Monday, June 02, 2008

Bo Diddley

Rock music pioneer Bo Diddley passed away today at age 79. Diddley is best known for coming up with what came to be known as the "Bo Diddley Beat", a rhythm pattern that helped form the backbone of rock 'n' roll.

Diddley was born Otha Ellas Bates in McComb, Mississippi in 1928. He was raisedprimarily by his mother's first cousin Gussie McDaniel. While still a small boy, Gussie took him and her own three children to live in Chicago, where he was given his legal name, Ellas McDaniel. Stories abound as to how he came to be known as Bo Diddley, many of them told by Diddley himself. According to one story, Bo Diddley was a name hung on him by the local kids when he moved to Chicago. Another time, Diddley claimed he picked up the nickname during his career as an amateur boxer. Harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold said that the name was given to Diddley the day he signed his first recording contract. Other accounts claim it to be a variation of "diddley bow", a one-stringed instrument played by poor Mississippi Delta musicians.

Diddley's interest in music began when he started playing the violin at age 7. When he was 12, a family member gave him an acoustic guitar. Since his thick fingers wouldn't allow him to play more intricate patterns, Diddley developed a heavily rhythmic style, incorporating a "bomp-ba-domp-ba-domp, ba-domp-domp" rhythm that he had heard in church, that would become his signature. Diddley also started building his own guitars, many with unusual square bodies, in shop class at school. He dropped out of school prior to graduating, though, and spent some years playing whatever gigs he could find, while working a series of odd jobs to make ends meet.

Diddley's career took a turn upward in 1955 when he recorded a demo record, "Uncle John", backed with "I'm A Man". The demo came to the attention of Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chicago's most successful R&B and blues label. The Chess brothers signed Diddley, but insisted that the raunchy lyrics of "Uncle John" be tamed down. (According to Billy Boy Arnold, who was also at that meeting, this is where the name "Bo Diddley" originated.) Backed by that signature beat, the new lyrics became a classic:

Bo Diddley, bought his babe a diamond ring,
If that diamond ring don't shine,
He gonna take it to a private eye,
If that private eye can't see
He'd better not take that ring from me.

The B-side, "I'm A Man", was a slow blues filled with sexual innuendo:

Now when I was a little boy,
at the age of 5,
I had somethin' in my pocket,
Keep a lot of folks alive.
Now I'm a man,
Made 21,
You know baby,
We can have a lot of fun.
I'm a man,
I spell M-A-N, man.

Both sides made the top 5 of the R&B chart, and also caught the attention of scores of restless young white listeners hungry for a new sound.

Over the next several years, Diddley would release a string of records that would come to be standards - "Diddley Daddy", "Pretty Thing", "Mona", "Who Do You Love", and "Road Runner", among others; all featuring the driving Diddley rhythm that was years ahead of its time. Despite the innovative genius of those records, Diddley would spend most of his life struggling financially. Although his records were popular at sock hops and on the R&B circuit, few of them gained much radio airplay. "Say Man", a wickedly humorous rap featuring his maracas player Jerome Green, was Diddley's only pop Top 20 hit. Early in his career, Diddley landed a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show, which in those days was essential for making it to the big time. The show's producers requested that he sing Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons", but he performed his own "Bo Diddley" instead. After the program, an enraged Sullivan shouted that Diddley had double-crossed him, and threatened Diddley that he would never appear on TV again. Whether or not due to the influence of Sullivan, for years one of the most influential men in the entertainment industry, it would be another decade before Diddley made his next national TV appearance.

Although his records were seldom played on the radio, Diddley's fellow musicians took notice of the innovative "Bo Diddley Beat" and began to incorporate it into their own recordings. One of the first to do so was Buddy Holly, whose "Not Fade Away" was based squarely on Diddley's rhythms. A few years later, "Not Fade Away" became one of The Rolling Stones' first big hits, as the Stones led an army of British musicians well-schooled in Diddley's techniques in a conquest of the American charts. One of those early British beat groups, The Pretty Things, named themselves after the Diddley song. Bo Diddley songs were covered by everybody from The Who and The Yardbirds to The Clash and George Thorogood. In concert, Bruce Springsteen would often segue effortlessly from "Mona" to his own "She's The One", neatly pointing out the latter song's roots. On their LP Happy Trails, Quicksilver Messenger Service introduces their cover of "Mona" with the statement, "This next one's rock 'n' roll", which pretty much sums up the Bo Diddley influence on those who followed him. (Diddley's Wikipedia entry has a comprehensive list of artists that covered his songs, or were otherwise influenced by him.)

Despite his lasting influence, Diddley continued to have a hard time making ends meet. All the cover versions of his songs were of little benefit to him financially, as Diddley had long since signed away the rights to his publishing. He claimed that Chess Records owed him millions in royalties, while for their part, Chess said that the money had been paid out to Diddley in advances. Diddley never kept any records, so it was impossible for him to prove the money was owed. He lacked the shrewd negotiating skills of Chuck Berry, nor could he get by on sheer outrageousness as Little Richard did. Diddley paid the bills by staying on the road, for years playing gigs whenever and wherever he had the opportunity. He would pop up in some interesting places from time to time. In the 70's he served for a few years as a deputy sheriff in Los Lunas, New Mexico, and in 1989 he did the "Bo Knows" commercials with Bo Jackson for Nike Shoes, which is probably how younger folks best remember him. He also continued to record periodically, and in 1996 his A Man Amongst Men LP, featuring an all-star cast of backing musicians including Keith Richards and Richie Sambora, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Blues Recording. Diddley kept touring regularly until he suffered a stroke on stage during a concert in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 2007.

Bo Diddley may be gone, but the beat he created will live on forever.

I also recommend checking out this excellent biographical sketch of Diddley published by the New York Times in 2003.