Bo Diddley Biography

American rock and rhythm-and-blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist
Diddley-singer, guitarist, and songwriter-was a pivotal transition figure between blues and rock and roll. He is credited with popularizing the Latin-tinged Diddley beat and the rectangular Gretsch guitar.

Born: December 30, 1928; McComb, Mississippi
Died: June 2, 2008; Archer, Florida
Also known as: Ellas Otha Bates (birth name)

Principal recordings
albums: Bo Diddley, 1957; Go Bo Diddley, 1959; Have Guitar, Will Travel, 1959; Bo Diddley in the Spotlight, 1960; Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, 1961; Bo Diddley Is a Lover, 1961; Bo Diddley, 1962; Bo Diddley and Company, 1962 (with Norma-Jean Wofford); Bo Diddley’s a Twister, 1962; Hey! Bo Diddley, 1962; Bo Diddley’s Beach Party, 1963; Surfin’ with Bo Diddley, 1963; Two Great Guitars, 1964 (with Chuck Berry); 500% More Man, 1965; Hey, Good Lookin’, 1965; Let Me Pass, 1965; The Originator, 1966; Boss Man, 1967; Road Runner, 1967; Super Blues, 1968 (with Muddy Waters and Little Walter); The Black Gladiator, 1970; Another Dimension, 1971; Where It All Began, 1972; The London Bo Diddley Sessions, 1973; Big Bad Bo, 1974; Pay Bo Diddley, 1989; Bo’s Guitar, 1992; This Should Not Be, 1992; Who Do You Love, 1992; Promises, 1994; The Mighty Bo Diddley, 1995; A Man Amongst Men, 1996; Mona, 1996.

The Life
Rock-and-roll pioneer Bo Diddley (DIHD-lee) was born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi. He was subsequently adopted by his mother’s first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, with whom he moved to Chicago at age seven. The family settled on the city’s south side, where Diddley studied violin and trombone before turning to the electric guitar as a teenager. During his youth, he experimented with instrument construction and sound modification, creating distorted amps through which he filtered his self-made rectangular guitars.

Diddley’s musical career began on the corners of Chicago’s famous Maxwell Street with his band, the Hipsters. By 1951 their repertoire, inspired by Louis Jordan and John Lee Hooker, helped them become regulars at the 708 Club. Diddley’s flamboyant performing style and his idiosyncratic, clave-style rhythm attracted the attention of Chess Records, with which he had his first chart hit with the double-sided “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man” in 1955. A series of musical successes continued into the early 1960’s. Although his popularity flagged during mid-decade, Diddley’s stature as a rock-and-roll innovator was enhanced as popular British bands, such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Animals, covered his songs. Diddley subsequently established himself as a prolific touring musician; his frequent European appearances were documented in the 1973 documentary Let the Good Times Roll. From the late 1970’s through the 1990’s, he made brief appearances in Hollywood films (Trading Spaces in 2000 and Blues Brothers 2000 in 1998), music videos (George Thorogood’s 1982 “Bad to the Bone”), and ad campaigns (Nike’s “Bo Don’t Know Diddley” with Bo Jackson). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and he was the recipient of the National Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2008 Diddley died of heart failure at seventy-nine; fans sent to his funeral a floral tribute in the shape of his trademark rectangular guitar.

The Music
“I’m a Man” and “Bo Diddley.” The original demo of these two songs, featuring Clifton James on drums, Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica, and Hipster Roosevelt Jackson on bass, caught producer Leonard Chess’s attention in 1954. He signed Diddley and rerecorded with session musicians Lester Davenport (harmonica), Frank Kirkland (drums), Otis Spann (piano), and Jerome Green (maracas). This double-sided disc featured Diddley’s distorted, tremolo-laden guitar sound; the faster, driving beat of jump blues; and the signature Diddley beat. This rhythm is alternately described as hambone rhythm or Latin three-two clave; coupled with Diddley’s playing style, it formed the basis of rock and roll that relied on short, recognizable, syncopated rhythmic and melodic riffs. Of note is the guitar tremolo, a Diddley innovation he achieved by creating his own guitar effects processor. The album’s eponymous A side reached number two on the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1955, while side B became a featured single for Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, the Yardbirds, and the Who.

“Who Do You Love.” The title of this 1956 Chess release offers a play on words: “Who do” is the unlucky “hoodoo” of AfricanAmerican folk practices. The song was not as successful as his hit, “Diddley Daddy,” released that same year, yet it is notable for its virtual absence of melodic line and the complete dominance of the Diddley beat and rhythmic tension. Diddley’s playing style here draws upon his early experience as a violinist, as he offers brash, scratched rhythms on a few strings at a time without offering complete chords. It, too, became a popular cover for artists such as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, although Thorogood’s 1978 version achieved the greatest commercial success.

“Say Man.” Diddley’s only Billboard Top 20 success came in 1959 with “Say Man,” the humorous result of recorded studio banter between Diddley and percussionist Jerome Green. It is in line with the African American oral tradition of “playing the dozens,” in which participants verbally contest their wit and mental acumen. The entertaining track presaged the commercial success of novelty songs throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

A Man Amongst Men. As the United States moved away from rock and roll to embrace newer popular music trends in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Diddley’s recording career diminished and he had to carve out a living as a traveling performer. He did not enter the studio for a serious recording effort until 1996. A Man Amongst Men featured the Shirelles, Richie Sambora, Ron Wood, and Keith Richards, and it was nominated for a 1997 Grammy Award in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. It was a departure from his late Chess recordings in its simplicity, offering pared-down arrangements and straightforward, driving beats rather than thick orchestration. The variety of beats and musical styles, including an attempt at hip-hop on “Kids Don’t Do It,” showcased Diddley’s musical evolution and his reluctance to rely on older formulas.

Musical Legacy
Diddley was a key innovator in the development of rock and roll. His signature Latin-tinged beat and rhythmic innovations, his use of special effects such as reverb and tremolo, and his preference for distorted guitar sounds signaled the advent of a new popular music. As his career faltered in the United States, Diddley was lionized by a generation of 1960’s British blues-influenced rockers, whose covers of Diddley’s original material far outpaced the commercial success of his own. Over the years he fostered a group of young female guitarists in his bands, including Norma Jean “The Duchess” Wofford, Peggy “Lady Bo” Jones, and Cookie Redmond, at a time when women guitarists were an anomaly. His instrument and amplification adaptations expanded the power and range of the guitar and secured its role as the anchor of the rock ensemble. Diddley was the progenitor of 1970’s funk, early hip-hop, and the late twentieth century blues revival.