R&B icon helped lay foundation of rock
EmptyBo Diddley, the rock 'n' roll originator whose signature "hambone" beat was repurposed by legions of acts from Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen and U2, died Monday at his home in Archer, Fla. He was 79.
Diddley had a heart attack in August, three months after suffering a stroke while touring in Iowa. Doctors said the stroke affected his ability to speak, and he had returned to Florida to continue rehabilitation.
Although he never attained the commercial success of many of his contemporaries, Diddley's status as one of rock's founding fathers is unquestioned. He helped create the sound by pushing R&B to untested limits in the early 1950s. The "Bo Diddley beat" — CHINK-a-chink-a-CHINK, a CHINK-CHINK — was his signature sound, deployed on such early classics as "Bo Diddley" and "Who Do You Love." Future rock staples that borrowed the beat include Holly's widely covered "Not Fade Away," the Who's "Magic Bus" and Springsteen's "She's the One."
Born Ellas Otha Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Miss., Diddley was adopted by his mother's cousin into a sharecropping family and took the name Ellis McDaniel. He moved with them at age 5 to Chicago, where he learned guitar at 10 and was playing on Maxwell Street by his early teens. At 15, he built the first rectangular guitar, which became his trademark along with black hat and dark shades.
The name Bo Diddley came from other youngsters when he was growing up in Chicago, he said in a 1999 interview.
"I don't know where the kids got it, but the kids in grammar school gave me that name," he said. Other times, he gave somewhat differing stories on where he got the moniker. Some say it came from his days as a Golden Gloves boxer, and a "diddley bow" is a one-stringed African guitar used in traditional music.
Signed by Leonard Chess to his Checker label in summer 1955 and later recording for Chess Records, Diddley was a mainstay on the R&B charts with such hits as the macho anthem "I'm a Man" and "Say Man." The latter, a verbal sparring session with longtime sidekick Jerome Green, became Diddley's biggest crossover hit, peaking at No. 20 in 1959. His only other visit to the pop top 50 was "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover," taken from his eponymous 1962 album, his only one to make the Billboard 200, topping at No. 117.
Diddley's legacy was further cemented when R&B-crazed British Invasion bands began bringing his influence into the mainstream. The Rolling Stones' Britblues remake of "Not Fade Away" was their first U.S. single. Other popular bands followed with takes on Diddley's songs, including the Yardbirds ("I'm a Man"), the Kinks ("Cadillac") and Manfred Mann ("Bring It to Jerome").
Diddley also was one of the pioneers of the electric guitar, adding reverb and tremelo effects.
"He treats it like it was a drum, very rhythmic," music professor E. Michael Harrington at Belmont University in Nashville said in 2006.
Diddley won attention from a new generation in 1989 when he took part in the "Bo Knows" ad campaign for Nike, built around football and baseball star Bo Jackson. Commenting on Jackson's flailing guitar skills, Diddley turned to the camera and said, "He don't know Diddley."
Despite his success, Diddley claimed he only received a small portion of the money he made during his career. Like other artists of his generation, he was paid a flat fee for his recordings and said he received no royalty payments on record sales. He also said he was never paid for many of his performances.
"I am owed. I've never got paid," he said. "A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun."
Partly as a result of the lack of royalties, he continued to tour and record music until his stroke. Between tours, he made his home near Gainesville, Fla.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with its sophomore class in 1987. Although he never won a Grammy, Diddley received a lifetime achievement award in 1998; the same year, his single "Bo Diddley" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.