June 2, 2008 – Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates, later becoming Ellas McDaniel on December 30, 1928 in McComb, Mississippi. He was adopted and raised by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, whose surname he assumed. In 1934, the McDaniel family moved to the South Side of Chicago, where he dropped the Otha and became Ellas McDaniel.
As he grew into a teenager he became an active member of his local Ebenezer Baptist Church, studying the trombone and the violin, becoming proficient enough for the musical director to invite him to join the orchestra playing violin, in which he performed until the age of 18. Around that age he became more interested in the pulsating, rhythmic music he heard at a local Pentecostal church and took up the guitar.
Inspired by a performance by John Lee Hooker, he supplemented his income as a carpenter and mechanic by playing on street corners with friends, including Jerome Green (c. 1934–1973), in the Hipsters band, later renamed the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. Green became a near-constant member of McDaniel’s backing band, the two often trading joking insults with each other during live shows. During the summers of 1943 and 1944, he played at the Maxwell Street market in a band with Earl Hooker. By 1951 he was playing on the street with backing from Roosevelt Jackson on washtub bass and Jody Williams, whom he had taught to play the guitar. Williams later played lead guitar on “Who Do You Love?”.
In 1951 he landed a regular spot at the 708 Club, on Chicago’s South Side, with a repertoire influenced by Louis Jordan, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. In late 1954, he teamed up with harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold, drummer Clifton James and bass player Roosevelt Jackson and recorded demos of “I’m a Man” and “Bo Diddley”. They re-recorded the songs at Chess Studios, with a backing ensemble comprising Otis Spann (piano), Lester Davenport (harmonica), Frank Kirkland (drums), and Jerome Green (maracas). The record was released in March 1955, and the A-side, “Bo Diddley”, became a number one R&B hit.
His use of African rhythms and a signature beat, a simple five-accent hambone rhythm, is a cornerstone of hip hop, rock and pop. In recognition of his achievements, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and a Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He is also recognized for his technical innovations, including his distinctive rectangular guitar.
On November 20, 1955, Bo Diddley appeared on the popular television program The Ed Sullivan Show. When someone on the show’s staff overheard him casually singing “Sixteen Tons” in the dressing room, he was asked to perform the song on the show. Seeing “Bo Diddley” on the cue card, he thought he was to perform both his self-titled hit single and “Sixteen Tons”. Sullivan was furious and banned Bo Diddley from his show, reputedly saying that he wouldn’t last six months. Chess Records included Bo Diddley’s “Sixteen Tons” on the 1960 album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger.
Bo Diddley’s hit singles continued in the 1950s and 1960s: “Pretty Thing” (1956), “Say Man” (1959), and “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” (1962). He also released numerous albums, including Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger and Have Guitar, Will Travel. These bolstered his self-invented legend. Between 1958 and 1963, Checker Records released eleven full-length Bo Diddley albums. In the 1960s he broke through as a crossover artist with white audiences (appearing at the Alan Freed concerts, for example), but he rarely aimed his compositions at teenagers. The album title Surfing with Bo Diddley derived from his influence on surf guitarists rather than surfing per se.
In 1963, Bo Diddley starred in a UK concert tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard. The up-and-coming Rolling Stones were billed as a supporting act.
He wrote many songs for himself and also for others. In 1956 he and guitarist Jody Williams co-wrote the pop song “Love Is Strange”, a hit for Mickey & Sylvia in 1957. He also wrote “Mama (Can I Go Out)”, which was a minor hit for the pioneering rockabilly singer Jo Ann Campbell, who performed the song in the 1959 rock and roll film Go Johnny Go.
Bo Diddley included women in his band: Norma-Jean Wofford, also known as The Duchess; Gloria Jolivet; Peggy Jones, also known as Lady Bo, a lead guitarist (rare for a woman at that time); and Cornelia Redmond, also known as Cookie V. After moving from Chicago to Washington, D.C., he set up one of the first home recording studios in the basement of 2614 Rhode Island, NE, where he not only recorded the album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, with backing vocals by Moonglows’ founder Harvey Fuqua, but he produced and recorded his valet, Marvin Gaye. Diddley co-wrote and recorded the first single to feature Gaye with the song “Wyatt Earp” by the Marquees. After initially shopping the song to Phil and Leonard Chess, the Chess brothers turned it down. Diddley took the song to rival record company Okeh Records, who released the song. Gaye later joined Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows and followed Fuqua to Motown.
Over the decades, Bo Diddley’s performing venues ranged from intimate clubs to stadiums. On March 25, 1972, he played with the Grateful Dead at the Academy of Music in New York City. The Grateful Dead released part of this concert as Volume 30 of the band’s concert album series, Dick’s Picks. Also in the early 1970s, the soundtrack of the ground-breaking animated film Fritz the Cat contained his song “Bo Diddley”, in which a crow idly finger-pops to the track.
After the California Earthquake on February 9, 1971, Diddley moved to Los Lunas, New Mexico. While continuing his musical career, he served for two and a half years as a deputy sheriff in the Valencia County Citizens’ Patrol; during that time he purchased and donated three highway-patrol pursuit cars. In 1978, he left Los Lunas and moved to Hawthorne, Florida, where he lived on a large estate in a custom-made log cabin, which he helped to build. For the remainder of his life he divided his time between Albuquerque and Florida, living the last 13 years of his life in Archer, Florida, a small farming town near Gainesville.
In the early 1970s, Diddley began to nurture the musical ability exhibited by his daughters Tammi Deane “Tammi Diddley” McDaniel (drums) and Terri Lynn “BoDetta” McDaniel (keyboards), and by the mid 1970s, he and his wife Kay, began booking the girls, as “The Diddley Darlings”. By 1981, with the additions of Scott “Skyntyte” Free (guitar and vocals) and Ron Haughbrook (bass and vocals), The Diddley Darlings renamed themselves “Offspring” and began recording songs for the album “Ain’t it good to be free”. Bo Diddley & Offspring performed shows around the U.S. and a two-month tour of Europe and several performances behind the “iron curtain” in what was then East Germany.
In 1979, he appeared as an opening act for the Clash on their US tour and in Legends of Guitar (filmed live in Spain, 1991), with B.B. King, Les Paul, Albert Collins, and George Benson, among others. He joined the Rolling Stones on their 1994 concert broadcast of Voodoo Lounge, performing “Who Do You Love?”.
By the mid 70s, Diddley could no longer afford to maintain a full-time band, and was forced to adopt the use of a “pick-up band”. Beginning in the early 80s, Diddley had a non-exclusive agreement with booking agency Talent Consultants International. Agency president Margo Lewis decided that a permanent line-up of musicians would ensure Diddley would have a cohesive sound and enlisted The Jim Satten Band, led by guitarist Jim Satten, as back-up to Diddley. After Satten left, and at the urging of Lewis, bassist Debby Hastings, assumed the position of band leader and the decision to change the name to “the Debby Hastings Band” was made without Diddley’s involvement. The Debby Hastings Band also utilized the talents of Nunzio Signore or Frank Daley (guitar); Tom Major, Dave Johnson, Yoshi Shimada, Mike Fink or Sandy Gennaro (drums); John Margolis, Dave Keys or personal manager Margo Lewis (keyboards); and Debby Hastings (bassist).
In 1987, Diddley partnered with former Bo Diddley & Offspring guitarist Scott “Skyntyte” Free to form Bad Dad Productions. Placing a focus on home recording, they produced several of Diddley’s home recordings, including “Breakin’ through the B.S.”, and “This should not be” for Los Angeles based Triple X Records, the latter of which, Diddley, performed live, on the NBC Today Show with Stone Phillips.
At the insistence of Diddley, he returned to the use of playing with a non-permanent line-up, and in 2005 and 2006, Diddley performed a number of shows around the country with fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnnie Johnson and his band, consisting of Johnson on keyboards, Richard Hunt on drums and Gus Thornton on bass.
In 2006, he participated as the headliner of a grassroots-organized fundraiser concert to benefit the town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The “Florida Keys for Katrina Relief” had originally been set for October 23, 2005, when Hurricane Wilma barreled through the Florida Keys on October 24, causing flooding and economic mayhem. In January 2006, the Florida Keys had recovered enough to host the fundraising concert to benefit the more hard-hit community of Ocean Springs. When asked about the fundraiser, Bo Diddley stated, “This is the United States of America. We believe in helping one another”. In an interview with Holger Petersen, on Saturday Night Blues on CBC Radio in the fall of 2006, he commented on racism in the music industry establishment during his early career, which deprived him of royalties from the most successful part of his career.
His final guitar performance on a studio album was with the New York Dolls on their 2006 album One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. He contributed guitar work to the song “Seventeen”, which was included as a bonus track on the limited-edition version of the disc.
In 1989, Diddley entered into a licensing agreement with the sportswear brand Nike. The Wieden & Kennedy produced commercial in the “Bo Knows” campaign, teamed Diddley with dual sportsman Bo Jackson, and resulted in one of the most iconic advertisements in advertising history. The agreement ended in 1991, but in 1999, a T-shirt of Diddley’s image and “You don’t know diddley” slogan was purchased in a Gainesville, Florida sports apparel store. Diddley felt that Nike should not continue to use the slogan or his likeness, and fought Nike over the copyright infringement. Despite the fact that lawyers for both parties could not come to a renewed legal arrangement, Nike allegedly continued marketing the apparel and ignored cease-and-desist orders, and a lawsuit was filed on Diddley’s behalf, in Manhattan Federal Court.
On May 13, 2007, Bo Diddley was admitted to intensive care in Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, following a stroke after a concert the previous day in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Starting the show, he had complained that he did not feel well. He referred to smoke from the wildfires that were ravaging south Georgia and blowing south to the area near his home in Archer, Florida. Nonetheless, he delivered an energetic performance to an enthusiastic crowd. The next day, as he was heading back home, he seemed dazed and confused at the airport. His manager, Margo Lewis, called 911 and airport security, and the musician was immediately taken by ambulance to Creighton University Medical Center and admitted to the Intensive-care unit, where he stayed for several days. After tests, it was confirmed that he had suffered a stroke.
Bo Diddley had a history of hypertension and diabetes, and the stroke affected the left side of his brain, causing receptive and expressive aphasia (speech impairment). The stroke was followed by a heart attack, which he suffered in Gainesville, Florida, on August 28, 2007.
While recovering from the stroke and heart attack, Bo Diddley came back to his home town of McComb, Mississippi, in early November 2007, for the unveiling of a plaque devoted to him on the Mississippi Blues Trail. This marked his achievements and noted that he was “acclaimed as a founder of rock-and-roll.” He was not supposed to perform, but as he listened to the music of local musician Jesse Robinson, who sang a song written for this occasion, Robinson sensed that Bo Diddley wanted to perform and handed him a microphone, the only time that he performed publicly after his stroke.
As a rock and roll and blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist he was a key figure in the transition from blues to rock ‘n’ roll (he put the rock in rock and roll), he introduced more insistent, driving rhythms and a hard-edged guitar sound and he was also known for his characteristic rectangular cigar box guitar. He powerfully influenced suerstar performers including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones ( Mick Jagger stated that “he was a wonderful, original musician who was an enormous force in music and was a big influence on the Rolling Stones. He was very generous to us in our early years and we learned a lot from him”), the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, the Who, Jimi Hendrix and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Bo Diddley died on June 2, 2008, of heart failure at his home in Archer, Florida. He was 79.
The origin of the stage name Bo Diddley is unclear. McDaniel claimed that his peers gave him the name, which he suspected was an insult. He also said that the name first belonged to a singer his adoptive mother knew. Harmonicist Billy Boy Arnold said that it was a local comedian’s name, which Leonard Chess adopted as McDaniel’s stage name and the title of his first single. McDaniel also stated that it was his nickname as a Golden Gloves boxer.
A diddley bow is a homemade single-string instrument played mainly by farm workers in the South. It probably has roots from the West African coast. In the American slang term bo diddly, bo is an intensifier and diddly is a truncation of diddly squat, which means “absolutely nothing”.