Obsessed with technology, Diddley even invented his own guitar. The first version of his famous rectangular instrument was handmade; in 1958, he asked the Gretsch company to make him a better version, which was sold as a limited edition called "Big B." He would go on to design guitars in numerous shapes and styles, including a fur-covered six-string. An inveterate tinkerer, he also claimed to have created the wobbly tremolo effect that characterized many of his early records, and he helped introduce distortion and feedback to pop. "How he incorporated tremolo into his playing rhythmically — that swept rock & roll, and it remains to this day, in almost everything out there," says Bob Weir. "U2's Edge has taken that approach a little further with his use of delays, but that whole school of rhythmic enhancement through effects hearkens back to what Bo was doing."
His onstage approach was no less radical. "I was out to destroy the audience," Diddley once said. George Thorogood, who recorded numerous Diddley songs and frequently played with him, recalled the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix perform. "He's blowing people's minds with his feedback and his distortion and his back flips — I said, 'Bo Diddley did all this 10, 15 years ago.'"
Though Diddley's run of hits slowed in the early 1960s as the bands he inspired claimed the spotlight, he kept working, recording a series of albums attempting to exploit pop boomlets such as the Twist and surf music, and later some funk-inspired songs that have developed a cult following and been sampled by the likes of De La Soul. As touring opportunities slowed, Diddley moved to New Mexico in the early 1970s and became a deputy sheriff in the town of Los Lunas, buying and donating a patrol car to the local force (and giving new meaning to his 1961 album title Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, which, ironically, included a killer cover of "Sixteen Tons," the song Ed Sullivan had wanted Diddley to play in 1955).
He found a new following, though, in the early punk bands, which aspired to the simplicity and force of Diddley's rock & roll. The New York Dolls covered his 1961 single "Pills," and the Clash (who recorded a version of "Mona" during the London Calling sessions) took him out as an opening act on their first U.S. tour, in 1979. "I can't look at him without my mouth falling open," said Joe Strummer at the time.
Diddley was exposed to a new generation alongside Bo Jackson in a popular Nike commercial in the late Eighties. In the spot, Diddley responded to the "Bo Knows" slogan with a typically ornery retort: "Bo, you don't know diddley!" ("I never could figure out what it had to do with shoes, but it worked," he said.) He continued to tour and to record sporadically in the Nineties, but he spent the remainder of his life in Archer, a small farming town near Gainesville, where he fished, worked on old cars and continued to experiment with new musical inventions.
On May 13th, 2007, Diddley was admitted to intensive care in Omaha, Nebraska, following a stroke after a concert in Council Bluffs, Iowa. In August, while recovering, he suffered a heart attack — though he did rally sufficiently to sing at a November event in his hometown of McComb, at which a plaque was unveiled in his honor as part of the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Garry Mitchell, a grandson of Diddley and one of more than 35 family members present when Bo Diddley died at home, described the musician's final minutes to Reuters. "There was a gospel song that was sung, and he said 'wow' with a thumbs-up," Mitchell said. "The song was 'Walk Around Heaven,' and in his last words he said that he was going to heaven."
The song offers a fitting farewell. "When I get to heaven I'm gonna sing and shout," goes one line. "Nobody will be able to put me out." And indeed, as long as there is music that's loud, sweaty and funky, nobody will be able to put Bo Diddley out — despite his fears to the contrary. "We are the originators of all this stuff, but nobody ever pays us any attention when one of us dies," he said in the mid-1980s. "I'm worried about when I kick off. Will anybody notice when Bo Diddley ceases to exist? Will anybody recognize that the man who started rock & roll . . . will they know I'm gone?
"I won't want praise," said the Originator. "Just some recognition that a good dude has gone to rest."
This is a story from the June 26th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.
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