The Legendary Bluesman Bo Diddley


Introduction to Bo Diddley

Armed with his signature rectangular guitar, Bo Diddley (born Ellas Otha Bates in 1928 – died in 2008) was an American R&B, blues and rock and roll singer, songwriter, guitarist and musician, known for his seminal work in transitioning blues to rock and roll. Proficient in playing the violin in his early years, he shifted to guitars after seeing John Lee Hooker perform in a concert. He then began to play at street corners with his friends, including Jerome Greene. In 1954, he met up with harmonica player Billy Bob Arnold as well as other musicians who recorded demos as Diddley signed up to Chess Records (whose subsidiary Checker Records, released most of his earliest records). These songs he recorded were, “Bo Diddley/I’m A Man” which became a #1 R&B hit in 1955, and has remained one of his famous and influential recordings. He later went on to have high-charting R&B hits:”Diddley Daddy,” “Pretty Thing,” “I’m Sorry,” “Crackin’ Up,” “Say Man” (which was a Top 20 pop hit in 1959), “Say Man, BackAgain,” “Road Runner,” “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover” and “Ooh Baby.” During his career that spanned 60-plus years, Diddley released 29 albums, including his debut album in 1955 (which was actually a compilation of his singles), Go Bo Diddley, Have Guitar Will Travel, Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger and Two Great Guitars. His well-attended performances varied from small clubs to big stadiums, as well as local and international gigs. Diddley developed his own style called “Bo Diddley beat” whose origins hark back from African rhythms and a beat that could be well deemed his trademark. Diddley had used this beat in many of his songs, as well as followed by other artists who have been influenced by him: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Eric Clapton, and a lot others. Diddley died in 2008 of heart failure, aged 79. In his songwriting credits, he was sometimes billed as “Ellas McDaniel.”

The life and music of Bo Diddley

The influential R&B and blues singer-songwriter/guitarist/producer Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi on December 30, 1928. He was particularly active in the 1950s music era.

He spent most of his early years with his adoptive guardian Gussie McDaniel who was his mother’s cousin. During that time he took the name of “Ellas McDaniel” which he would eventually use often in his producing and songwriting credits. In 1934, they relocated to the South Side of Chicago in 1934 where the majority of the area were black people. Diddley started to play instruments such as the trombone and the violin when he joined a local Baptist church. He went on to become active member there until he was 18, wherein he began playing guitar. Diddley more interested in the instrument after seeing a live gig of another blues singer-guitarist John Lee Hooker.

He supported himself by working as a mechanic and carpenter. At the same time, Diddley also played on several street corners with his band The Hipsters.

Bo Diddley’s successful career in the 1950’s and 1960’s

By late 1954 at Chess Studios, he recorded demos of “I’m a Man” and “Bo Diddley” with several session players. The following year, “Bo Diddley” peaked at #1 on the R&B chart.

He continued to make hits all throughout the 1950’s and the 1960’s, making to both pop and R&B charts such as “Pretty Thing” (#4 R&B, 1956), “Say Man” (#20 pop, #3 R&B, 1959) and “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” (#48 pop, #21 R&B, 1962). As Ellas McDaniel, he had written songs to numerous acts including Mickey & Sylvia (“Love is Strange,” #11 pop, #1 R&B, 1967), Buddy Holly (“Bo Diddley”, #4 UK) The Yardbirds, Ronnie Hawkins, The Everly Brothers, Sonny & Cher, Marvin Gaye among others. His eleven full-length LPs with Checker imprint (Chess’ subsidiary) were released from 1958 to 1963. In 1963, he also embarked on a UK tour with Everly Brothers, Little Richard and a young upstarting band named The Rolling Stones who did an opening act.

Diddley’s later years

Bo Diddley was still actively performing in the 1970’s, ranging from small clubs to massive stadiums. He played with the Grateful Dead in March 1972 in New York City, being part of the Volume 30 of the band’s Dick Picks concert album series. From 1971 to 1978, he lived in Los Lunas, New Mexico working as a Deputy Sheriff in the Valencia County Citizens’ Patrol while continuing his musical career at the same time. He later relocated to Hawthorne, Florida. In 1979, he served as the opening act for The Clash’s US tour.

In 1991, a celebration of guitar heroes was held in Spain called Legends of Guitar where he played alongside other legends B.B. King, and Les Paul, among many others.

In 2005, Diddley had his final vocal performance on the album of Munkeez Strikin’ Matchiz album BananAtomic Mass. On the album, he co-wrote the song “Wreck It” with Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist) and Chuck D (rapper for Public Enemy). He also contributed guitar duties for the album of the hard rock band New York Dolls called One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. That was also Bo Diddley’s final guitar performance as well.

Diddley’s illness and death; his impact on the music industry

Bo Diddley’s health started to fail in May 2007 after suffering a stroke. Worse, it was followed by a heart attack so he needed much more time to recover. After his recovery, he came back to his birthplace in McComb, Mississippi to witness the unveiling of a plaque in his honor on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

But sadly, Diddley died from heart failure at his home in Archer, Florida on June 2, 2008. It happened over a year after he first suffered a stroke. He may have long gone, but his contribution for the development of blues and rock and roll shall always be regarded. Music critics, musicians (such as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Jesus and Mary Chain) and music fans have continued to be inspired and influenced by Diddley’s pioneering work. This led him to become famously dubbed as “The Originator.”

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