Bo Diddley, who died earlier this week, was perhaps the least celebrated of the original pillars upon which the mighty, world-changing edifice of rock'n'roll was built: less glamorous than Elvis, less flamboyant than Little Richard, less dangerous than Jerry Lee Lewis, and less poetic than Chuck Berry. But, in at least one respect, he was every bit their equal.
In pure sonic terms, Bo Diddley was perhaps rock's single most influential architect. Small wonder he became known as The Originator: for if one were to add up just how many different songs have been constructed around Diddley's innovative beat – part shuffle, part rumba, part cakewalk, and who knows what else besides – it would probably equal the number likewise built around Chuck Berry's timeless trademark guitar licks.
The Rolling Stones' "Not Fade Away", arriving via Buddy Holly's emulation of The Originator, is perhaps the best-known – others include Springsteen's "She's the One", U2's "Desire" and George Michael's "Faith" – but the curious thing about the Bo Diddley beat is just how enduring it is, with bands able to vamp away at it for ages, without boring either themselves or their audience. Quicksilver Messenger Service, for instance, dedicated an entire side of their Happy Trails album to Bo's 1956 classic "Who Do You Love", using a series of different interrogatives to break the lengthy jam up into sections (and score some of the songwriter's royalties for themselves): "Where Do You Love", "How Do You Love", etc. Somehow, there's an integral drama to the stop-start, push-pull of the beat that enables it to remain fresh and exciting for far longer at a time than more direct rhythms. In simple riff terms, the Bo Diddley beat is one of the strongest girders in rock's entire edifice.
Part of Diddley's appeal resided in his individuality, especially in the way he was so clearly self-made, rather than a creation of some manager. Even his unique instrument, the instantly recognisable rectangular red electric guitar, was obviously home-made, and his wielding of it, and other, similarly outlandish self-made machines, inspired a generation of British kids to fashion their own instruments. Just as virtually every British guitar hero's abilities are ultimately traceable to Bert Weedon's Play In A Day manual, so too is every home-made instrument, from Bill Wyman's bass to Brian May's guitar, traceable to Bo: before him, they didn't know diddley.
The same free-thinking individuality applied to Diddley's guitar style, which was rooted in minimalism (punk may have required three chords, but Bo often needed no more than a single chord, scrubbed rhythmically throughout a song), but developed in a truly avant-garde manner. Listen to the epochal "Mumblin' Guitar", the instrumental justly chosen to lead off the most recent hits compilation The Story of Bo Diddley: heaven alone knows what chords he's playing, but they're virtually immaterial anyway, serving simply as the ground for a series of rhythmic flourishes and stunt-guitar tricks lashed to the chugging beat. It's almost not actually "playing" the guitar, so much as wrestling intriguing sounds out of it – a tectonic approach to creating music that regards the delicate matters of melody and harmony as entirely secondary to the sheer rhythmic impact of the performance.
Not only did Bo help invent rock'n'roll, but there's an obvious claim to be made on his behalf as the man who invented hip-hop, too. And this is not simply because his songs kept referring to himself in such an immoderately immodest manner. Listen to the bantering songs he cut with his maracas man Jerome Green, particularly the boisterous ""Say Man", and the entire rap framework is present, way back in 1958: there's the relentless, unchanging rhythm, over which two vocalists declaim insults about each other and their girlfriends, in the manner known in black American culture as "the dozens", to wit:
"That chick looked so ugly, she had to sneak up on the glass to get a drink of water!"
"Why, you gotta nerve to call somebody ugly – you so ugly that the stork that brought you into the world oughta be arrested!"
"That's all right, my mama didn't have to put a sheet over my head so sleep could slip up on me!", and so on.
Like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, his stablemates at Chicago's Chess/Checker Records, Diddley was responsible for phrasings and locutions that have entered the collective unconscious at such a deep level they've become part of the lingua franca of everyday life, now often considered "traditional". Alongside the plethora of self-referential material built out of the original 1955 "Bo Diddley" (including "Diddley Daddy", "Bo's A Lumberjack", "The Story of Bo Diddley", "Bo Diddley is Loose" and "Hey Bo Diddley"), the roll-call of legendary Diddley proclamations includes "Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself", "You can't judge a book by looking at the cover", "I'm a road runner", "I'm a man, spelt m-a-n"; while his "Who Do You Love" creates an entire horror-show netherworld of scarily fanciful claims: "I walked 47 miles of barbed wire/ Used a cobra snake for a necktie/ Got a brand new house on the roadside, made from rattlesnake hide/ Got a brand new chimney made on top, made out of a human skull", and so on – all cited, unbelievably, as erotically attractive elements!
Ironically, however, the same man apparently hell-bent on scaring the pants off of girls with this psychotic litany was in reality a paragon of feminist equality by the standards of the Fifties and Sixties, making women musicians integral to his stage act. For years, the statuesque, elegant Norma-Jean Wofford, aka The Duchess, played the Beauty to Bo's Beast as his bass-player, her ball-gowns contrasting starkly with his saturnine presence; likewise, the afro-topped Peggy Jones, aka Lady Bo, served as lead guitarist in his band, the pair of them devising the cleverly intercutting rhythm parts that powered his performances.
Bo's sense of style, of course, was all his own, from the outrageous plaid jackets and slick black pompadours of the Fifties, through the high-heeled suede boots and black hats of subsequent decades. And, like Holly, he was an immediate hero to every myopic kid forced to wear spectacles with outsize frames. There was no limit to his sartorial indulgence, nor to the visual strategies he was prepared to adopt in the name of promotion: the sleeve to his Have Guitar – Will Travel album, for instance, presented Bo in a bright red top, waving to us from atop a garish red-and-white motor-scooter, his rectangular guitar slung at his side. How much more ludicrous could a rock star look? Yet, whatever indignity was visited upon him, Bo's appeal remained firm: and if you can stay cool while looking like a fool, then you're a bona fide icon.
Diddley was never less than keenly aware of his iconic status, either. Having released an album entitled Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger, in later years he made the fanciful claim an actual fact, by becoming a deputy sheriff in New Mexico, and thus entitled to wear his guns in public. The sheriff's badge, meanwhile, became the centrepiece of the black Stetson he favoured in later years; and whether or not he actually did too much actual police work, he repaid his position several times over by raising enough money to buy the local police department three cars.
Born Ellas Otha Bates (subsequently Ellas McDaniel) in 1928 in McComb, Mississippi, Diddley's progress through the last century mirrored that followed by many black Americans, as he moved up to Chicago as a child to experience the post-war emancipation, before ultimately returning in his dotage to the more genteel South of his childhood (he died at home in Archer, Florida, surrounded by 35 relatives). Inspired to take up the guitar by seeing John Lee Hooker perform, Bo started playing in public with his first band, The Hipsters, during the war years.
He was already into his late twenties by the time he made his recording debut with "Bo Diddley" in 1955, and was pushing 40 as the rock era got into overdrive. But, unlike most of his fellow rockers, such as Elvis and Chuck Berry, Bo's appeal was not built entirely on the teenage market – almost alone amongst pop stars of his era, Diddley never stooped to the kind of junior love songs that might have scored him bigger hits. Instead, he represented a more authentic, even dangerous, expression of sexual potency through his hip-grinding rhythmic style that gave his records a broader adult appeal, and bestowed upon them a timeless quality that endures today. Put the likes of "Bo Diddley", "Mumblin' Guitar" or "Bring It To Jerome" up against tracks from Sixties beat, Seventies punk, Nineties grunge, or the Noughties retro-analogue, and they'll hold their own.
It's this timelessness that has made Bo Diddley a touchstone for subsequent generations of artists, from Springsteen and The Clash to The White Stripes, and that ensures his enduring legacy. Bo Diddley was as basic and awesome as Stonehenge, and just as crucial a part of our culture.