Becoming an icon for his early melding of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, the late legend BO DIDDLEY rocked the world with his driving hits and trademark rectangular guitar. Vive Le Punk salutes ‘The Originator’.
Born in McComb, Mississippi in 1928, Ellas McDaniel moved to Chicago with his foster parents he was seven. Having taken violin lessons as a child, it wasn’t until he saw John Lee Hooker play that he picked up the guitar. When not working as a carpenter or mechanic (and later in the ‘70s as a New Mexico Deputy Sheriff!), he played on street corners with friends as a band called the Hipsters (and later called the Langley Avenue Jive Cats). In 1951 he got a regular slot on the bill at Chicago’s 708 Club, alongside artists such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. In late ’54, he got together a harmonica player, bassist and drummer and recorded demos of the true classics ‘I’m A Man’ and ‘Bo Diddley’. Re-recording the songs at Chess Studios, ‘Bo Diddley’ was released in March 1955 and became an R&B hit single.
McDaniel decided to use the stage name ‘Bo Diddley’ and stories of where the name came from have passed into legend. Some people claim it was his nickname as a teenage Golden Gloves boxer, others say it comes from the name of a one-string instrument called a diddley bow. Bo Diddley claims that the name originally belonged to a singer friend of his adoptive mother.
Known as a true guitar hero, he penned driving rhythms and created what was known as the ‘Bo Diddley beat’, a rumba-like beat. His guitar was the rectangular-bodied Gretsch, nicknamed ‘The Twang Machine’, which he fashioned himself around ’58 and became his most iconic guitar. It is said that he created a guitar of this shape so it was small and wouldn’t get in the way while he was jumping around onstage during his energetic live shows.
Bo Diddley was banned from ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1955 when instead of playing an agreed cover on the show, he played ‘Bo Diddley’ instead. This infuriated Sullivan who banned him from appearing again and said Diddley “wouldn’t last six months”. He couldn’t have been more wrong, Diddley had hits through the late ‘50s and ‘60s, including ‘Pretty Thing’ (1956), ‘Say Man’ (1959) and ‘You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover’. With hit albums, including ‘Bo Diddley’ (1958), ‘Have Guitar, Will Travel’ (1960) and ‘Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger’ (1960) and added to his growing legend.
There is no disputing that Bo Diddley was one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll. In 1972 he played with The Grateful Dead in New York and in 1979 he performed as a special guest for both The Clash and The Rolling Stones. Bo Diddley’s songs have been covered by everyone from The Clash (‘Mona’ during their ‘London Calling’ sessions) to Aerosmith (‘Road Runner’ on their ‘Honkin’ on Bobo’ covers album), The Jesus and Mary Chain (‘Who Do You Love’) and Eric Clapton (‘Before You Accuse Me’) to New York Dolls and The Lurkers (who both covered ‘Pills’). The song ‘Bad to the Bone’ is a re-working of Diddley’s ‘I’m A Man’ and Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’ was a direct response to the song ‘I’m A Man’ by his younger rival. In 1964, Diddley and Chuck Berry recorded a 4-track release called ‘Two Great Guitars’, which contained instrumental, spontaneous jams.
Having been acknowledged with numerous accolades, Bo Diddley’s huge effect on music is clear. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987), as well as many more over the years, such as the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame and the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation (1996) and the Grammys (1998) and the track ‘Bo Diddley’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as “a recording of lasting qualitative or historical significance” in 1997. In 2003, US Representative John Conyers paid tribute to Diddley in the United States House of Representatives, saying he was “one of the true pioneers of rock and roll, who has influenced generations.”
Performing at various charity events and fundraisers well into his later years and still touring, Bo Diddley suffered a stroke and a heart attack last year. While recovering from these, he attended an unveiling of a plaque devoted to him on the National Blues Trail at his birthplace of McComb last November, which would be the last time he performed publicly. Bo Diddley died from heart failure on June 2nd, aged 79. His funeral was typically energetic, featuring a gospel band playing his music and a floral tribute in the shape of his trademark guitar. Tom Petty, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard all sent flowers.
Sending shockwaves through the music world in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Bo Diddley and ‘The Twang Machine’ changed blues and rock ‘n’ roll forever. To many he’ll always be the man. RIP Bo Diddley.
THE BO DIDDLEY BEAT
This beat that Bo Diddley created has seeped through rock ‘n’ roll history. Here’s a list of just some of the songs that use the distinctive beat.
BUDDY HOLLY ‘Not Fade Away’
ELVIS PRESLEY ‘His Latest Flame’
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN ‘She’s the One’
THE STOOGES ‘1969’
THE SMITHS ‘How Soon is Now?’
GEORGE MICHAEL ‘Faith’
ACE FREHLEY ‘New York Groove’
PRIMAL SCREAM ‘Movin’ On Up’
DAVID BOWIE ‘Panic in Detroit’
THE POLICE ‘Deathwish’
THE SUPREMES ‘When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’
GUNS ‘N’ ROSES ‘Mr. Brownstone’