Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Originator, Bo Diddley, Passes On

Bo Diddley, known as "The Originator," one of the foremost pioneers of rock 'n' roll, passed at the age of 79. The cause was heart failure.

Bo Diddley was born in Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi on December 20, 1928. He was raised by his mother's first cousin, Gussie McDaniel. Following her husband's death, McDaniel and the family moved to Chicago, where McDaniel became Ellas's legal guardian and his last name was changed to McDaniel. Ellas was taught classical violin from age 7 to 15. At age 12 he took up the guitar. Ellas enrolled at Foster Vocational School, but later dropped out. While he was there he built a guitar, a violin, and an upright bass. He left school to perform with friend, washtub bassist Roosevelt Jackson. They were later joined by guitarist, Jody Williams, and a harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold.

Originally called The Hipsters and later The Langley Avenue Jive Cats, they played at the open air market on Maxwell Street. Ellas supplemented his living with various jobs and even tried to become a professional boxer. It was in 1954 that the band made a demo record which attracted the attention of Chess Records. Signed the a contract, the band then looked for stage name for Ellas McDaniel. It was Billy Boy Arnold who came up with the name "Bo Diddley," which he said in the biography Bo Diddley: Living Legend by George White described "a bow legged guy, a comical looking guy." The name could also have been a reference to the diddley bow, a homemade, stringed instrument used in the Mississippi Delta where Ellas was born.

"Bo Diddley" would also be the title of the band's first single, released on Chess's subsidiary Checker. It went all the way to #2 on the Billboard singles charts in 1955. Bo Diddley would have three more hits in 1955 alone. Naturally success meant Diddley was in demand and, in 1955, he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan wanted Diddley to perform "Sixteen Tons," the song made popular by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Diddley went ahead and performed "Bo Diddley" instead. Backstage Sullivan told Diddley that he would never work in television again. In fact, it would be over ten years before he did appear on TV again. His fight with Sullivan hardly hurt his career. Bo Diddley continued to have a string of hits, including the standard "Who Do You Love," that continued into the early Sixties.

Unfortunately, Diddley's success was not to last. as rock 'n' roll changed over time. In an effort to create new hits, Chess tried to use Diddley to capitalise on the Twist craze with the album Bo Diddley is a Twister in 1962 and the surf pop sounds of The Beach Boys with the album Bo Diddley's Beach Party in 1963. As Diddley's success declined here, he toured the United Kingdom with The Everly Brothers in 1963. His sales increased dramatically in Europe and Britain. Sadly, this was not the case in the United States. The British Invasion, led by The Beatles, arrived in 1964, Diddley's heyday was over. Although he continued to record until 1996, he would never have another hit.

Diddley did continue to perform. In 1972 he played a concert with The Grateful Dead at the Academy of Music in New York City. In 1974 he appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival. In 1979 he opened for The Clash. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

The influence of Bo Diddley is probably impossible to calculate. His signature, "Bo Diddley" beat, also called "shave and haircut (three strokes/rest/two strokes)," became one of the basic rhythms of rock 'n' roll. The rhythm influenced artists from Buddy Holly to The Who to U2. Diddley would be influential in other ways as well. His guitar work often involved distortion and frequent use of tremolo. His stage performances, in which he jumped, wielded his guitar as if it was a weapon, and shook, influenced performers from Elvis to Hendrix. Diddley even pioneered the use of odd looking guitars. He used a square guitar, the original which he built himself from a square body of his own design and the electronics from a Gretsch guitar. In 1958 he had Gretsch build him a better model, which they named "Big B." Although he was not making hits for long, Diddley was certainly influential, and certainly deserved his title of "The Originator."

1 comment:

Bobby D. said...

I loved Bo, and considered doing a tribute to him -- but I had just done an obit for YSL and had a draft of one for Mondavi.

I love the name Ellas Otha. Hipsters and Jive cats--really fitting for Bo h=as he was the ultimate hip cool cat!