Born Ellas Otha Bates (December 30, 1928 – June 2, 2008) in McComb, Mississippi, known by his stage name ‘Bo Diddley’, a rhythm and blues vocalist, guitarist, songwriter (more commonly known as Ellas *McDaniel), also an inventor. He introduced more insistent, driving rhythms and a hard-edged guitar sound. He was known in particular for his technical innovations, including his trademark rectangular guitar. Certainly in my case he was and always will be remembered for the ‘Bo Diddly Beat’ – see more about this below – a bit like one of those inventions where you feel, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’. We can see how and from where it evolved but like many examples of brilliance the instigator has transposed one idea into another suit of clothes, so to speak.
He was adopted and raised by his mother’s cousin, Gussie *McDaniel, whose surname he assumed, (thus becoming Ellas McDaniel). In 1934, the McDaniel family moved to the largely black South Side area of Chicago, where the young man dropped the name Otha and became known as Ellas McDaniel until his musical ambitions demanded that he take on a more catchy name. In Chicago, he was an active member of his local church , where he studied the trombone and the violin, becoming proficient enough on the latter for the musical director to invite him to join the orchestra, with which he performed until the age of 18. He was more impressed, however, by the pulsating, rhythmic music he heard at another local church, as well as developing an interest in the guitar.
Inspired by a concert where he saw John Lee Hooker perform, he supplemented his work as a carpenter and mechanic playing on street corners. During the summer of 1943–44, he played for tips at the Maxwell Street market in a band with Earl Hooker. By 1951 he was playing on the street with backing from Roosevelt Jackson (on washtub bass) and Jody Williams (whom he had taught to play the guitar). Williams later played lead guitar on ‘Who Do You Love?’ (1956). In 1951 he landed a regular spot at the 708 Club on Chicago’s South Side.
In late 1954, he teamed up with harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold, drummer Clifton James, and bass player Roosevelt Jackson, and recorded demos of ‘I’m A Man’ and ‘Bo Diddley’. The final record was released in March 1955, and the ‘A’ side, ‘Bo Diddley’, (featuring the classic ‘Bo Diddley Beat’ I was referring to above – and below) became a #1 R’n’B hit.
McDaniel had by now adopted the stage name ‘Bo Diddley’. The origin of the name ‘Bo’ is somewhat unclear as several differing stories exist. A ‘diddley bow’ (in case this has any bearing) is a typically homemade American string instrument of African origin.
He continued to have hits through the rest of the 1950s and even the 1960s.
Over the decades, Bo Diddley’s venues ranged from intimate clubs to stadia. On March 25, 1972, he played with The Grateful Dead at the Academy of Music in New York City. Also in the early 1970s, the soundtrack for the ground-breaking animated film ‘Fritz The Cat’ contained his song ‘Bo Diddley’, in which a crow coolly finger-pops along to the track. (This is uber-cool, in fact the whole production oozed atmosphere, very unusual for a cartoon, in my view hugely underrated as a work of art – I loved it!)
Starting a show in Council Bluffs, Iowa on May 12th 2007 he complained that he did not feel well. Nonetheless, he delivered an energetic performance to an enthusiastic crowd. The next day as Bo Diddley was heading back home, he seemed dazed and confused at the airport. His manager, Margo Lewis, called 911 and Bo was taken by ambulance to Creighton University Medical Center and admitted to the Intensive-care unit where he stayed for several days. Bo Diddley had suffered a stroke. The stroke was followed later by a heart attack, suffered in Gainesville, Florida, on August 28, 2007.
While recovering from the stroke and heart attack, Diddley came back to his home town of McComb, Mississippi, in early November 2007. He was not supposed to perform, but as he listened to some music, the local musician sensed that he wanted to perform and handed him a microphone. That was the only time Bo Diddley performed after suffering a stroke.
Bo Diddley died on June 2, 2008. There was a gospel song sung at his bedside and (when it was done) he said ‘wow’ and gave a thumbs up. The song was ‘Walk Around Heaven’ and in his last words he said “I’m going to heaven.”
His funeral took place on June 7, 2008, in Gainesville, Florida and kept in tune with the vibrant spirit of Bo Diddley’s life and career.
Only rarely did he complain about having his royalties ripped off during a successful part of his career, due to racism.
The ‘Bo Diddley Beat’
Bo Diddley was well known for the ‘Bo Diddley beat,’ a rumba-like beat similar to ‘hambone’, a style used by street performers who play out the beat by slapping and patting their arms, legs, chest, and cheeks while chanting rhymes. In timing resembling:
‘shave and a haircut…(slight pause)…two bits’
Bo Diddley came across it while trying to play Gene Autry’s ‘(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle, Jangle, Jingle’. Three years before Bo’s ‘Bo Diddley’, a song that closely resembles it, ‘Hambone’, was cut by Red Saunders’ Orchestra with The Hambone Kids.
His songs (for example, ‘Bo Diddly’ as featured in ‘Fritz The Cat’, above – and ‘Who Do You Love?’) often have no chord changes; that is, the same chord throughout, so that the rhythms create the excitement, rather than having the excitement generated by harmonic tension and release.
An influential guitar player, he developed many special effects and other innovations in tone and attack. Bo Diddley’s trademark instrument was the rectangular-bodied Gretsch nicknamed ‘The Twang Machine’ . Although he had other odd-shaped guitars custom-made for him by other manufacturers throughout the years, most notably the “Cadillac” design made by Tom Holmes (who also made guitars for ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons), Diddley fashioned the rectangular guitar himself around 1958. He also collaborated with Billy Gibbons in designing the ‘Gretsch Billy Bo’, the one Billy uses now (see elsewhere on this blog). He also played the violin, which is featured on his mournful instrumental ‘The Clock Strikes Twelve’, a 12 bar blues.
He often created lyrics by adapting folk music themes. The song ‘Bo Diddley’ was based on the African American clapping rhyme ‘Hambone’ (which in turn was based on the lullaby ‘Hush Little Baby’). The rap-style approach of ‘Who Do You Love’, originates from a wordplay on ‘hoodoo’.