Guitarist Bo Diddley Dead at 79
(CNN) — Bo Diddley, the musical pioneer whose songs, such as “Who Do You Love?” and “Bo Diddley,” melded rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll through a distinctive thumping beat, has died. He was 79. Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Bo Diddley influenced generations of guitarists.
Diddley died Monday, surrounded by family and loved ones at his home in Archer, Florida, a family spokeswoman said.
The cause was heart failure, his family said.
The world-renowned guitarist’s signature beat — usually played on an equally distinctive rectangular-bodied guitar — laid the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll, and became so identified with him that it became known as the “Bo Diddley” beat. It was unlike anything else heard in pop music.
“This distinctive, African-based … rhythm pattern (which goes bomp-bomp-bomp bomp-bomp) was picked up by other artists and has been a distinctive and recurring element in rock ‘n’ roll through the decades,” according to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Guitarist George Thorogood, a Diddley disciple, put it more bluntly.
“[Chuck Berry’s] ‘Maybellene’ is a country song sped up,” Thorogood told Rolling Stone in 2005. ” ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is blues sped up. But you listen to ‘Bo Diddley,’ and you say, ‘What in the Jesus is that?’ “
Among the artists who made use of the Bo Diddley beat were Buddy Holly (“Not Fade Away,” later covered by the Rolling Stones), Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”), the Yardbirds (covering Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and adding their own guitar stylings to the closing bars, which were later incorporated into the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction”), the Strangeloves (“I Want Candy”), Bruce Springsteen (“She’s the One”), U2 (“Desire”) and George Michael (“Faith”). Hundreds of artists have covered Diddley songs. Blog: The genius of Bo Diddley
“Bo Diddley was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s true pioneers,” said Neil Portnow, president and CEO of The Recording Academy, the music industry organization best known for presenting the Grammy Awards. “He inspired legions of musicians with his trademark rhythm and signature custom-built guitar, and his song ‘Bo Diddley’ earned a rightful place in the Grammy Hall Of Fame. He leaves an indelible mark on American music and culture, and our deepest sympathies go out to his family, friends and fans. The ‘Bo Diddley beat’ surely will continue on.”
Diddley’s debut single was his self-titled 1955 classic, with “I’m a Man” as its B-side. The songs were released on Chicago’s Chess-Checker Records label, also the home of Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon.
“It was the first in a string of groundbreaking sides that walked the fine line between rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll,” his Hall of Fame biography says.
Diddley was also a pioneer of the electric guitar, tweaking his instruments and adding a variety of effects to his recordings.
A contemporary of Berry, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, Diddley cut a stylish figure on the rock ‘n’ roll landscape. With his guitar, dark glasses and black hat, he looked vaguely menacing; his music was much earthier and bluesier than that of his rock ‘n’ roll contemporaries.
However, Diddley wasn’t above climbing on bandwagons in search of wider popularity; his early 1960s albums included such titles as “Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger,” “Bo Diddley’s a Twister,” “Bo Diddley’s Beach Party” and “Surfin’ with Bo Diddley.”
Eventually, Diddley returned to his roots and became a rock ‘n’ roll elder statesman. He was featured in the Thorogood video “Bad to the Bone,” playing pool with Thorogood, and showed up during the Nike “Bo Knows” campaign starring Bo Jackson.
At the conclusion of a Nike commercial that showed Jackson excelling at a variety of sports, the athlete picked up a guitar and produced a squall of noise. Cut to Diddley, listening to the attempt: “Bo, you don’t know Diddley,” he said.
“I never could figure out what it had to do with shoes, but it worked,” Diddley told The Associated Press. “I got into a lot of new front rooms on the tube.”
Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi, on December 30, 1928. He later took the name McDaniel after being adopted by his mother’s cousin. Diddley’s family moved to Chicago when he was 7, according to his Hall of Fame biography.
He played violin as a child, but said he was inspired to pick up the guitar after hearing John Lee Hooker’s 1949 rhythm and blues hit, “Boogie Chillen.”
He told many stories of how he got the name “Bo Diddley.” In a 1999 interview, he said it came from his childhood friends, according to AP. Other tales included a one-string instrument from traditional blues called a diddley bow, the AP notes.
Either way, it became his own — as did his music.
“I don’t like to copy anybody. Everybody tries to do what I do, update it,” he told the AP. “I don’t have any idols I copied after.”
“They copied everything I did, upgraded it, messed it up. It seems to me that nobody can come up with their own thing, they have to put a little bit of Bo Diddley there,” he said.
He continued to tour well into 2007, but suffered a stroke last May and a heart attack in August.
He was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in January 1987.
Though he was upset that he never received the financial rewards he expected — “I am owed,” he told the AP, adding “a dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun” — he reflected modestly on the rock ‘n’ roll revolution he helped start.
“Well, it’s no different from anything else, I guess. I started sumthin’. I just happened to be the first one,” he told the British magazine Uncut in 2005. “But I never thought it would turn into what it did. Somebody had to be first, and it happened to be me.”