Made his debut in 1955 with self-titled single
Bo Diddley, the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose name is synonymous with a five-note beat and whose style influenced popular music for decades, died Monday of heart failure. He was 79.
Diddley, born Otha Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss., had a heart attack in August, three months after suffering a stroke while touring in Iowa. He had been living at home in Archer, Fla., outside Gainesville, where he had been recovering.
Diddley was one of the original voices of rock ‘n’ roll, and his music influenced multiple generations of rock acts — Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen among them. He played a unique guitar with a rectangular body and was among the first musicians to incorporate distortion and reverb into his personal style. That aspect of the Diddley sound would influence hard rock in the 1970s; his use of a rhythmic pulse — created in a swell of guitar, drums and maracas — would also become a bedrock of funk.
The “Bo Diddley” beat is a syncopated 5/4 pattern that parallels the hambone rhythm of West Africa. It has also been defined as a “shave and a haircut two-bits.” Diddley told various stories about the genesis of his use of the beat: He said it came from church music; from playing Gene Autry’s “Jingle Jangle”; and from his attempts to play the guitar like a drum.
It has been used for decades, forming the core of Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” the Who’s “Magic Bus,” Strangelove’s “I Want Candy,” Springsteen’s “She’s the One” and George Michael’s “Faith.” George Thorogood has based the bulk of his oeuvre on the Diddley sound; the Pretty Things named themselves after one of his songs; and Quicksilver Messenger Service ostensibly created the trippy San Francisco sound by playing a lengthy medley of “Who Do You Love” and “Mona.”
His first single, “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man,” has, over time, become a landmark in the rock revolution. Recorded with a blues band that included Otis Spann on piano, the A-side combined a nursery rhyme with tremolo guitar, while the flip side was blues at its core, but both managed to suggest the blues and R&B while pioneering a music form that was tethered to neither.
They have become staples of the rock canon, along with his “Who Do You Love” and “Roadrunner.” In 1955’s “I’m a Man” and 1959’s “Say Man,” Diddley created a rhyming braggadocio that 20 years later would be employed in rap; in “Who Do You Love,” his line “just 22 and I don’t mind dying” brought an element of carefree danger and fearlessness that had never been heard in popular music.
His music was raw and adult-oriented, unlike that of his labelmate Chuck Berry, who chronicled the concerns of teenagers. Berry’s commercial success overshadowed Diddley’s on the rock front, particularly in selling music to American whites. Diddley’s only top-40 pop hit was “Say Man,” although he had seven top-30 R&B singles between 1955 and 1959 and three more in the 1960s.
Diddley’s importance to rock ‘n’ roll became apparent when the harder-edged bands in the British invasion — the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals and the Who — cited him as an influence. Lennon, upon the Beatles’ first visit to the States, said meeting Diddley was at the top of his wish list of activities.
Over time, however, music historians came to see Diddley as the most overlooked of the early rockers — the result of the kind of exposure he received early on. Diddley biographer George R. White wrote that he “remained firmly rooted in the ghetto. Both his music and his image were too loud, too raunchy, too black ever to cross over.”
Raised in Chicago by his mother’s cousin Gussie McDaniel from the age of 7, he took on the name Ellas McDaniel. He performed on Chi street corners with Roosevelt Jackson, Samuel Daniel and Jerome Green, whose bass and maracas playing would be an integral part of Diddley’s recordings. He took the name Bo Diddley, according to a few sources, as a teenager while he was training to be a boxer.
Diddley recorded “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man” in 1954 at the Chess Records studio on Chicago’s Southside, and in 1955, both songs made it onto the R&B singles chart. America was exposed to Diddley when he performed his signature song right before Thanksgiving on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Sullivan, however, felt that Diddley had violated his contract by not performing “16 Tons” and demanded that Diddley return the $750 performance fee he had received. The incident kept him off television for years.
Diddley recorded extensively during the 1950s — always with Green — but his first pop hit came in 1957 with one of his compositions rather than a record: Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange.”
Chess Records, which signed Diddley to its subsidiary Checker, started releasing themed albums by Diddley in the late 1950s that started strong with “Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger” and started to fizzle with 1963’s “Surfin’ With Bo Diddley.” In the U.K., however, his star was rising as he toured with the Rolling Stones in ’63, landed albums consistently in the top 20 and was regularly featured on television.
Beginning in 1969, a year after he recorded “Super Blues Band” with Chicago legends Muddy Waters and Little Walter, he started appearing at rock ‘n’ roll revival shows and became an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll. In 1979, he opened shows for the Clash; he toured the world with Ron Wood in the ’80s.
He was a member of the second class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making it in 1987. In 1989, a series of Nike ads with athlete Bo Jackson introduced the phrase “You Don’t Know Bo” and revived Diddley’s career slightly. He received a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 1998. BMI presented him with the Icon award in 2002.
He had continued performing well into 2007 but stopped when he suffered a stroke in May in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Diddley is survived by a brother; three daughters and a son; 15 grandchildren; 15 great-grandchildren; and three great-great-grandchildren.
A public funeral service will be held Saturday at Showers of Blessing Harvest Center in Gainesville, and a nonreligious memorial will be held Monday evening at Gainesville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Purpose Center.
A wake and burial are private.