Diddley, Bo (McDaniel, Otha Elias)

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Diddley, Bo (McDaniel, Otha Elias)

December 30, 1928

Bo Diddley, a rhythm-and-blues singer and guitarist, was born Otha Ellas (or Elias) Bates in McComb, Mississippi. Shortly after his birth he was sent to Chicago to live with his cousins, whose last name, McDaniel, he then adopted. He began studying the violin while still a child. In his early teens he also taught himself to play the guitar, and he was soon playing in informal bands. He also played trombone in Chicago's Baptist Congress Band. He attended Foster Vocational High School, and after graduating he made his living as a boxer and construction worker. In 1946 he married Ethel Mae Smith. During this time he performed with the Langley Avenue Jive Cats, a rhythm and blues ensemble that included the guitarist Earl Hooker.

In the 1950s he adopted the name Bo Diddley, apparently in reference to the diddley bow, a one-string guitar. He has also suggested that his name was slang for a mischievous youngster. In 1955 he recorded the songs "Bo Diddley" and "I'm a Man," appeared on Ed Sullivan's television show, and soon became a significant figure in Chicago's blues scene. His other important recordings from this time include "Crackin' Up" (1959) and "Say Man" (1959). In the 1960s Bo Diddley gained an international reputation for his electrifying live performances, but his recordings, including "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover" (1962), "Boss Man" (1966), and "Ooh Baby" (1967), were never hits.

Bo Diddley's notoriety derives largely from a signature syncopated rhythm, related to the "shave and a haircut" and "hambone" figures, which he has used in most of his songs. He has also cultivated a reputation as a powerful and outrageous singer, famous for shouting, growling, and howling boastful lyrics filled with sexual innuendo. His stark and earthy, yet highly experimental, guitar playing, combining Chicago electric blues and Afro-Cuban influences, was a prime influence on British rock bands in the 1960s. Bo Diddley appeared in three films during this time, The Big T.N.T. Show (1966), the documentary The Legend of Bo Diddley (1966), and Keep on Rockin' (1969).

Since the 1960s Bo Diddley has maintained a busy schedule. He has performed all over the world, hailed as one of the pioneers of rock and roll. His recordings include Black Gladiator (1971), the soundtrack for the animated film Fritz the Cat (1971), The London Bo Diddley Sessions (1973), and I'm a Man (1977). Bo Diddley's connection with British rockers has continued, including tours with The Clash in 1979 and Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood in 1988. In the 1980s Bo Diddley recorded for his own record label, Bokay Productions, a record distribution company based in Hawthorne, Florida. He also occasionally performed with Offspring, a group led by his daughter. He performed at George H. W. Bush's presidential inauguration in 1989, and again at Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.

Bo Diddley was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation at the Seventh Annual Pioneer Awards in 1996. He has his own "Star" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (inducted in 1987). In 1999 Diddley released Road Runner Live, and he has continued performing into the early years of the twenty-first century.

See also Rhythm and Blues


Loder, Kurt. "Bo Diddley Interview." Rolling Stone (February 12, 1987): 7678.

Tucker, Neely. "Bo Diddley." Living Blues 77 (December 1987): 1721.

jonathan gill (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005