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Bo Diddley, 1928 - 2008

His rhythm helped shape rock

June 03, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

Primal rock and blues musician Bo Diddley, who helped cast the sonic template of rock more than 50 years ago with a signature syncopated rhythm that became universally recognized as "the Bo Diddley beat," died Monday. He was 79.

Diddley died of heart failure at his home in Archer, Fla., spokeswoman Susan Clary said.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer-songwriter, who often referred to himself as "the Originator" to emphasize his contribution to rock music, had long battled hypertension and diabetes, among other health problems, and was hospitalized for 11 days after suffering a stroke onstage in Iowa in May 2007.

In August, he had complained of dizziness and nausea during a routine medical checkup and was hospitalized with a heart attack.

Alongside Chuck Berry, Diddley is recognized as one of rock's most influential guitarists, expanding the instrument's vocabulary with a crunching, tremolo-laden sound. He played a rectangular "cigar box" guitar of his own design, an instantly recognizable visual counterpart to the distinctive chank-a-chank, a-chank, a-chank-chank rhythm that bore his name and provided the backbeat for his own songs, including "Bo Diddley," "Mona" and "Who Do You Love."

That beat -- fusing blues, R&B, Latin and African rhythms -- resurfaced over the decades in countless other rock and R&B songs, among them Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," Johnny Otis' “Willie and the Hand Jive,” Bruce Springsteen's “She’s the One,” David Bowie's “Panic in Detroit,” U2's “Desire” and George Michael's “Faith.”

"Bo's one of the guys who invented rock 'n' roll," said Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals, the British Invasion band that recorded the tribute song “The Story of Bo Diddley” in 1964. "He took two cultures that existed in separate forms -- country and western and the kind of blues that used to be known as 'race music' -- and put them together. His beat was a jungle beat. That's what he called it."

Diddley's most famous songs -- "Who Do You Love," “Mona,” "I'm a Man" and "Bo Diddley" -- are the foundation of a huge catalog of songs that have been covered by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead and the Doors and even sampled by the rap group De La Soul.

In fact, Diddley is considered by some as a pioneer of rap with his 1959 Top 20 hit "Say Man." On that track, Diddley and maraca player Jerome Green trade jive-talking insults over a percolating beat, a precursor to rap performers' fondness for dissing one another. "That came out of the black neighborhood way back," Diddley told The Times in 1989. "We used to call it 'signifying.' "

He has also been cited as a progenitor of hard rock and heavy metal music for his distortion-drenched sound and near-brutal manner of attacking the fret board.

"He was a wonderful, original musician who was an enormous force in music and was a big influence on the Rolling Stones," the group's lead singer, Mick Jagger, said Monday. "He was very generous to us in our early years and we learned a lot from him. We will never see his likes again."

Bo Diddley was born Otha Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss., on Dec. 30, 1928. His father died shortly after his birth, and his 16-year-old mother was unable to support him. Diddley was later adopted by her first cousin, Gussie McDaniel. She legally changed his name to Ellas McDaniel and brought him north with her family to the South Side of Chicago.

There, he began studying violin at age 7 and taught himself to play guitar in the early 1940s. But it was in grammar school that the rambunctious young Ellas acquired the nickname that would provide his future marquee identity.

He circulated various explanations for the name over the years, but by most accounts, neighborhood kids started calling him "bow diddley" -- slang for "bully." The name also recalled the diddley bow, an African single-string guitar that was seminal to blues music.

After dropping out of Foster Vocational High School in Chicago at 15, he began playing his guitar on street corners for change and later joined a small-time group called the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. Around that time, Diddley held various day jobs -- truck driver, boxcar loader, construction worker -- and boxed as a light heavyweight. But he hung up his gloves at 19 because, as he put it, he "kept getting whupped."

By 1954 he was married and a fixture on the local music circuit when he decided to cut a two-song demo of his original songs "Uncle John" and "I'm a Man." Although he usually adhered to the restrained blues style of his hero, Muddy Waters, Diddley based his recordings on the exultant, frenetic music he had been exposed to in the Pentecostal church as a child.

In 1955, the demo landed him a deal with Chicago's Chess Records label, home to blues stalwarts Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and the young Chuck Berry.

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