Ellas Otha Bates was born in 1928 in McComb, Mississippi. Brought up by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, from aged 8 months, he took her surname, McDaniel. When Ellas was 6 or 7 years old the family moved to Chicago and there he studied classical violin and trombone. A chance hearing of John Lee Hooker convinced him to take up the guitar. His sister gave him his first guitar and off he went. At school Ellas became known as Bo Diddley, (a “diddley bow” is a one-stringed African guitar) and learned to make violins and guitars. He built his first rectangular guitar at age 15. Bo found the shape of orthodox guitars cumbersome after hurting himself on stage playing his Gibson L5 guitar. Hence forth he played a smaller, less restrictive guitar, and more suited to his physical performances. As a young teenager he busked on Maxwell Street and after several years began his professional career playing at the 708 Club, Chicago. Bo Diddley soon came to the notice of Chess Records who signed him and his band to a subsidiary label, Checker. The original band were Jerome Green (maracas), and Billy Boy Arnold (harmonica and singer) but later the band included drummers, Clifton James and Frank Kirkland, pianist Otis Spann, and Bo’s half sister, Norma-Jean Wofford (aka Duchess) on guitar. Bo Diddley was one of the first musicians to have women in his group with Peggy Jones (aka Lady Bo), and Cornelia Redmond (aka Cookie) replacing the Duchess, respectively. Their very first single was "Bo Diddley"/"I'm a Man" (1955), and it was a double-sided monster.
Bo’s sound was unique and he discovered it whilst trying to play Gene Autry's "(I've Got Spurs That) Jingle, Jangle, Jingle". The “bomp, ba-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp,” became known as the "shave-and-a-hair-cut" beat, and became the backstay rhythms for many rock’n’rollers.
The style is similar to "hambone", used by street performers who play out the beat by slapping and patting their arms, legs, chest, and cheeks while chanting rhymes. Bo "The Originator," Diddley’s lyrics were often witty and humorous adaptations of folk music themes. "Bo Diddley" was based on the lullaby "Hush Little Baby".
Likewise, "Hey Bo Diddley" is based on the folk song, "Old Macdonald".
The rap-style boasting of "Who Do You Love", wordplay on hoodoo, used many striking lyrics from the African-American tradition of toasts and boasts.
Rhythm was so important in Bo Diddley's music that harmony was often reduced to a bare simplicity. "Hey Bo Diddley" and "Who Do You Love?" have no chord changes to allow the rhythm to create the excitement rather than by harmonic tension and release. On stage Bo’s flamboyance and square guitar with distorted amplification made him hypnotic.
His Twang Machine was a rectangular-bodied Gretsch guitar which he developed over the years. Despite being overshadowed by other black artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly’s version of Bo Diddley broadened Bo’s musical appeal to white audiences. Later many of the new UK groups including The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, and Pretty Things all were influenced by Bo Diddley and recorded cover versions of his compositions.
Bo’s guitar playing style extended beyond the rockers and experts agree he definitely had a major influence on the surf guitar. After 1963, Bo Diddley failed to meet his previous standards and by the mid 60s recorded traditional blues with Little Walter, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters.
Bo had a sea change and moved to New Mexico in 1971 where he served for two and a half years as Deputy Sheriff in the Valencia County Citizens' Patrol. Bo personally purchased and donated three highway patrol pursuit cars whilst still serving. Despite the lack of chart success he continued to be popular on the live circuit and toured Europe opening for the Clash on their 1979 U.S. tour.
In 2005, Bo Diddley celebrated his 50th anniversary in music with successful tours of Australia and Europe and with coast to coast shows across North America. Bo Didley took a stroke in May 2007 after returning from yet another successful performance in Fremantle Blues Festival, Perth. Western Australia. Sadly he died the following year.
Worth a listen:
Bo Diddley/I'm A Man (1955)
Pretty Thing/Bring It To Jerome (1955)
Who Do You Love/I'm Bad (1956)
Hey Bo Diddley/Mona (1957)
Say, Boss Man/Before You Accuse Me (1957)
Road Runner/My Story (1960)
Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger (1960)
You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover/I Can Tell (1962)
Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut/Jo-Ann (1964)
Hey, Good Lookin'/You Ain't Bad (As You Claim To Be) (1964)
The Rolling Stones
Mona (as I Need You Baby (Mona)
The Story of Bo Diddley
I'm a Man
Who Do You Love
Before You Accuse Me