His use of African rhythms and a signature beat, a simple five-accent hambone rhythm, is a cornerstone of hip hop, rock, and pop music. 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.
Born in McComb, Mississippi, as Ellas Otha Bates, 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. He was an active member of Chicago's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he studied the trombone and the violin, becoming so proficient on the violin that the musical director invited him to join the orchestra. He performed until he was 18. However, he was 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?" (1956).
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 the harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold, the drummer Clifton James and the 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.
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 influences 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".
On November 20, 1955, 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 Diddley from his show, reputedly saying that he wouldn't last six months. Chess Records included Diddley's cover of "Sixteen Tons" on the 1960 album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger.
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, Diddley starred in a UK concert tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard along with the Rolling Stones ( an unknown band at that time).
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.
After moving from Chicago to Washington, D.C., the basement of his home at 2614 Rhode Island Avenue NE, housed his first home recording studio. Diddley's home studio was frequented by several of Washington, D.C.'s musical luminaries and the site where he recorded the commercially released album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger. Diddley also produced and recorded Marvin Gaye (his valet), a member of the local Doo Wop group, the Marquees. Diddley co-wrote the Marquees' first single featuring Gaye titled "Wyatt Earp". It was released on Okeh Records, after the Chess brothers turned it down. During this time, Moonglows' founder Harvey Fuqua sang backing vocals on many of Diddley's home recordings. Gaye later joined the Moonglows and followed them to Motown.
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); Cornelia Redmond, also known as Cookie V; Debby Hastings, who led his band after guitarist Jim Satten resigned.
Over the decades, 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.
Diddley spent some years in New Mexico, living in Los Lunas from 1971 to 1978, 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 the late 1970s, 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 1979, he appeared as an opening act for the Clash on their US tour and in Legends of Guitar (filmed live in Spain in 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?".
Diddley performed a number of shows around the country in 2005 and 2006 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, 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.
In 1996, he released A Man Amongst Men, his first major label album with guest artists like Keith Richards, Ron Wood and the Shirelles. The album earned a Grammy Award nomination in 1997 for the Best Contemporary Blues Album category.
On May 13, 2007, 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; 911 and airport security were called, and he 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. 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, Diddley came back to his hometown 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 Diddley wanted to perform and handed him a microphone, the only time that he performed publicly after his stroke.
Bo Diddley died on June 2, 2008, of heart failure at his home in Archer, Florida. Garry Mitchell, his grandson and one of more than 35 family members at the musician's home when he died at 1:45 a.m. EDT (05:45 GMT), said his death was not unexpected. "There was a gospel song that was sung (at his bedside) and (when it was done) he said 'wow' with a thumbs up," Mitchell told Reuters, when asked to describe the scene at the deathbed. "The song was 'Walk Around Heaven' and in his last words he said 'I'm going to heaven.'"
His funeral, a four-hour "homegoing" service, took place on June 7, 2008, at Showers of Blessings Church in Gainesville, Florida, and kept in tune with the vibrant spirit of Bo Diddley's life and career. The many in attendance chanted "Hey Bo Diddley" as a gospel band played the legend's music. A number of notable musicians sent flowers, including George Thorogood, Tom Petty and Jerry Lee Lewis. Little Richard, who had been asking his audiences to pray for Bo Diddley throughout his illness, had to fulfil concert commitments in Westbury and New York City the weekend of the funeral. He took time at both concerts to remember his friend of a half-century, performing Bo's namesake tune in his honor.
After the funeral service, a tribute concert was held at the Martin Luther King Center in Gainesville, Florida and featured guest performances by his son and daughter, Ellas McDaniel Jr. and Evelyn "Tan" Cooper; long-time background vocalist Gloria Jolivet; former Offspring guitarist and long-time friend and coproducer of "Bo Diddley put the rock in rock'n'roll," Scott "Skyntyte" Free and Eric Burdon. In the days following his death, tributes were paid by then-President George W. Bush, the United States House of Representatives, and many musicians and performers, including B. B. King, Ronnie Hawkins, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, George Thorogood, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Randolph and the Family Band and Eric Burdon. Burdon used video footage of the McDaniel family and friends in mourning for a video promoting his ABKCO Records release "Bo Diddley Special".
He was posthumously awarded a Doctor of Fine Arts degree by the University of Florida for his influence on American popular music. In its People in America radio series, about influential people in American history, the Voice of America radio service paid tribute to him, describing how "his influence was so widespread that it is hard to imagine what rock and roll would have sounded like without him." 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". Jagger also praised the late star as a one-of-a-kind musician, adding, "We will never see his like again". The documentary film Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street by director Phil Ranstrom features Bo Diddley's last on-camera interview.
In November 2009, the guitar used by Bo Diddley in his final stage performance sold for $60,000 at auction.
All twenty-two beneficiaries of his estate sought a forensic accounting of his estate, but were denied without explanation. The current value is unknown to the heirs.
Bo Diddley achieved numerous accolades in recognition of his significant role as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll.1986: Inducted into the Washington Area Music Association's Hall of Fame.
1987: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
1990: Lifetime Achievement Award from Guitar Player magazine.
1998: Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
1999: His 1955 recording of his song "Bo Diddley" inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a recording of lasting qualitative or historical significance.
2000: Inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame and the North Florida Music Association's Hall of Fame.
2002: Pioneer in Entertainment Award from the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters
2002: Honored as one of the first BMI Icons at the 50th annual BMI Pop Awards, along with BMI affiliates Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
2008: Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree posthumously conferred on Diddley by the University of Florida in August (the award had been confirmed before his death in June).
2009: Announcement of his induction into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame (induction to occur during Florida Heritage Month, March 2010).
2010: Induction into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
In 2003, U.S. Representative John Conyers paid tribute to Bo Diddley in the United States House of Representatives. describing him as "one of the true pioneers of rock and roll, who has influenced generations".
In 2004, Mickey and Sylvia's 1956 recording of "Love Is Strange" (a song first recorded by Bo Diddley but not released until a year before his death) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a recording of qualitative or historical significance. Also in 2004, Bo Diddley was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame and was ranked number 20 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
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. He performed his song "Bo Diddley" with Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 20th annual induction ceremony. In the UK, Uncut magazine included his 1957 debut album, Bo Diddley, in its listing of the '100 Music, Movie & TV Moments That Have Changed the World'.
Bo Diddley was honored by the Mississippi Blues Commission with a Mississippi Blues Trail historic marker placed in McComb, his birthplace, in recognition of his enormous contribution to the development of the blues in Mississippi. On June 5, 2009, the city of Gainesville, Florida, officially renamed and dedicated its downtown plaza the Bo Diddley Community Plaza. The plaza was the site of a benefit concert at which Bo Diddley performed to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless in Alachua County and to raise money for local charities, including the Red Cross.
The "Bo Diddley beat" is essentially the clave rhythm, one of the most common bell patterns found in sub-Saharan African music traditions. One scholar found this rhythm in 13 rhythm and blues recordings made in the years 1944–55, including two by Johnny Otis from 1948.
Bo Diddley gave different accounts of how he began to use this rhythm. Sublette asserts, "In the context of the time, and especially those maracas [heard on the record], 'Bo Diddley' has to be understood as a Latin-tinged record. A rejected cut recorded at the same session was titled only 'Rhumba' on the track sheets." The Bo Diddley beat is similar to "hambone", a style used by street performers who play out the beat by slapping and patting their arms, legs, chest, and cheeks while chanting rhymes. Somewhat resembling the "shave and a haircut, two bits" rhythm, Diddley came across it while trying to play Gene Autry's "(I've Got Spurs That) Jingle, Jangle, Jingle". Three years before his "Bo Diddley", a song with similar syncopation "Hambone", was cut by the Red Saunders Orchestra with the Hambone Kids. In 1944, "Rum and Coca Cola", containing the Bo Diddley beat, was recorded by the Andrews Sisters. Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" (1957) and Them's "Mystic Eyes" (1965) used the beat.
In its simplest form, the Bo Diddley beat can be counted out as either a one-bar or a two-bar phrase. Here is the count as a one-bar phrase: One e and ah, two e and ah, three e and ah, four e and ah (the boldface counts are the clave rhythm).
Many songs (for example, "Hey Bo Diddley" and "Who Do You Love?") often have no chord changes; that is, the musicians play the same chord throughout the piece, so that the rhythms create the excitement, rather than having the excitement generated by harmonic tension and release. In his other recordings, Bo Diddley used various rhythms, from straight back beat to pop ballad style to doo-wop, frequently with maracas by Jerome Green.
An influential guitar player, Bo Diddley developed many special effects and other innovations in tone and attack. His trademark instrument was his self-designed, one-of-a-kind, rectangular-bodied "Twang Machine" (referred to as "cigar-box shaped" by music promoter Dick Clark) built by Gretsch. He had other uniquely shaped guitars custom-made for him by other manufacturers throughout the years, most notably the "Cadillac" and the rectangular "Turbo 5-speed" (with built-in envelope filter, flanger and delay) designs made by Tom Holmes (who also made guitars for ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, among others). In a 2005 interview on JJJ radio in Australia, he implied that the rectangular design sprang from an embarrassing moment. During an early gig, while jumping around on stage with a Gibson L5 guitar, he landed awkwardly, hurting his groin. He then went about designing a smaller, less restrictive guitar that allowed him to keep jumping around on stage while still playing his guitar. He also played the violin, which is featured on his mournful instrumental "The Clock Strikes Twelve", a twelve-bar blues.
He often created lyrics as witty and humorous adaptations of folk music themes. The song "Bo Diddley" was based on the African-American clapping rhyme "Hambone" (which in turn was based on the lullaby "Hush Little Baby"). Likewise, "Hey Bo Diddley" is based on the song "Old MacDonald". The song "Who Do You Love?" with its rap-style boasting, and his use of the African-American game known as "the dozens" on the songs "Say Man" and "Say Man, Back Again," are cited as progenitors of hip-hop music (for example, "You got the nerve to call somebody ugly. Why, you so ugly, the stork that brought you into the world ought to be arrested").Chuck Berry Is on Top, with Chuck Berry (1959)
Two Great Guitars, with Chuck Berry (1964)
Super Blues (1967), with Muddy Waters and Little Walter (1967)
The Super Super Blues Band, with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf (1968)
Arsicaud, Laurent (2012). Bo Diddley, Je suis un homme. Camion Blanc editions.
White, George R. (1995), Living Legend. Sanctuary Publishing.