Bo Diddley: Pioneer of rock'n'roll

When The Beatles first arrived in the United States in 1964, John Lennon was asked by a reporter what he was most looking forward to seeing in America. "Bo Diddley," he replied.

Indeed, when the legendary American disc jockey Alan Freed coined the phrase "rock'n'roll", Bo Diddley was the first musician he considered to be an exponent of the style. In 1955, playing the musician's first single for Chess Records in Chicago, the eponymous "Bo Diddley", Freed declared, "Here's a man with an original sound, an original beat that's gonna rock'n'roll you right out of your seat."

In years to come, Diddley would feel his position as "The Originator", a sobriquet he wore proudly, had been usurped by Elvis Presley. "I'm sick of everybody talking about Elvis," he would complain. "It was me and Chuck Berry that started rock'n'roll." He claimed that he had also suffered financially, insisting he had never received royalties for his early hit recordings; broke in the early 1970s, he sold off his music publishing rights, when he even supplemented his income by taking a job as a deputy sheriff in New Mexico.

Yet his characteristic bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp-bomp "Bo Diddley beat" has been one of the defining mainstays of contemporary music: there are some 1,800 recordings of songs originally played by Diddley, including covers as well as lifts by such illustrious figures as The Rolling Stones (their cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away"), The Who ("Magic Bus") and U2 ("Desire").

The "Bo Diddley beat", essentially a bump-and-grind shuffle, has its origins in a West African drum rhythm, filtered through the experiences of slaves transported to the American South. Forbidden to possess traditional drums, slaves would pat out rhythms on their bodies. When children built their own single-string guitars, on which they would play such beats, the instruments were known as "diddley bows". Although there are many variants on the origin of the performing name of Otha Ellas Bates McDaniel, this is probably the most accurate.

Born in McComb, Mississippi at the end of 1928, he never knew his father, Eugene Bates, and was raised by Gussie McDaniel, a cousin of his 15-year-old mother, who legally gave him her surname. Like many southern black families, they fled the harshness of the Depression-era rural South, relocating to Chicago in 1934. When, at the age of eight, the boy was inspired to ask for violin lessons, his local church bought him an instrument and paid for his tuition. But he switched to the guitar after breaking a finger. A spell as an amateur boxer thickened his hands and fingers, until they became "meat hooks", he said.

This was reflected in his unique playing style; he approached the guitar as if it were a drum-kit, pushing the sound onwards, rapidly flicking his pick across the guitar strings. "I play drum licks on the guitar," he said; indeed his hand-built, square-shaped guitars looked like percussive instruments, and he would supplement the sound through his skill with electronic trickery. Adding a Latino feel to his music, which sounded partially like black rockabilly, with the addition of maracas constructed from lavatory ballcocks, added a further rhythm, which was supplemented by his sometimes staccato vocals; John Lee Hooker was his original vocal inspiration, although the singing cowboy Gene Autry was another. While still at high school, Ellas McDaniel started his first group, The Hipsters, a trio, renamed later the Langley Avenue Jive Cats.

But his group's line-up was finalised when he brought in his neighbour Jerome Green to play the maracas and a harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold. Playing regularly at rough, down-at-heel venues on Chicago's South Side, the trio built a strong audience.

Cutting a demo recording of two of his own songs, "Uncle John" and "I'm a Man", in 1955, McDaniel was turned down by two local companies. But when he approached Chess Records, the label that already was releasing tunes by the likes of Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Etta James, Leonard and Phil Chess immediately realised this was a new sound. At their request the "Uncle John" tune was re-written and recorded on 2 March as "Bo Diddley"; Ellas McDaniel simultaneously became that character. (Such self-referencing became a theme of his career; he recorded more than 40 songs in which his name formed part of the title: "Bo's a Lumberjack", "Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger", "Bo Diddley is a Lover" and "Bo Meets the Monster", for example.)

Almost immediately, "Bo Diddley/I'm a Man" started to sell, both sides getting airplay. By the beginning of May 1955, the two separate songs were numbers one and two on the Billboard R'n'B and jukebox charts, assisted by the championing of Alan Freed, the beginning of a long run of hits such as "Diddley Daddy", "Mona", "Who Do You Love?", "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover", "You Don't Love Me" and "Road Runner". However, only "You Pretty Thing" (1958) and "Say Man" (1959) crossed over into the US pop charts.

Meanwhile, Muddy Waters had a hit with "Mannish Boy", an adaptation of "I'm a Man". Diddley also co-wrote "Love Is Strange", a hit in 1957 for Mickey & Sylvia, and for the Everly Brothers in 1965. Bo Diddley, one of the quintessential rock'n'roll albums, was released in 1957.

Diddley's success, however, meant that he frequently fell foul of America's bitter racial divisions. When he appeared in 1955 on Ed Sullivan's celebrated television show, he was asked to sing a cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" in preference to "Bo Diddley". Performing live, he instead plunged straight into his own song. Afterwards Sullivan snarled, "You're the first black boy that ever double-crossed me," and Diddley had to be pulled back from punching him. Sullivan declared he would see to it that Diddley never again worked in television: it was another 10 years before he was seen on networked American TV. Had Sullivan sensed something subversive within Diddley's work? If he had, he would have been correct. "They are often explicitly signifying records which involve putting over a joke on someone who doesn't understand the nuances of African-American thought and speech," said the US music critic Joe Levy. "It makes fun of white people without them realising it."

Four years after that Ed Sullivan Show, Diddley and his black group encountered an even more egregious example of racism. After they swam in the pool at Las Vegas's Showboat Casino, an attendant closed it to replace the water.

Overseas, however, especially in Britain, Bo Diddley was lionised. He became an icon of the burgeoning blues scene, notably influencing the Rolling Stones, who covered both "Mona" and "I'm Alright"; the Crawdaddy, the club in Richmond, Surrey, at which both the Stones and the Yardbirds had residencies, took its name from the Diddley song "Doing the Craw-Daddy", whilst the Pretty Things also were named after a Diddley song. The Animals paid tribute with their tune "The Story of Bo Diddley"; and the comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore even had a skit about "Bo Dudley", a tale of a Harlem blues singer.

Continuing to work within his own style, Diddley's popularity dwindled in the second half of the 1960s, as album rock took over the market. In 1967, attempting to catch this boat, he recorded the Super Blues and Super Super Blues Band LPs with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter. Even though in 1972 John Lennon and Yoko Ono had produced the Elephant's Memory track "Chuck & Bo", a tribute song to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, the previous year Diddley had been obliged to take that deputy sheriff post in Los Lunas, New Mexico.

The 1970s were difficult years for him, yet Bo Diddley continued to tour. Whilst gigging in Australia in 1978 he was asked to support the Clash on their first American tour. Although the English punk group were surprised he at first refused to play his classic songs – his explanation was that he no longer owned the copyright on them – they were even more startled when, on the tour bus, he would place Lucille, his guitar, in his bunk and sleep sitting upright.

By 1985, however, Diddley was performing with George Thorogood at the Philadelphia Live Aid concert. Two years after that, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the same year toured with the Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood.

In 1997 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, being given a similar accolade at the 1999 Grammy Awards ceremony. At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 20th induction ceremony in 2005, Bo Diddley performed his own signature tune with Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson.

Although suffering from diabetes, Bo Diddley continued for many years to perform regularly, rising every day at 4am to write new material.

Chris Salewicz

Otha Ellas Bates McDaniel (Bo Diddley), musician and songwriter: born McComb, Mississippi 30 December 1928; four times married (five children, one stepson); died Archer, Florida 2 June 2008.

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