Ellas Otha Bates (December 30, 1928 – June 2, 2008), known by his stage name Bo Diddley, was an American R&B vocalist, guitarist and songwriter (usually as Ellas McDaniel). He was also known as The Originator because of his key role in the transition from the blues to rock and roll, and rock, influencing a host of acts, including Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Parliament Funkadelic, The Velvet Underground, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles, among others. He introduced more insistent, driving rhythms and a hard-edged electric guitar sound on a wide-ranging catalog of songs, along with African rhythms and a signature beat (a simple five-accent clave rhythm) that remains a cornerstone of hip hop, rock and pop. Accordingly, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and a Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He was known in particular for his technical innovations, including his trademark rectangular guitar.
Early life and career
Born in McComb, Mississippi, as Ellas Otha Bates, he was adopted and raised by his mother's cousin, Gussie McDaniel, whose surname he assumed, 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 identity. In Chicago, he was an active member of his local Ebenezer Baptist 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 a local Pentecostal Church, and he also became interested in the guitar.
Inspired by a concert where he saw John Lee Hooker perform, he supplemented his work as a carpenter and mechanic with a developing career playing on street corners with friends, including Jerome Green (c. 1934–1973), in a band called The Hipsters (later The Langley Avenue Jive Cats). Greene would become a near constant member of McDaniel's backing band, and the two would often trade joking insults with each other during live shows.During the summer of 1943–44, he played for people 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, with a repertoire influenced by Louis Jordan, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters.
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". They re-recorded the songs at Chess Studios with a backing ensemble comprising Otis Spann (piano), Lester Davenport (harmonica), Frank Kirkland (drums), and Jerome Green (maracas). The record was released in March 1955, and the A-side, "Bo Diddley", became a number one R&B hit.
McDaniel adopted the stage name Bo Diddley. The origin of the name is somewhat unclear, as several differing stories and claims exist. Diddley claims that his peers gave him the nickname, which he first suspected to be an insult. Bo Diddley himself said that the name first belonged to a singer his adoptive mother was familiar with, while harmonicist Billy Boy Arnold once said in an interview that it was originally the name of a local comedian that Leonard Chess borrowed for the song title and artist name for Bo Diddley's first single, and guitar craftsman Ed Roman reported that another (unspecified) source says it was his nickname as a Golden Gloves boxer.
A "diddley bow" is a typically homemade American string instrument of African origin, probably influenced by instruments found on the coast of west Africa.
The American slang phrase bo diddly meaning "absolutely nothing" goes back possibly to the early 20th century or earlier. Diddly is a truncation of diddly-squat, retaining the same meaning of "nothing" and bo is an intensifier.
Success in the 1950s and 1960s
On November 20, 1955, he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a popular television variety show, where he infuriated the host. "I did two songs and he got mad," Bo Diddley later recalled. "Ed Sullivan said that I was one of the first colored boys to ever double-cross him. Said that I wouldn't last six months". The show had requested that he sing the Merle Travis-penned Tennessee Ernie Ford hit "Sixteen Tons", but when he appeared on stage, he sang "Bo Diddley" instead. This substitution resulted in his being banned from further appearances.
The request came about because Sullivan's people heard Diddley casually singing "Sixteen Tons" in the dressing room. Diddley's accounts of the event were inconsistent.
Diddley was an excellent story teller whose stories varied from time to time, however, Diddley contended to friends and family that he was not trying to double-cross Sullivan and attributed the "misunderstanding" to the fact that when he saw "Bo Diddley" on a cue card, he was under the impression he was to perform two songs, "Bo Diddley" and "Sixteen Tons".
Chess included Diddley's recording of "Sixteen Tons" on the album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, which was originally released in 1960.
He continued to have hits through the rest of the 1950s and even the 1960s, including "Pretty Thing" (1956), "Say Man" (1959), and "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover" (1962). He released a string of albums whose titles, including Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger and Have Guitar, Will Travel, bolstered his self-invented legend. Between 1958 and 1963, Checker Records released 11 full-length albums by Bo Diddley. Although he broke through as a crossover artist with white audiences (appearing at the Alan Freed concerts, for example) during the early 1960s, he rarely tailored his compositions to teenage concerns. The album title Surfing with Bo Diddley was a boast about his influence on surf guitarists.
In 1963, he starred in a UK concert tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard. The Rolling Stones, still barely known outside London at that time, appeared as a supporting act on the same bill.
In addition to the many songs Diddley recorded, in 1956 he and guitarist Jody Williams co-wrote the pioneering pop song "Love Is Strange", a hit for Mickey & Sylvia in 1957.
Bo Diddley long included women in his band: "The Duchess" Norma-Jean Wofford, Gloria Jolivet, Peggy Jones (aka "Lady Bo," a rare, for the time, female lead guitarist), Cornelia Redmond (aka Cookie), and Debby Hastings, who led his band for the final 25 years of his performing career. After moving from his home in Chicago to Washington, D.C., he set up one of the first home recording studios where he not only recorded the album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger but he recorded his valet, Marvin Gaye. The Diddley-penned, "Wyatt Earp" was a single released on Okeh Records, since the Chess brothers did not want to release the record. Also during this time, Moonglows founder Harvey Fuqua who sang background on many of Diddley's home studio recordings was introduced to Gaye, and asked him to join the Moonglows. When Fuqua went to Motown, Gaye followed.
Over the decades, Bo Diddley's venues ranged from intimate clubs to stadiums. On March 25, 1972, he played with The Grateful Dead at the Academy of Music in New York City. The Grateful Dead released part of this concert as Volume 30 of the band's Dick's Picks concert album series. 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 idly finger-pops along to the track.
Bo Diddley spent many years in New Mexico, living in Los Lunas, New Mexico from 1971 to 1978 while continuing his musical career. He served for two and a half years as Deputy Sheriff in the Valencia County Citizens' Patrol; during that time he purchased and donated three highway patrol pursuit cars. In the late 1970s, Diddley left Los Lunas and moved to Hawthorne, Florida where he lived on a large estate in a custom made log-cabin home, which he helped to build. For the remainder of his life he spent time between Albuquerque, New Mexico and Florida, living the last 13 years of his life in Archer, Florida, a small farming town near Gainesville.
He appeared as an opening act for The Clash in their 1979 US tour; in Legends of Guitar (filmed live in Spain, 1991) with B.B. King, Les Paul, Albert Collins, George Benson, among others, and joined The Rolling Stones as a guest on their 1994 concert broadcast of Voodoo Lounge, performing "Who Do You Love?" with the band. Sheryl Crow and Robert Cray also appeared on the pay-per-view special.
Diddley's final vocal performance on a studio album, was with the band Munkeez Strikin' Matchiz on their 2005 album - BananAtomic Mass. He cowrote the song "Wreck it" and was joined by Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy.
His final guitar performance on a studio album was with the New York Dolls on their 2006 album - One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. Bo supplied guitar work to the song Seventeen which was included as a Bonus Track on the limited edition copies of the disc.
On May 13, 2007, Bo Diddley was admitted to intensive care in Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, following a stroke after a concert in Council Bluffs, Iowa on May 12. Starting the show, he had complained that he did not feel well. He referred to smoke from the wildfires that were ravaging South Georgia and blowing south to the area near his home in Archer, Florida. Nonetheless, he delivered an energetic performance to an enthusiastic crowd. The next day, as Diddley was heading back home, he seemed dazed and confused at the airport. His manager, Margo Lewis, called 911 and airport security and Diddley was immediately taken by ambulance to Creighton University Medical Center and admitted to the Intensive-care unit, where he stayed for several days. After numerous tests, it was confirmed that he had suffered a stroke. Diddley had a history of hypertension and diabetes, and the stroke affected the left side of his brain, causing receptive and expressive aphasia (speech impairment). The stroke was followed 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 for the unveiling of a plaque devoted to him on the National Blues Trail stating that he was "acclaimed as a founder of rock and roll." He was not supposed to perform, but as he listened to the music of local musician Jesse Robinson who sang a song written for this occasion, Robinson sensed that he wanted to perform and handed him a microphone. That was the first and last time that Bo Diddley performed publicly after suffering a stroke.
Bo Diddley died on June 2, 2008 of heart failure at his home in Archer, Florida. Garry Mitchell, a grandson of Diddley and one of more than 35 family members at the musician's home when he died at 1:45 am EDT (05:45 GMT), said his death was not unexpected. "There was a gospel song that was sung (at his bedside) and (when it was done) he said 'wow' with a thumbs up," Mitchell told Reuters, when asked to describe the scene at Diddley's deathbed. "The song was 'Walk Around Heaven' and in his last words he said 'I'm going to heaven.'"
His funeral, a four-hour "homegoing" service, took place on June 7, 2008, at Showers of Blessings Church in Gainesville, Florida and kept in tune with the vibrant spirit of Bo Diddley's life and career. The many in attendance chanted "Hey Bo Diddley" as a gospel band played the legend's music. A number of notable musicians sent flowers, including: George Thorogood, Tom Petty, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Little Richard, who had been asking his audiences to pray for Bo Diddley throughout his illness, had to fulfill concert commitments in Westbury and New York City the weekend of the funeral. He took time at both concerts to remember his friend of a half-century, performing Bo Diddley's namesake tune in his honor.
After the funeral service, a tribute concert was held at the Martin Luther King Center, also in Gainesville, and featured performances by his son and daughter, Anthony McDaniel and Evelyn Kelly, long-time background vocalist Gloria Jolivet, co-producer Scott "Skyntyte" Free, Diddley's touring band, The Debby Hastings Band, and guest artist Eric Burdon.
In the days following his death, tributes were paid to him by then-President George W. Bush, the United States House of Representatives, and an uncounted number of musicians and performers, including Eric Burdon, Elvis Costello, Ronnie Hawkins, Mick Jagger, B. B. King, Tom Petty, Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, George Thorogood, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Eric Clapton and Ronnie Wood. He was posthumously awarded a Doctor of Fine Arts degree by the University of Florida for his influence on American popular music and in its "People in America" radio series about influential people in American history, the Voice of America radio service paid tribute to him, describing how "his influence was so widespread that it is hard to imagine what rock and roll would have sounded like without him." Mick Jagger stated that "he was a wonderful, original musician who was an enormous force in music and was a big influence on The Rolling Stones. He was very generous to us in our early years and we learned a lot from him." Jagger also praised the late star as a one of a kind musician, adding, "We will never see his like again.
The documentary film Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street by director Phil Ranstrom features Bo Diddley's last on-camera interview.
In November 2009, the guitar used by Diddley in his final stage performance sold for $60,000 at auction.
Bo Diddley achieved numerous accolades in recognition of his significant role as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll.
- 1986: inducted into the Washington Area Music Association's Hall of Fame.
- 1987: inducted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
- 1990: Lifetime Achievement Award from Guitar Player magazine.
- 1998: Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
- 1999: His 1955 recording of his song "Bo Diddley" inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a recording of lasting qualitative or historical significance.
- 2000: Inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame and into the North Florida Music Association's Hall of Fame.
- 2002: Pioneer in Entertainment Award from the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters
- 2002: Bo Diddley was honored as one of the first BMI Icons at the 50th annual BMI Pop Awards. He was presented the award along with BMI affiliates Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
- 2008: Although confirmed before his death in June 2008, an honorary degree was posthumously conferred upon Diddley by the University of Florida in August 2008.
- 2009: Florida's Secretary of State announces Bo's induction into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame (induction to occur during Florida Heritage Month, March 2010).
- 2010: Bo Diddley was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
In 2003, U.S. Representative John Conyers paid tribute to Bo Diddley in the United States House of Representatives describing him as "one of the true pioneers of rock and roll, who has influenced generations".
In 2004, Mickey and Sylvia's 1956 recording of "Love Is Strange" (a song first recorded by Diddley but not released until a year before his death) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a recording of qualitative or historical significance, and he was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him No. 20 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
In 2005, Bo Diddley celebrated his 50th anniversary in music with successful tours of Australia and Europe, and with coast-to-coast shows across North America. He performed his song "Bo Diddley" with Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson, and longtime bassist and musical director Debby Hastings at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 20th annual induction ceremony and in the UK, Uncut magazine included his 1957 debut album "Bo Diddley" in its listing of the '100 Music, Movie & TV Moments That Have Changed The World'.
In 2006, Bo Diddley participated as the headliner of a grassroots organized fundraiser concert, to benefit the town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The "Florida Keys for Katrina Relief" had originally been set for October 23, 2005, when Hurricane Wilma barreled through the Florida Keys on October 24, causing flooding and economic mayhem. In January 2006, the Florida Keys had recovered enough to host the fundraising concert to benefit the more hard-hit community of Ocean Springs. When asked about the fundraiser Bo Diddley stated, "This is the United States of America. We believe in helping one another.". In an interview with Holger Petersen, on Saturday Night Blues on CBC Radio in the fall of 2006 Bo Diddley commented about the racism that existed in the music industry establishment during the early part of his career that saw him deprived of his royalties from the most successful part of his career.
Bo Diddley performed a number of shows around the country in 2005 and 2006 with the fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnnie Johnson Band, featuring Johnson on keyboards, Richard Hunt on drums, and Gus Thornton on bass. But from 1985 until he died, his touring band consisted of Debby Hastings (bass/musical director), Jim Satten (guitarist, band leader, musical director), Scott "Skyntyte" Free, Nunzio Signore or Frank Daley (guitar), Tom Major, Dave Johnson, Yoshi Shimada, Mike Fink or Sandy Gennaro (drums), John Margolis, Dave Keys or his personal manager, Margo Lewis (keyboards).
Bo Diddley was honored by the Mississippi Blues Commission with a Mississippi Blues Trail historic marker placed in McComb, his birthplace, in recognition of his enormous contribution to the development of the blues in Mississippi. On June 5, 2009 the city of Gainesville, Florida, officially renamed and dedicated its downtown plaza the Bo Diddley Community Plaza. The plaza was the site of many benefit concerts at which Bo Diddley performed during his lifetime to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless in Alachua County, and to raise money for local charities, including the Red Cross.
The Bo Diddley Beat
Bo Diddley is well known for the Bo Diddley beat, which is essentially the clave rhythm, and one of the most common bell patterns found in sub-Saharan African music traditions. Tamlyn found this rhythm in 13 rhythm and blues recordings made in the years 1944–55, including two by Johnny Otis from 1948.
Bo Diddley has given different accounts regarding how he began to use this rhythm. Sublette asserts: "In the context of the time, and especially those maracas [heard on the record], 'Bo Diddley' has to be understood as a Latin-tinged record. A rejected cut recorded at the same session was titled only 'Rhumba' on the track sheets." The Bo Diddley beat is 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. Somewhat resembling "shave and a haircut, two bits" rhythm, 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 similar syncopation "Hambone", was cut by Red Saunders' Orchestra with The Hambone Kids. In 1944, "Rum and Coca Cola", containing the Bo Diddley beat, was recorded by The Andrews Sisters and later Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" (1957) and Them's "Mystic Eyes" (1965) used the beat. In its simplest form, the Bo Diddley beat can be counted out as either a one-bar, or a two-bar phrase.
Other songs employing the Bo Diddley beat include "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame" (1961) by Elvis Presley, "Willie and the Hand Jive" by Johnny Otis (1958), "The Story of Bo Diddley" by The Animals (1965), "I Want Candy" by The Strangeloves (1965), "1969" (1969) by The Stooges, "Panic in Detroit" (1973) by David Bowie, "Mr. Brownstone" (1987) by Guns N' Roses, "Hare Krsna" (lyrics are even sung to the tune of 'Hey Bo Diddley') by Hüsker Dü from their album Zen Arcade, "Faith (1987) by George Michael, "Desire" (1988) by U2, "Boa-Diddley" (1990) by Phillip Boa and the Voodooclub, "Movin' on Up" (1991) by Primal Scream, "Television" (1993) by Tlot Tlot, "Diversant" (1995) by Holera, "Woodcutter's Son" (1995) by Paul Weller, and "Screwdriver" (1999) by The White Stripes., "Magic Bus" by The Who, "Rudie Can't Fail" by The Clash, "Get Me to the World on Time" by The Electric Prunes, and "Party at the Leper Colony" by "Weird Al" Yankovic. More subtle uses of the Diddley beat include "Hateful" (1979) by The Clash and "How Soon Is Now?" (1985) by The Smiths.
Here is the count as a one-bar phrase: One e and ah, two e and ah, three e and ah, four e and ah. The bolded counts are the clave rhythm.
Many songs (for example, "Hey Bo Diddley" and "Who Do You Love?") often have no chord changes; that is, the musicians play the same chord throughout the piece, so that the rhythms create the excitement, rather than having the excitement generated by harmonic tension and release. In his other recordings, Bo Diddley used a variety of rhythms, from straight back beat to pop ballad style to doo-wop, frequently with maracas by Jerome Green.
Also 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" (referred to as "cigar-box shaped" by music promoter Dick Clark). Although he had other odd-shaped guitars custom-made for him by other manufacturers throughout the years, most notably the "Cadillac" and the rectangular "Turbo 5-speed" (with built-in envelope filter, flanger, and delay) designs made by Tom Holmes (who also made guitars for ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, among others), Diddley fashioned the square guitar himself around 1958 and wielded it in thousands of concerts over the years. In a 2005 interview on JJJ radio in Australia, Bo implied that the design sprang from an embarrassing moment. During an early gig, while jumping around on stage with a Gibson L5 guitar, he landed awkwardly hurting his groin. He then went about designing a smaller, less restrictive guitar that allowed him to keep jumping around on stage while still playing his guitar. He also played the violin, which is featured on his mournful instrumental "The Clock Strikes Twelve", a twelve-bar blues.
He often created lyrics as witty and humorous adaptations of 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"). Likewise, "Hey Bo Diddley" is based on the song "Old MacDonald". The rap-style boasting of "Who Do You Love", a wordplay on hoodoo, used many striking lyrics from the African-American tradition of toasts and boasts. His "Say Man" and "Say Man, Back Again," both of which were later cited as progenerators of hip-hop music, share a strong connection to the insult game known as "the dozens". For example: "You got the nerve to call somebody ugly. Why you so ugly, the stork that brought you into the world ought to be arrested".
- George R. White, Living Legend, Sanctuary Publishing Ltd, 1995.
- Laurent Arsicaud, Bo Diddley, Je suis un homme, Camion Blanc editions, 2012.