When Bo Diddley died in 2008 I was asked to write an introduction to a book of sheet music of his songs, though why anyone would need sheet music to play Bo Diddley songs is beyond me.
Among the many legends who might be said to have invented rock’n’roll, few have a greater claim than Bo Diddley. The tough-talking, Mississippi-born guitar-slinger had the singular distinction of having personally invented a wholly original rhythmic tempo, a style that in time would be appropriated by everyone from Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly to The Rolling Stones and The Who, and from Bruce Springsteen to U2, not to mention just about every fledgling guitarist who’s managed to master a single chord.
It is a foundation stone of rock and is simplicity in itself, best conveyed in words by the intonation of the simple phrase “shave and a haircut (pause) two bits”. By repeating this beat endlessly and giving it a good thump from behind by a drummer who knows his way around floor toms, even the most inexperienced of garage bands can get a crowded ballroom up on their feet and dancing in no time at all.
It made its first appearance in 1955, as the A-side to Bo’s first Chess recording which he named in honour of himself, ‘Bo Diddley’. It was the start of a series of self-referential songs with the same rhythm, all hammered out without a single chord change, all of them delivered with down-home wit and sexual innuendo, all performed lustily on a home-made rectangular red guitar, vocals and rhythm bathed in echo, the reverberation amplified and distorted. Accompanying him were Jerome Green, his maracas player, and The Duchess, Bo’s gorgeous sister, matching the rhythm on a similarly-shaped model. It was the sound of freedom and pleasure and for all the thrills Bo’s beat inspired in America’s teenagers, it chilled its conservative white elders to the bone.
Although Bo Diddley’s contribution to rock history was noted by his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the second year of its inception, he never felt he was truly rewarded for bestowing his gift upon the world. He continued working to the last and was deeply suspicious of anyone who might seek to profit from his work. “I tell musicians, ‘Don’t trust nobody but your mama,’” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1995. “And even then, look at her real good.”
Bo was born Otha Ellis Bates in McComb, a small town about 15 miles from the Louisiana border, and was reared by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel. When the family moved to Chicago, his name was changed to Ellas McDaniel. He studied violin from the age of seven to 15 and started playing guitar at 12, on an acoustic model given to him by his sister. He worked as a carpenter and mechanic, and also took up professional boxing, but began a musical career playing on street corners with friends and with a band called the Hipsters who became the Langley Avenue Jive Cats.
In 1951, Bo 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, and in late 1954, he teamed up with harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold, drummer Clifton James and bass player Roosevelt Jackson. In 1954 Diddley made a demo record with the Jive Cats which came to the attention of Phil and Leonard Chess who took them into the studio.
They re-recorded the songs – ‘Bo Diddley’ and ‘I’m A Man’ - at Chess 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 ‘Bo Diddley’, became a number one R&B hit.
It was around this time, or maybe just before, that Ellas McDaniel became Bo Diddley. There are various schools of thought on how the name came about. Some say it was thought up by Billy Boy Arnold, while others point to a one-stringed instrument called a Diddley Bow, often simply a length of wire stretched between two nails hammered into a wooden door. Whatever its genesis, the name became his trademark in songs such as ‘Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger’, ‘Diddley Daddy’, ‘Hey Bo Diddley’ and many more.
For all his originality, Bo found the going hard in the early part of his career. He fell foul of Ed Sullivan in 1955 for playing ‘Bo Biddley’ instead of the requested ‘Sixteen Tons’ on Ed’s Sunday night showcase. Afterwards Sullivan told Bo he wouldn’t appear on TV again, and he didn’t play a network show for 10 years. In attempts to capitalise on teenage fads, Bo was obliged to swallow his pride and in the early Sixties make twist and surf records which failed to sell.
In the event he was rescued by a British following that emerged after he was discovered in the early part of the decade by The Rolling Stones, who featured several of his songs in their repertoire. ‘Mona’ was a highlight of their first 1964 album which led to it being covered by scores of groups, while their third single (and first major hit), ‘Not Fade Away’, though strictly speaking a Buddy Holly cover, owed absolutely everything about it to the Bo Diddley beat. The Pretty Things named themselves after one of his songs and other Diddley songs were covered by The Yardbirds, The Animals, Manfred Mann, The Kinks and The Downliners Sect. When Bo toured the UK for the first time in 1963, he was given a hero’s welcome.
It took longer for his star to rise in America and when it did, it was largely due to another of his staples, ‘Who Do You Love’, which was covered in concert by The Doors and thence picked up by Bob Seger and Tom Rush. In the UK, the prog band Juicy Lucy had a number 14 hit with the same song in 1970.
However, the list of performers who have co-opted the Bo Diddley beat for their own songs is virtually endless, and includes Elvis Presley (‘His Latest Flame’), Johnny Otis (‘Willie And The Hand Jive’, also covered by Eric Clapton), The Who (‘Magic Bus’ – they also played Bo’s ‘Road Runner’ live), David Bowie (‘Panic In Detroit’), The Stooges (‘1969’ & ‘1970’), Bruce Springsteen (‘She’s The One’), U2 (‘Desire’), The Smiths (‘How Soon Is Now’), and The White Stripes (‘Screwdriver’).
Bo remained sanguine about all this but never forgot that he was the man who started it all. Like almost all the musicians from his era, he was paid a flat fee for his recording and never received any royalties, let alone monies from those artists who copied his beat. “I am owed. I never got paid,” he said in the nineties. “A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun.”
In any event, he was obliged to take work other than being a musician. He spent many years in New Mexico as a law officer and served for two and a half years as Deputy Sheriff in the Valencia County Citizens’ Patrol; during that time, he personally purchased and donated three patrol cars. For the remainder of his life he resided in Archer, a small farming town near Gainsville, Florida, where he attended church with some of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Bo continued to tour around the world as the decades passed by, often on the revival circuit, and wherever he went he was revered by those who recognised the huge contribution he made to 20th century music, including his disciples, The Rolling Stones, who featured him as a special guest during a prestigious New York date on their 1989 Steel Wheels tour.
Bo Diddley died from heart failure aged 79, and at his funeral in Gainsville, he was celebrated as a musical legend. As the church filled up with his many relatives and musical peers, the choir began a refrain of “Hey Bo Diddley” with the crowd responding in kind. The flowers around the casket included two arrangements in the shape of square guitars, and so vast were they, that they almost obscured the pulpit. A two-hour musical celebration followed the funeral, and in the days that followed, many musicians stepped forward to pay tribute to the bespectacled genius.
Mick Jagger: “He was an enormous force in music, a wonderful, original musician… an enormous influence on The Rolling Stones.”
BB King: “His legacy will live on forever. We will never see his like again. He was a music pioneer with a unique style. We always had a good time when we played together.”
Robert Plant: “His voice and relentless glorious anthems echo down through my years. The royal shape shifter continues to influence four generations of musicians on a daily basis.”
Slash: “He’s a huge hero of mine and the fact that he knew who I was is a huge compliment. Bo Diddley created a myth that was uniquely his own. An entire rhythm is owed to one guy and that’s pretty rare.”
Eric Burdon: “I’ve been a fan of his since 16, 17 years of age – probably one of the first records I ever bought. I call it bone music because it goes to your bone. I copied the jacket he was wearing for my first major TV appearance in England.”