Bo Diddley, Rock Innovator, Influence on Stones, Dies

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June 2 (Bloomberg) -- Bo Diddley, the rock 'n' roll originator with the rectangular guitar whose signature beat influenced musicians from Buddy Holly to the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen, has died. He was 79.

Diddley died at his home in Archer, Florida, early today, according to his publicist, Susan Clary. The cause was heart failure. In May 2007, he suffered a stroke during a performance in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

He scored only a few hits in more than 40 years of recording, yet Diddley's impact on the development of rock 'n' roll places him in a pantheon with Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The maracas-fueled sound he introduced in 1955 on the song ``Bo Diddley'' evolved into what Rolling Stone magazine called ``the most plagiarized rhythm of the 20th century.''

The beat -- bomp a-bomp a-bomp bomp bomp -- became the driving force on songs such as Holly's ``Not Fade Away'' (1957), which the Stones recorded and the Grateful Dead used in live shows for years; Johnny Otis's ``Willie and the Hand Jive'' (1958); the Strangeloves' ``I Want Candy''(1965); The Who's ``Magic Bus'' (1968); the Stooges' ``1969'' (1969), Springsteen's ``She's the One'' (1975); and U2's ``Desire'' (1988).

The Stones' version of ``Not Fade Away'' in 1964 became their first top-10 hit in the U.K. and first U.S. release. In its early days, the band often opened its shows with the number.

``We did it with a Bo Diddley beat, which at the time was very avant garde for a white band to be playing Bo Diddley's stuff,'' said Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. ``It was a very popular rhythm for us in clubs.''

Guitar Sound

The distorted tremolo sound Diddley achieved on his guitar, which was souped up with electronic gadgets, expanded the instrument's range and influenced a generation of musicians such as Jeff Beck of the Yardbirds -- which made Diddley's ``I'm a Man'' one of its show-stoppers -- Keith Richards of the Stones, Jimi Hendrix and a legion of 1960s fuzz-tone garage rockers.

Diddley's ego was legendary. Who else but Bo Diddley would name his first recording after himself? His boasting and sexual bravado on songs like ``I'm a Man'' presaged American rap music by decades. Diddley, who spent years complaining that he had been overlooked by the public and the media, remained bitter about all the attention given to Elvis Presley.

``Elvis was not the first,'' Diddley told Neil Strauss of Rolling Stone magazine in 2005. ``I was the first son-of-a-gun out there. Me and Chuck Berry. And I'm very sick of the lie. You know, we're over that black-and-white crap, and that was all the reason Elvis got the appreciation that he did. I'm the dude that he copied, and I'm not even mentioned.''

Born in Mississippi

The man who would become Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Mississippi. His mother, who was about 15, asked her first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, to raise the child. Diddley never knew his father.

After Gussie McDaniel moved her family to Chicago during the Great Depression in 1935, she changed the child's last name to Bates McDaniel. Ellas McDaniel attended public school, where he learned how to box. At one point, he dreamed of becoming a prizefighter.

Like B.B. King and other great blues and rhythm-and-blues artists, Diddley's first exposure to music came from church, in this case the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side. He learned to play the violin and the trombone. At age 12, Diddley took up the guitar after hearing John Lee Hooker's 1949 rhythm-and-blues hit, ``Boogie Chillen.''

``Diddley claimed that playing the violin influenced his muted-string, choke-neck style of rhythm -- an early forerunner of funk that can be heard on songs like `Pretty Thing,''' the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame says in its official Bo Diddley biography.

Origin of Name

Diddley formed a band called the Hipsters, which played on street corners before landing a regular spot at a South Side juke joint called the 708 Club. He electrified his guitar using old radio parts and other gadgets, which created the famous vibrating tone. He gave bandmate Jerome Green maracas that he jerry-built from the floating rubber balls found inside toilets, and black- eyed peas. Diddley's thick black glasses completed the look.

The derivation of his stage name is the subject of debate. Some say it came from his days as a boxer; others say it's based on the one-string folk instrument called the diddley bow. Chess Records found that another Bo Diddley had been performing in Chicago in 1935. There are about a dozen versions of the story.

``I would love to know where the sucker came from,'' Diddley said in a 1995 interview, when asked about the name.

First Release

In 1955, Diddley signed with Checkers, a subsidiary of Chess, the label that featured Berry.

``Bo Diddley and I were signed to Chess records at the same time,'' Berry said today in a statement. ``He was a great artist and will be missed.''

Diddley's debut single was the two-sided ``Bo Diddley'' backed with ``I'm a Man.'' The A side featured the nursery school rhyme-like verse ``Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard?'' while the B side had Diddley boasting ``All you pretty women, stand in line, I can make love to you baby, in an hour's time.''

The beat used on the A side, now known as the Bo Diddley beat, has been traced to West African drumming, the rhumba, the novelty rhythm ``shave and haircut -- two bits'' and a 1950s body-slapping street craze among black teenagers called the hambone.

The record, which topped the R&B charts for two weeks, is cited as one of the cornerstones of rock music and one of the most influential two-sided singles ever. A string of groundbreaking songs that combined rhythm-and-blues and rock 'n' roll followed, including ``Road Runner;'' ``Pretty Thing;'' ``Mona,'' also covered by the Stones; ``Who Do You Love?'' and ``You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover.''

TV Appearance

His appearance on the Ed Sullivan's ``Toast of the Town'' on CBS in 1955 is now regarded as one of the first rock 'n' roll performances on television.

A novelty song, ``Say Man,'' which featured verbal sparring between Diddley and Green, became a crossover hit in 1959.

In 1963, he toured the U.K., playing with the Stones, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers. A teenage Robert Plant, who would become the singer and co-songwriter for Led Zeppelin, attended one of the shows.

``Although the Stones were great, they were really crap compared with Diddley,'' Plant said in a 1990 interview with Q magazine. ``All his rhythms were so sexual, just oozing, even in a 20-minute spot.''

British Invasion

After the Beatles led the British invasion, Diddley's popularity waned, though he continued to tour relentlessly for the next four decades. In 1966, he released ``The Originator,'' an album where he staked his claim as one of rock 'n' roll's founding fathers. In 1967, after moving to California, Diddley made his debut at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, bringing his electrifying sound to the Summer of Love crowd.

Even though rock music changed, Diddley's influence never subsided. The Clash, the seminal British punk band, asked Diddley to open for the group on its first major U.S. tour in 1979. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer called Diddley his hero.

In 1982, Diddley was introduced to the MTV generation through the video of ``Bad to the Bone'' by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Thorogood and Diddley play a game of pool while billiards legend Willie Mosconi looks on. In the end, Thorogood wins when he flicks his cigar ash, making the eight ball fall into the pocket. Three years later, the two artists appeared together at the Live Aid benefit concert in Philadelphia.

In 1987, Diddley was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame at the Cleveland museum's second annual ceremony. The members of ZZ Top were his presenters. Two years later he appeared in a Nike commercial, telling baseball and football star Bo Jackson, ``Bo, You Don't Know Diddley.''

Speaking Out

Diddley continued to speak out against what he called the exploitation of early rock 'n' rollers, including himself, by record companies, promoters and music publishers.

He was married four times, most recently in 1992 to Sylvia Paiz, according to the Internet Movie Database Web site. Three prior marriages ended in divorce. He also had four children.

He received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards in Los Angeles in 1996. The same year he released ``A Man Amongst Men,'' his first on a major label in years. It featured Richards and Ron Wood of the Stones. He also was honored with a lifetime Grammy Award.

``Age ain't nothing but a number,'' Diddley told the Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2006, when he was 77. He said that disc pain in back had forced him to play while seated. The stage strutting and karate kicks were no more. ``But, he said, ``I'm just as dangerous sitting down.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Schoifet in New York at mschoifet@bloomberg.net.

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This page contains a single entry by fountainhead published on June 5, 2008 9:39 PM.

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