Bo Diddley: American Blues Legends Series
We look at the great Bo Diddley, born Elias Otha Bates, adopted by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniels. He then assumed Gussie’s surname and became Elias McDaniels. When he was six, the family moved to the south side of Chicago. It is there he learned the trombone and violin. He became proficient enough on the violin that he played in the Ebenezer Baptist Church orchestra until he was 18. It was at that age he became interested in the guitar after hearing “Boogie Chillin” by John Lee Hooker and being inspired by the rhythmic, pulsating music of a local Pentecostal church.
He soon began to play on street corners with various friends and groups. He also worked as a carpenter and mechanic to supplement his income until he started performing at the local 708 Club in Chicago. While at the 708 greats like John Lee Hooker, Louis Jordan, and Muddy Waters influence his repertoire.
In 1955, Bo Diddley cut a single for Checker Records, “Bo Diddley” on the A-side and “I’m a Man” on the B-side. He soon changed his name to Bo Diddley. There are many legends on where the name originated. The only fact is his named altered after the song, not before. This single was the first in a string of groundbreaking releases that balanced on the fine line between rhythm & blues and rock & roll. Others songs included top twenty R&B charters ‘Road Runner’, “Mona”, and “Pretty Thing.” He went on to have a total of 10 top thirty R&B hits from 1954-1965. Strangely he only had a single top thirty US Hot 100 hit, “Say Man’ in 1959.
I made ‘Bo Diddley’ in ’55, they started playing it, and everybody freaked out. Caucasian kids threw Beethoven into the garbage can.–Bo Diddley
His songs were also crossover successes like the hit ‘Say Man.’ The song featured a humorous exchange between him and his maraca player Jerome Green. The two verbally battled mimicking the Black pastime of “doing the dozens.” Many see this as a foreshadowing of rap music yet to come.
Influence of Bo Diddley on Other Artists
His guitar playing was a consistent driving hard-edge sound mixed with what is known as the “Bo Diddley Beat.” The beat is a mixture of rumba and hambone (hambone is playing rhythmic beats by slapping your thighs, arm, cheeks, and chest). The song “Bo Diddley” is a perfect example, as the beat of “Shave and Haircut” runs through the song. It is also a play of the lullaby “Hush Little Baby.” Eventually, Diddley gravitated to playing a custom-made “Twang Box,” his trademark rectangle-shaped guitar. His African-based 5/4 rhythm pattern (which goes
I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob.— Bo Diddley
Regardless of the hit counts, his sound and songwriting continue to influence generations of artists. He is often called the Originator because of the vital role he played in the transition of rhythm and blues music to rock & roll. He was a songwriter, singer, musician, and innovator. He was also a groundbreaker on the use of female musicians in his band. He is recognized by generations of future musicians. In 1979 he toured with the Clash introducing him to a new demographic of fans. In 1987, he was honored for his role as a pioneering force in music by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band ZZ Top introduced him. He won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards in 1996. Diddley also remained an outspoken critic of how early black artists were under-compensated.