Early rock 'n' roll guitar wizard Bo Diddley died near Jacksonville, Florida, Monday, 2 June, of heart failure. He was 79 years old. One of the most primitive of the early rockers, Bo took the blues and folk music of his native Mississippi and combined them with Latin American and African rhythms to come up with his trademark "hambone" beat. VOA's Doug Levine tells us more about the career of Bo Diddley.
Along with the legendary Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley was considered one of the most influential guitarists of the early rock era. His powerful rhythm, which became known as the "Bo Diddley beat" has been imitated by countless musicians.
Born Otha Ellas Bates in Mississippi in 1928, Bo was sent to Chicago to live with an aunt, Gussie McDaniel, who later adopted him. He dropped his first and last names to become Ellas McDaniel. His stage name Bo Diddley came from two sources; the diddley bow, an African stringed instrument, and the slang expression for a mischievous boy.
Bo studied violin at age seven and became a virtuoso. In the early-1940s, while he was in his teens, he taught himself to play guitar, drawing on the influences of jazz artist Louis Jordan and bluesman John Lee Hooker. Bo explained how he developed his trademark sound after his sister bought him his own guitar.
"I took it home and learned how to play on one string, 'When The Saints Go Marching In.' The other strings didn't make a difference," he said. "Then I accidentally tuned it one day the way that I'm tuning it now. I say I'm playing backwards. I don't play like the average guitar player, the cats [musicians] who move their fingers all around like this. I do it in chords, and basically, do almost the same thing."
At age 13, Bo Diddley became a street musician, eventually joining with others to form a street corner band. Driven by maracas, congas and bass, Bo played his infectious, hypnotic guitar phrases. When the band was ready to perform in Chicago nightclubs, he bought an electric guitar so he could get more volume. Bo attracted enough attention to get an audition with Chess Records, the same Chicago label that launched the careers of blues artists Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and rocker Chuck Berry.
Bo signed a recording contract with Chess in 1955, and released two songs, "Bo Diddley" and "I'm A Man." Both went to Number Two on the national R&B charts. An appearance on a nationally-televised variety show earned him a spot on a national tour. Bo's next break came in 1959 when "Say Man" appeared on the pop charts.
Bo Diddley's career had a lull until the mid-1960s, when British rock bands such as The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and The Animals started releasing their versions of Bo Diddley's songs. Bo said, at first, he wasn't happy about the young rock bands who "copied" his sound.
"At that time, I was a little bit upset about it because I wasn't educated to accept that, " he said. "I figured if I went and got mine [style], why shouldn't you go and get yours and leave me alone. But then, after a while I started thinking, 'Hey, that's pretty good. I must be doing something right.'"
With renewed interest in his music, Bo continued to release albums throughout the 1960s and 1970s. A series of custom-made guitars were crafted for him, which included oblong, triangular and star shapes, often covered in fur or carpet material.
Like many of the R&B performers from the 1950s and 1960s, Bo was paid a flat fee for his recordings, and said he received no royalty payments on record sales. He also said he was never paid for many of his performances.
"I am owed. I've never got paid," Bo said. Referring to concert promoters and record executives, he added, "A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun."
The ultimate honor came when Bo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He had a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 at the Grammy Awards. In recent years, he also played for the Presidents George H. W. Bush and Clinton. Diddley appreciated the honors he received, but added, "It didn't put no figures in my checkbook."
Bo continued to play in clubs and concert halls throughout the United States until being hospitalized in May 2007, following a stroke during a concert in Iowa. Three months later, Bo suffered a heart attack. The health issues affected his ability to speak. Bo later returned to his Florida home to continue his recovery.
As early as the 1950s, Bo Diddley recorded unusual jazz-flavored instrumental pieces, and experimented with sound effects that made him one of the true innovators of rock guitar.