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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”