Diddley, Bo (1928—)

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Diddley, Bo (1928—)

Best known for the "shave-and-a-haircut" beat that bears his name, Bo Diddley helped build the rhythmic foundations of rock and roll with a string of hits during the mid-1950s. Diddley came out of the Chicago blues scene, but also brought the African American traditions of child game songs, tall-tale telling, and ritualized rounds

of bragging and insults into popular music, making him an early practitioner of rap. Diddley's chunky riffs and early use of distortion and tremolo effects on his unique square guitar were later used in 1960s funk and 1970s heavy metal.

The history of Diddley's beat has been traced to African Yoruba and Kongo cultures in Nigeria, and from there to Cuba, where the clave pattern was the basis for nineteenth century dance hall music. Early New Orleans jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton employed it in "Black Bottom Stomp" in the early twentieth century, and it was a common rhythm played by children on diddley bows—homemade single-stringed instruments—in rural Mississippi. The rhythm is also commonly referred to as "hambone," a method of slapping and stomping often used by shoeshine boys.

Diddley was born Ellas McDaniel in McComb, Mississippi, and moved to Chicago at the age of eight where he was undoubtedly exposed to these traditions. "Truthfully, I don't know where it came from exactly. I just started playing it one day," Diddley said in George R. White's biography Bo Diddley: Living Legend. "I figured there must be another way of playing, and so I worked on this rhythm of mine. I'd say it was 'mixed-up' rhythm: blues, and Latin American, and some hillbilly, a little spiritual, a little African and a little West Indian calypso … I like gumbo, you dig? Hot sauces, too. That's where my music come from: all the mixture."

Young Ellas was entranced one day shortly after moving to Chicago by a man playing a violin. He signed up for classical lessons from Professor O.W. Frederick at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he studied for 14 years. After hearing John Lee Hooker on the radio, however, he decided to play guitar. His sister, Lucille, bought Diddley his first guitar when he was 13. According to Diddley, " … the violin was the railroad track, or lifeline, to me playing a guitar … I used the bow licks with the guitar pick, and that's the reason for the weird sounds. That was my way of imitating with the bow on the violin strings, and that was the closest I could get to it."

Diddley attended Foster Vocational High School, where he learned to build violins and guitars, but quit school to work manual labor jobs and play on street corners. He formed a small group and played in neighborhood taverns, recording a demo that got the attention of Chess Records. Diddley, along with maracas player Jerome Green, joined Otis Spann on piano, Lester Davenport on harmonica, and Frank Kirkland on drums to record "Bo Diddley" and "I'm a Man" in 1955.

Chess was prepared to issue the single under McDaniel's real name, but harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold suggested Bo Diddley, a slang term for a comical-looking, bow-legged, short guy. The name and the single caught on, reaching number two on Billboard's rhythm and blues singles chart. He charted six more singles through 1960 on Checker, a Chess subsidiary, and recorded 22 albums for Chess/Checker through 1974.

Countless artists have had hits using Diddley's rhythm, including Buddy Holly ("Not Fade Away") and Johnny Otis ("Willie and the Hand Jive"). Many more, including the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, have had hits covering these tunes. The Who, the Yardbirds, Ronnie Hawkins, and the Doors all employed Diddley's beat at one time or another. Unfortunately for Diddley, American copyright law does not cover a beat or rhythm—only lyrics or a melody—and he therefore never received royalties from these songs.

Diddley released a few albums in the 1980s and 1990s with his own company, BoKay Productions, and other small labels, but he found it difficult to fit in with the new style of popular music. Diddley returned to form with the release of A Man Amongst Men on Atlantic Records in 1996. Featuring guest musicians Jimmie Vaughan, Ron Wood, Richie Sambora, Billy Boy Arnold, Johnnie Johnson, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson, the album was nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Traditional Blues Album.

—Jon Klinkowitz

Further Reading:

DeCurtis, Anthony. "Living Legends." Rolling Stone. September21, 1989, 89-99.

Kiersh, Edwards. Where Are You Now, Bo Diddley?: The Stars Who Made Us Rock and Where Are They Now? Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1986.

Lydon, Michael. Boogie Lightning. New York, Dial, 1974.

White, George R. Bo Diddley: Living Legend. Chessington, Great Britain, Castle Communications, 1995.