Guitarist, singer, songwriter
Alongside Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley is recognized as one of the first and most influential rock guitarists. In a career that has spanned well over three decades, Diddley has remained true to his original style. As Jeff Hannusch wrote in Guitar Player in 1984, perhaps the greatest thing one can say about Diddley is that “he has never had to sound like anyone else but Bo Diddley.” He was born Otha Ellas Bates in 1928 in Pike County, Mississippi. In 1934 his mother sent him to Chicago to live with her cousin, Gussie McDaniel. After the McDaniels adopted Otha, he dropped his first and last names and was known as Ellas McDaniel. However, he soon acquired his nickname and soon-to-be professional title, Bo Diddley, which Guitars, From the Renaissance to Rock refers to as a mischievous or bully boy. “That’s how I got my name … from messin’ ‘round,” stated Diddley in Rock 100.
Diddley studied violin under Professor O.W. Frederick for 12 years starting at age 7. He began teaching himself guitar in the early 1940s while attending Foster Vocational High School. At age 13 he was playing for change on Langley Avenue in Chicago with his friend Jerome Green. “I had a raggedy guitar, a washtub bass, a dude ‘sanding’ on a sheet of paper, and Jerome had maracas, shakin” “em, and man … it was lovely,” Diddley told Guitar World. Besides violin and guitar, Diddley was also a trombonist with the Baptist Congress Band. By the time he was 20, Diddley had formed The Langley Avenue Jive Cats, with legendary slide guitarist Earl Hooker, playing at the 708 Club in Chicago.
After graduating from Foster’s, Diddley got married and began working odd jobs outside of music in construction and semi-pro boxing. He was laid off from the construction job for a spell and decided to take another shot at music. Diddley went out and bought an electric guitar for its volume potential in the rowdy clubs and then recorded a single on a disc cutter owned by one of his neighbors. Diddley pedaled the songs—“I’m a Man” backed with “Bo Diddley”—to various labels before arriving at the Chess brothers’ (Leonard and Phil) label in Chicago, home label to blues stalwarts like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, and the chart-climbing Chuck Berry.
Chess saw a market for Diddley’s sound but they insisted that he change the lyrics to “Bo Diddley,” which were rather obscene, and rerecord it. Diddley agreed and signed a contract with Chess in 1955. The single was released on a subsidiary label, Checker, and skyrocketed all the way to number 2 on the national R & B charts but didn’t even crack the pop charts. The album fio Diddley was also released in 1955 and Diddley appeared on the Ed Sullivan television show
Legal name, Ellas McDaniel; born Otha Ellas Bates, December 30, 1928, in McComb (Pike County), Mississippi; son of Ethel Wilson; legally adopted by mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, 1934; married Ethel Mae Smith, 1946 (divorced); remarried; wife’s name, Kay; children: (first marriage) two; (second marriage) two.
Formed Langley Avenue Jive Cats with Earl Hooker during early 1940s; did construction work and fought as a semi-professional boxer; signed to recording contract with Chess/Checker Records, 1955; owner and president of Bokay Productions (record distribution company); toured with the Clash, 1979, and Ron Wood, 1988; appeared in television commercial promoting athletic shoes, 1989—.
Awards: Member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; recieved Guitar Player magazine’s Editors Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1990.
Addresses: Home —Hawthorne, Flordia. Office —c/o Otelsberg, 5530 Keokuk Ave., Woodland Hills, CA 92364.
before hooking up with Alan Freed’s rock and roll package to tour the country.
The “Diddley beat” was a simple, yet extremely infectious, “shave and a haircut, two bits” (a.k.a. “hambone”) pattern. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock calls it an “idiosyncratic syncopated rhythm.” Perhaps it was in Diddley’s early influences (his mother was Cajun), this hypnotic guitar sound with little or no chord progressions being propelled by Jerome Green’s pounding congas, maracas and bass. Diddley’s lyrics were equally strange and laced with his odd sense of humor, “a view of all life … particularly sex, as a profound cosmic joke, played out at the expense of everyone, but particularly the solemn and pompous,” wrote Dave Marsh in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. On stage, Diddley was backed by his equally bizarre stepsister, the Duchess, and her counterparts, Cookie and Sleepy King. “[Diddley’s] Bo-dacious caricatures are pure diddley daydreams out of a dada Disneyland,” reported Rock 100.
As appealing as the sound was, Diddley did little to vary from it and it took another four years for him to break Billboard’s Hot 100 with “Crackin’ Up” in 1959. That same year, “Say Man” made the Top 20 pop charts but Diddley has never had another single make it past number 50 since. “I had this idea that everybody would like everything I recorded, which was totally wrong, and I had to learn that,” he told Howard Mandel in Guitar World. During the ensuing lull in his career, Diddley was rediscovered by foreign rock and blues groups that comprised the British Invasion: the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds. Their cover versions of Diddley tunes brought him somewhat back into the limelight. He continued to release a batch of albums during the sixties and seventies with jacket covers that portrayed him as everything from a gun-slinger to a black gladiator in Ben Hur garb.
As corny as his album covers and outlandish clothes may have seemed, when Diddley plugged in his axe, guitarists took note. His wild collection of instruments, custom-built for him alone by the Gretsch company, were years ahead of their time with their oblong, triangle, and star shapes sometimes covered in carpet or fur. They were as much a part of the show as the man himself. “Bo Diddley used the guitar as a part of a flashy strutting performance of flamboyance and obvious sexual suggestion,” as stated in Guitars, From the Renaissance to Rock. Diddley tunes to an open D(D, A, D, F#, A, D), which accounts for part of his signature sound, but his use of tremolo, volume, pick-scraping, and various electronics are what make him one of the true innovators of rock guitar. “Bo Diddley on acid … I always just wanted to be wilder than Bo Diddley—which hasn’t happened yet, and probably is impossible,” said Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan in Guitar Player.
Living Blues quotes Diddley as having called his former boss and label head, Leonard Chess, a “thief.” Writer Pete Golkin explained: “When Diddley, who during a difficult period years later sold the rights to his hit songs of the ’50s, complains about not receiving money owed him, it is done with a certain air of confusion about the times in which he and other artists quickly rose to stardom.” Having experienced the financial plight that so many musicians have fallen into, Diddley decided to take career matters into his own hands and can now be found distributing his records on his own through Bokay Productions. “I’ve really been ripped off so much in the past, I don’t trust any of them anymore… I just got tired of beating my head against the wall. I don’t know what these companies are looking for, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’m going to sound like Bo Diddley until the day I die,” he told Guitar Player.
Although his last charted single was “Ooh Baby” in 1967 (which only reached number 88), Diddley remains active by playing one-nighters with pickup bands and touring with his daughter’s band, Offspring. In 1979, English punk rockers, the Clash, paid tribute to Diddley by having him open a series of shows for them and he toured with Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood on a double bill called The Gunslinger’s Tour in 1988. “That term—rock and roll—has been misused,” Diddley said in Guitar World. “A guy in the audience the other night, he kept buggin’ me: ‘Play some rock and roll!’ But I looked at him, pulled him off to the side, and said ‘Can I explain something’ to you?’ I had to school him. Because I was playin’ the only thing I knew how, my type of rock and roll—which is where it came from, because I was the beginning.”
Single releases on Checker between 1955 and 1962 include “Bo Diddley”/“I’m a Man—Spell It M-A-N,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Say Man,” “Mona,” “Road Runner,” “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Crackin’ Up,” and “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover.”
Bo Diddley, Checker, 1955, reissued, Chess, 1987.
Have Guitar, Will Travel, Checker, c 1960.
Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, Checker, c 1960, reissued, 1989.
In the Spotlight, Checker, 1964, reissued, 1987.
Two Great Guitars, Checker, 1964.
Super Blues Band, Checker, 1968.
Black Gladiator, Checker, 1971.
The London Bo Diddley Sessions, Checker, 1973, reissued, 1989.
Got Another Bag of Tricks, Chess, 1973.
Another Dimension, Chess, 1975.
20th Anniversary, RCA, 1976.
I’m a Man, MF, 1977.
Christgau, Robert, Christgau’s Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
Dalton, David, and Lenny Kaye, Rock 100, Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.
Evans, Mary Anne, and Tom Evans, Guitars, From the Rennais sance to Rock, Facts on File, 1977.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Da Capo, 1979.
Kozinn, Allan, Pete Welding, Dan Forte, and Gene Santoro, The Guitar: The History, the Music, the Players, Quill, 1984.
Logan, Nick, and Bob Wolffinden, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony, 1977.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Guitar Player, June 1984; July 1986.
Guitar World, July 1984.
Living Blues, September-October 1989.
—Calen D. Stone
Diddley, Bo 1928–
Bo Diddley 1928–
Bo Diddley surprised the music world in the mid-1950s when he unleashed a new guitar sound, one dominated by heavy rhythmic drive and distortion, and one that was quickly absorbed by other players. “Unarguably one of the most-influential musicians in rock ‘n’ roll,” noted Doug Pullen in Music Hound Rock, “Diddley’s distinctive ‘chunka, chunka’ rhythm guitar riff is the stuff of which rock’s bedrock was made.” The sound formed the core of several hits, including “Who Do You Love,” “Bo Diddley,” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.” Dave Marsh wrote in the New Rolling Stone Record Guide, “Bo Diddley was one of the great fathers of rock & roll, ranking with such transitional blues artists as Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in both importance and influence.”
Diddley was born Elias Bates in McComb, Mississippi, on December 30, 1928. At eight he was adopted by his mother’s cousin, who taught Sunday school in Chicago, and changed his last name to McDaniel. He took classical violin lessons from Professor O.W. Frederick at Ebenezer Baptist Church, but later switched to guitar after hearing John Lee Hooker on the radio. In his teens he started boxing and became known by his nickname, Bo Diddley. He attended Foster Vocational High School, where he learned to build violins and guitars, but eventually quit school in order to work at manual labor jobs. He also played guitar on street corners during his spare time to make money, but his adoptive mother, his uncles, and the church’s preachers and deacons protested against the “devil’s music.” Due to these conflicts, he later left home.
In the early 1950s Diddley and Billy Boy Arnold formed a band that included a washboard and maracas player. By 1954 the group was performing at the Sawdust Trail and Castle Rock in Chicago, and they recorded a demo to circulate at record labels like United and Vee-Jay. The disc finally came to the attention of Leonard Chess of Chess Records. He liked it, he told Diddley, but the song would have to be re-recorded and the obscene lyrics changed to make it marketable. Named after the singer, the single “Bo Diddley” rose to number two on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart. Mark Guarino wrote in the Arlington Heights, Illinois, Daily Herald, “Starting with his first hit, Diddley infused a raw, distorted guitar power that hadn’t been heard before.”
Diddley’s guitar sound, filled with propulsive rhythm, helped to lay the foundation for rock-n-roll. In Marshall
Born Elias Bates on December 30, 1928, in Mc-Comb, MS; son of Eugene Bates and Ethel Wilson; legally adopted by mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, 1934; married Louise Woolingham (divorced); married Ethel Smith, 1946 (divorced); married Kay Reynolds, 1960.
Career: Formed Langley Avenue Jive Cats with Earl Hooker, early 1940s; recorded for Chess Records, 1955-74; toured the United Kingdom and performed with the Rolling Stones, 1963; toured with the Clash, 1979; performed at Live Aid Concert in Philadelphia, 1985; played at George Bush’s presidential inaugural, 1989; performed at Bill Clinton’s presidential inaugural, 1993.
Awards: Lifetime Achievement Award, Rhythm and Blues Foundation; Star, Hollywood Walk of Fame; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987.
Cavendish’s Illustrated Guide to Popular Music, writer Val Wilmer declared, “An entire rock generation cut its teeth on the ‘Diddley beat,’ which Bo first heard played on tambourines in church.” Music scholars have traced the roots of the beat to an even earlier time. “Musicologists have pointed to that beat’s roots in West Africa before slavery,” wrote Dave Scheiber in the Chicago Sun Times, and “then to Deep South slaves patting out what became known as the ‘Hambone’ rhythm on their bodies.”
As “Bo Diddley” rose on the chart, the singer was invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, but there was a hitch. The producers had originally wanted Tennessee Ernie Ford to appear, because his hit “Sixteen Tons” was the fastest-rising single on the charts. They asked Diddley to perform “Sixteen Tons,” believing it was the song, as opposed to the performer, that really mattered. When he complained that he didn’t know the song, the producers rehearsed it with him and wrote the words to the song in large letters on cue cards. When the time came for the live broadcast, Dr. Jive introduced the guitarist, who took the stage and promptly began to sing “Bo Diddley.” As he exited, he was reported to have said: “Man, maybe that was ‘Sixteen Tons’ on those cards, but all I saw was ‘Bo Diddley!’” 1950s’ rock-n-rollers like Diddley fell on hard times during the 1960s. Even though Jimi Hendrix and others built their guitar techniques on the work of early innovators like Diddley, the earlier style was considered passé. This attitude made it difficult for old-school players to find steady, good paying work. During this time Diddley acquired a number of debts attempting to finance his children’s education. In order to meet expenses, he sold the rights to a number of his songs. Despite these difficulties, he continued to score a number of minor hits in the United States and England. “You Can’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover” rose to number 48 in the United States in 1962 and “Ooh Baby” entered the Hot Hundred; in the United Kingdom “Pretty Thing” reached the top forty in 1964 and “Hey Good Lookin’” followed in 1965.
Despite general public recognition of his contributions to rock-n-roll, and acknowledgements from high-profile players like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, Diddley’s innovative sound and string of hits have generated few financial rewards for the musician. “Like many early rock ‘n’ roll artists—especially African-American acts,” noted Scheiber, “record producers, music publishers and booking agents pocketed most of the cash.” Because he has received inadequate compensation for his work, Diddley has had to maintain an active touring schedule in order to support himself, despite health problems. “You gotta work,” he told Anthony DellaHora in the Albuquerque Journal. “If I ever got paid, maybe I wouldn’t have to work. But I got ripped off very bad with the record companies and the publishing mess.” Since 1980 Diddley has fought an ongoing legal battle seeking compensation for his music.
Diddley’s legal and financial difficulties, however, have done little to slow the rock-n-roll innovator down. At the end of 2002, he had begun work on a rap song about Saddam Hussein (”Saddam Hussein, pick up your phone, if you do we might leave you alone”), and was planning to record his first album in four years at his home studio. He is one of the rare musicians to have performed at both Republican and Democratic presidential inaugurations. Diddley earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. “We may never know exactly who is the father of rock ‘n’ roll,” wrote DellaFlora, “but if a paternity test is ever performed, Bo Diddley’s musical DNA will surely have to be sampled.”
Bo Diddley, Checker, 1957.
Go Bo Diddley, Checker, 1959.
Have Guitar, Will Travel, Checker, 1959.
Bo Diddley’s Beach Party, Checker, 1963.
Golden Decade, Chess, 1973.
The Chess Box, Chess, 1990.
His Best (Chess 50th Anniversary Collection), Chess, 1997.
Graff, Gary, ed., Music Hound Rock, Visible Ink, 1996, p. 202.
Marsh, Dave and John Swenson, eds., New Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1983, p. 140.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Summit Books, 1986, p. 111.
Albuquerque Journal, April 20, 2001, p. 3.
Chicago Sun Times, December 5, 2002, p. 41.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 21, 2000, p. 4.
“Bo Diddley,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (February 3, 2003).
“Bo Diddley,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (February 3, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.