Bo Diddley, a Rock ’n’ Roll Pioneer, Dies at 79Bo Diddley, a singer and guitarist who invented his own name, his own guitars, his own beat and, with a handful of other musical pioneers, rock ’n’ roll itself, died Monday at his home in Archer, Fla. He was 79.
By BEN RATLIFF
Bo Diddley at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York in 2006.
Jeff Christensen/Associated Press
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The cause was heart failure, a spokeswoman, Susan Clary, said. Mr. Diddley had a heart attack last August, only months after suffering a stroke while touring in Iowa.
In the 1950s, as a founder of rock ’n’ roll, Mr. Diddley — along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and a few others — helped reshape the sound of popular music worldwide, building it on the templates of blues, Southern gospel, R&B and postwar black American vernacular culture.
His original style of rhythm and blues influenced generations of musicians. And his Bo Diddley syncopated beat — three strokes/rest/two strokes — became a stock rhythm of rock ’n’ roll.
It can be found in Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” Johnny Otis’s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” the Who’s “Magic Bus,” Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One” and U2’s “Desire,” among hundreds of other songs.
Yet the rhythm was only one element of his best records. In songs like “Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love,” “Mona,” “Crackin’ Up,” “Say, Man,” “Ride On Josephine” and “Road Runner,” his booming voice was loaded up with echo and his guitar work came with distortion and a novel bubbling tremelo. The songs were knowing, wisecracking and full of slang, mother wit and sexual cockiness. They were both playful and radical.
So were his live performances: trancelike ruckuses instigated by a large man with a strange-looking guitar. It was square and he designed it himself, long before custom guitar shapes became commonplace in rock.
Mr. Diddley was a wild performer, jumping, lurching, balancing on his toes and shaking his knees as he wrangled with his instrument, sometimes playing it above his head. Elvis Presley, it has long been supposed, borrowed from Mr. Diddley’s stage moves; Jimi Hendrix, too.
Still, for all his fame, Mr. Diddley felt that his standing as a father of rock ’n’ roll was never properly acknowledged. It frustrated him that he could never earn royalties from the songs of others who had borrowed his beat.
“I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob,” he told The New York Times in 2003.
He was a hero to those who had learned from him, including the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. A generation later, he became a model of originality to bands like the Clash and the Fall.
In 1979 Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon of the Clash asked that Mr. Diddley open for them on the band’s first American tour. “I can’t look at him without my mouth falling open,” Mr. Strummer, starstruck, told a journalist during the tour.
For his part Mr. Diddley had no misgivings about facing a skeptical audience. “You cannot say what people are gonna like or not gonna like,” he explained later to the biographer George R. White. “You have to stick it out there and find out! If they taste it, and they like the way it tastes, you can bet they’ll eat some of it!”
Mr. Diddley was born Otha Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss., a small city about 15 miles from the Louisiana border. He was reared primarily by his mother’s first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, who had three children of her own. After the death of her husband, Ms. McDaniel took the family to Chicago, where young Otha’s name was changed to Ellas B. McDaniel. Gussie McDaniel became his legal guardian and sent him to school.
He was 6 when the family resettled on Chicago’s South Side. He described his youth as one of school, church, trouble with street toughs and playing the violin for both band and orchestra, under the tutelage of O. W. Frederick, a prominent music teacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Gussie McDaniel taught Sunday school there. Ellas studied classical violin from the age of 7 to 15 and started on guitar at 12, when his sister gave him an acoustic model.
He then enrolled at Foster Vocational School, where he built a guitar as well as a violin and an upright bass. But he dropped out before graduating. Instead, with guitar in hand, he began performing in a duo with his friend Roosevelt Jackson, who played the washtub bass. The group became a trio when they added another guitarist, Joseph Leon (Jody) Williams, then a quartet when they added a harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold.
The band, first called the Hipsters and then the Langley Avenue Jive Cats, started playing at an open-air market on Maxwell Street. They were sometimes joined by another friend, Samuel Daniel, who was known as Sandman because of the shuffling rhythms he made with his feet on a wooden board sprinkled with sand.
Playing with the Jive Cats was not enough to make a living in the early days, so Mr. Diddley found jobs where he could: at a grocery store, a picture-frame factory, a blacktop company. He worked as an elevator operator and a meat packer. He also started boxing, hoping to turn professional.
In 1954 Mr. Diddley made a demonstration recording with his band, which now included Jerome Green on maracas. Phil and Leonard Chess of Chess Records liked the demo, especially Mr. Diddley’s tremelo on the guitar, a sound that seemed to slosh around like water. They saw it as a promising novelty and encouraged the group to return.
By Billy Boy Arnold’s account, the next day, as the band and their soon-to-be producers were setting up for a rehearsal, they were idly casting about for a stage name for Ellas McDaniel when Mr. Arnold thought of Bo Diddley. The name described a “bow-legged guy, a comical-looking guy,” Mr. Arnold said, as quoted by Mr. White in his 1995 biography, “Bo Diddley: Living Legend.”
That may be all there is to tell about the name, except for the fact that a certain one-string guitar — native to the Mississippi Delta, often homemade, in which a length of wire is stretched between two nails in a door — is called a diddley bow. By his account, however, Mr. Diddley had never played one.
In any case, Otha Ellas McDaniel had a new name and the title of a new song, whose lyrics began, “Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring.” “Bo Diddley” became the A side of his first single, in 1955, on the Checker label, a subsidiary of Chess. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart.
Mr. Diddley said he had first heard the “Bo Diddley beat” — bomp ba-bomp bomp, bomp bomp — in a church in Chicago. But variations of it were in the air. The children’s game hambone used a similar rhythm, and so did the ditty “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”
The beat is also related to the Afro-Cuban clave, which had been popularized at the time by the New Orleans mambo carnival song “Jockomo,” recorded by Sugar Boy Crawford in 1953.
Whatever the source, Mr. Diddley felt the beat’s power. In early songs like “Pretty Thing” and “Bo Diddley,” he arranged the rhythm for tom-toms, guitar, maracas and voice, with no cymbals and no bass. (Also arranged in his signature rhythm was the eerie “Mona,” a song of praise he wrote for a 45-year-old exotic dancer who worked at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit; this song became the template for Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”)
Appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1955, Mr. Diddley was asked to play Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.” Without telling Mr. Sullivan, he played “Bo Diddley” instead. Afterward, in an off-camera confrontation, Mr. Sullivan told him that he would never work in television again. Mr. Diddley did not play again on a network show for 10 years.
For decades Mr. Diddley was bitter about his relationship with the Chess family, whom he accused of withholding money owed to him. In her book “Spinning Blues Into Gold,” Nadine Cohodas quoted Marshall Chess as saying, “What’s missing from Bo’s version of events is all the gimmes.” Mr. Diddley would borrow so heavily against projected royalties, Mr. Chess said, that not much was left over in the final accounting.
Mr. Diddley’s watery tremolo effect, from 1955 onward, came from one of the first effects boxes to be manufactured for guitars: the DeArmond Model 60 Tremelo Control. But Mr. Diddley contended that he had already built something similar himself, with automobile parts and an alarm-clock spring.
His first trademark guitar was also handmade: he took the neck and the circuitry off a Gretsch guitar and connected it to a square body he had built. In 1958 he asked Gretsch to make him a better one to the same specifications. Gretsch made it as a limited-edition guitar called “Big B.”
On songs like “Who Do You Love,” his guitar style — bright chicken-scratch rhythm patterns on a few strings at a time — was an extension of his early violin playing, he said.
“My technique comes from bowing the violin, that fast wrist action,” he told George White, explaining that his fingers were too big to move around easily. Rather than fingering the fretboard, Mr. Diddley said, he tuned the guitar to an open E and moved a single finger up and down to create chords.
As his fame rose, his personal life grew complicated. His first marriage, at the age of 18, to Louise Woolingham, lasted less than a year. His second marriage, in 1949, to Ethel Smith, unraveled in the late 1950s. He then moved from Chicago to Washington, settling in the Mount Pleasant district, where he built a studio in his home.
Separated from his wife, he was performing in Birmingham, Ala., when, backstage, he met a young door-to-door magazine saleswoman named Kay Reynolds, a fan, who was 15 and white. They moved in together in short order and were soon married, in spite of Southern taboos against racial intermarriage.
During the late 1950s, Mr. Diddley’s band featured a female guitarist, Peggy Jones (stage-named Lady Bo), at a time when there were scarcely any women in rock. She was replaced by Norma Jean Wofford, whom Mr. Diddley called the Duchess. He pretended she was his sister, he said, to be in a better position to protect her on the road.
The early 1960s were low times. Chess, searching for a hit, had Mr. Diddley make albums to capitalize on the dance craze the twist, as Chubby Checker had done, and on the surf music of the Beach Boys. But soon a foreign market for his earlier music began to grow, thanks in large part to the Rolling Stones, a newly popular band that was regularly playing at least seven of his songs in its concerts. It paved the way for Mr. Diddley’s successful tour of Britain in the fall of 1963, performing with the Everly Brothers, Little Richard and the Rolling Stones, the opening act.
But Mr. Diddley was not willing to move to Europe, and in America the picture worsened for him: the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and the Byrds quickly made Bo Diddley sound quaint. When work all but dried up, he moved to New Mexico in the early 1970s and became a deputy sheriff in the town of Los Lunas. With his sound updated to resemble hard rock and soul, he continued to make albums for Chess until his contract expired in 1974. His recording career never picked up after that, despite flirtations with synthesizers, religious rock and hip-hop. But he continued apace as a performer and public figure, popping up in places both obvious, like rock ’n’ roll nostalgia revues, and not so obvious: a Nike advertisement, the film “Trading Places” with Eddie Murphy, the 1979 tour with the Clash, and two presidential inaugurals, George H. W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s.
His last recording was the 1996 album “A Man Amongst Men” (Code Blue/Atlantic), which was nominated for a Grammy. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and in 1998 was inducted into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame as a musician of lasting historical importance.
Since the early ’80s, Mr. Diddley lived in Archer, Fla., near Gainesville, where he owned 76 acres and a recording studio. His passions were fishing and old cars, including a 1969 purple Cadillac hearse.
Mr. Diddley was married four times, most recently, in 1992, to Sylvia Paiz; his spokeswoman, Ms. Clary, said they were no longer married. His survivors include his children, Evelyn Kelly, Ellas A. McDaniel, Tammi D. McDaniel and Terri Lynn McDaniel; and 15 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
Mr. Diddley attributed his longevity to abstinence from drugs and drinking, but in recent years he had suffered from diabetes. After a concert in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on May 13, 2007, he had a stroke and was taken to Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha. Last Aug. 28 he suffered a heart attack in Gainesville and was hospitalized.
Mr. Diddley always believed that he and Chuck Berry had started rock ’n’ roll, and the fact that he couldn’t financially reap all that he had sowed made him a deeply suspicious man.
“I tell musicians, ‘Don’t trust nobody but your mama,’ ” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2005. “And even then, look at her real good.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company