Legendary singer and musician Bo Diddley, one of rock’s founding fathers, died of heart failure Monday at his home in Archer, Fla. at the age of 79.
Known for his eccentric style, horn-rimmed glasses, black hat, and his squealing rectangular guitar that thrilled listeners with its distorted tremolo sound, Diddley, who invented his own name, influenced generations of musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, the Rolling Stones, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, and U2.
The musician found fame in the 50’s with such hits as Bo Diddley, Who Do You Love?, Mona, Crackin’ Up, Say Man, Road Runner, and Ride On, Josephine.
Regarded as one of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll, Diddley–along with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry–helped to reshape the sound of popular music worldwide in the 50’s and the following decades.
His uses of the electric guitar, creating special effects like reverb, tremolo, and distortion, influenced funk bands in the 60’s and heavy metal groups in the 1970’s.
Known for his flamboyant performances, Diddley strutted and acted cocky onstage, delivering a stage show that left his fans mesmerized. Playing a square guitar that he designed himself, Diddley often could be found jumping, lurching, balancing on his toes, and shaking his knees, often playing his guitar above his head.
“Bo Diddley is one of the seminal American guitarists and an architect of the rock ‘n’ roll sound,” Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame told The Boston Globe. “His unique guitar work, indelible rhythms, inventive songwriting, and larger-than-life personality made him an immortal author of the American songbook.”
The veteran musician, born Otha Ellis Bates in McComb, Mississippi, on Dec. 30, 1928, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards in 1997. He received a similar honor at the Grammys in 1999.
Despite his pioneer musical efforts, Diddley expressed frustration that he never received the credit, financial compensation, or the royalties he felt he deserved and often voiced his bitterness.
“I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob,” he told The New York Times in 2003.
Like many other musicians of the 1950’s, 60’s, and earlier, Diddley was exploited by record companies and his stature and impact as a composer, arranger, performer, singer, and even humorist have been overlooked.
“Elvis was not first; I was the first son-of-a-gun out here, me and Chuck Berry,” Diddley declared in a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “And I’m very sick of the lie. You know, we are over that black-and-white crap, and that was all the reason Elvis got the appreciation that he did. I’m the dude that he copied, and I’m not even mentioned…I’ve been out here for 50 years, man, and I haven’t ever seen a royalty check.”
Robert Santelli, chief executive of the Seattle-based Experience Music Project, told The New York Times, “Bo is the most misunderstood and the least appreciated pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll. That beat–that signature Bo Diddley beat–is essential to the rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Diddley was 6 when his family resettled on Chicago’s South Side where Diddley’s name was changed from Otha Ellis Bates to Ellas B. McDaniel. He studied classical violin from 7 to 15 and started on guitar at the age of 12, when a family member gave him an acoustic model.
He attended and then dropped out of Foster Vocational School. He began performing in a duo with a friend, Roosevelt Jackson, who played the washtub bass. After adding another guitarist, Jody Williams, the group became a trio, then a quartet when they added a harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold.
Their first group was called the Hipsters and then the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. Unable to make a living playing with the Jive Cats, Diddley worked a series of odd jobs, including working at a picture-frame factory, a grocery store, a blacktop company, as an elevator operator, and as a meat packer. He also pursued boxing, but the musical bug kicked into full gear in 1954 when he made a demonstration recording with his band. Phil and Leonard Chess of Chess Records liked the demo and signed the band. Diddley cut Bo Diddley, which became the A side of his first single and I’m a Man on the B side in 1955 on the Checker label, a subsidiary of Chess. Bo Diddley reached No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart.
The innovative musician became known for the “Bo Diddley beat,” which was a three-stroke/rest/two-stroke, or bomp-ba-domp-ba-domp, ba-domp-domp–which he said he heard in a church in Chicago.
Diddley was also known for his unusual rectangular guitar, the first of which was handmade. He took the neck and the circuitry off a Gretsch guitar and connected it to a square body he had built.
He continued to make albums for Chess until his contract expired in 1974.
Although he released few albums in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Diddley continued to tour until his death. “Every weekend I’m booked somewhere, someplace,” he said. “You got to change, you got to roll with the punches and come up with something new.”
Diddley lived a life as colorful as his records. He moved to New Mexico in the early 1970’s and became a deputy sheriff in the town of Los Lunas. He had several marriages: his first marriage, at age 18 to Louise Woolingham, lasted less than a year. In 1949, he married Ethel Smith, but that marriage, too, unraveled in the late 1950’s. He then moved from Chicago to Mt. Pleasant, Washington, where he built a studio in his home.
While performing in Birmingham, Ala., he met a young fan, a door-to-door magazine saleswoman named Kay Reynolds, who was a 15-year-old white teenager. They moved in together and were soon married, in spite of Southern taboos against intermarriage.
In the early 1980’s, Diddley moved to Archer, Fla., near Gainesveille, where he owned 76 acres and a recording studio. His passions were fishing and old cars, including a 1969 purple Cadillac hearse.