Top 40 pop hit, 1959's "Say Man," but the impact of his songwriting, his guitar-playing and that signature "Bo Diddley beat" were as significant as anyone's contributions in the history of rock & roll. The "one-two-three, one-two" beat — first established on his debut, 1955's Number One R&B hit "Bo Diddley" — propelled classic songs by Bruce Springsteen ("She's the One"), U2 ("Desire"), George Michael ("Faith"), the Who ("Magic Bus") and countless others. "It was like I did the 'Bo Diddley' song by accident," Diddley said. "I just started beating and banging on my guitar. And then I fooled around and got it syncopated right, where it fit the dirty lyrics that I had. And then it just seemed to fall right into place." If Diddley's lone contribution to rock & roll had been the Bo Diddley beat, he would already be an immortal. But his legacy is much larger than that. He made records that were built on boasting rhymes decades before LL Cool J or Run-DMC. And he reduced his music to its basic rhythmic core, stripping his sound to the pure primacy of the beat, long before James Brown used a similar approach to transform soul into funk. In Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, Robert Palmer wrote that "what Bo came up with was a comprehensive theory of rhythmic orchestration . . . . The tendency is for every instrument to become a rhythm instrument."

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"I never heard a rhythm come out of a guitar like that," says Robbie Robertson, whose breakthrough moment was a slashing solo he played on Ronnie Hawkins' 1963 cover of "Who Do You Love." "I first met him when I was 16, and he both fascinated me and scared me at the same time."

Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi, on December 30th, 1928. He never knew his father, and his mother couldn't afford to raise him, so he was adopted by her cousin Gussie McDaniel. He took on her family's name, becoming Ellas McDaniel. "My people are from New Orleans, the bayou country — French, African, Indian, all mixed up," Diddley said. "That's where my music comes from, all that mixture." After Gussie's husband died, she moved her two daughters, her son and Ellas, then around seven, to Chicago. He began taking violin lessons at church. "I used to read all this funny music, like Tchaikovsky," he told Rolling Stone in 1987. "But then I didn't see too many black dudes playin' no violin."

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He picked up the guitar after being astonished by John Lee Hooker. At some point, McDaniel also picked up his unforgettable nickname — though, like much in the Bo Diddley story, its origins are tangled. It has alternately been credited to a street diss meaning "worthless" (as in, "Man, you ain't bo diddley"); a name he was given during his days as a Golden Gloves boxer; the invention of his harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold; and as a derivation of the "diddley bow," a single-string guitar seen on Southern farms.

After a few years playing music on street corners and establishing a regular gig at Chicago's fabled 708 Club, Diddley recorded "Bo Diddley" and "I'm a Man" (which would become the basis for Muddy Waters' classic "Mannish Boy") in 1955. Hits like "Pretty Thing" and "Mona" followed, and between 1957 and 1963, Diddley released 12 albums on Checker Records, and incomparable songs such as "Who Do You Love," "Before You Accuse Me" and "Road Runner." He became a huge influence on the British kids who were discovering blues and early rock records — especially after Diddley toured the U.K. in 1963 with Little Richard and the Everly Brothers, with a young, little-known band called the Rolling Stones opening. "He was an enormous force in music and was a big influence on the Rolling Stones," says Mick Jagger. "He was very generous to us in our early years, and we learned a lot from him." Ron Wood, who recorded and toured with Diddley in the Eighties, adds, "From my childhood, we all wanted to play like him — Bo didn't follow, we followed him."

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In February 1964, at the Beatles' first press conference in the United States, one reporter yelled, "What are you most looking forward to seeing here in America, John?" Without hesitating, John Lennon shot back, "Bo Diddley!" Later in his life, though, Diddley expressed his frustration that he never got the recognition, or the rewards, that he felt he was due. "I was the first son of a gun out here — me and Chuck Berry," he told Rolling Stone in 2005. "I'm the dude that [Elvis] copied, and I'm not even mentioned . . . . I don't know how much longer I can stand by and see somebody else get all the glory."

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