Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bo Diddley

Personal Information

Born Elias Bates on December 30, 1928, in McComb, MS; son of Eugene Bates and Ethel Wilson; legally adopted by mother's cousin, Gussie McDaniel, 1934; married Louise Woolingham (divorced); married Ethel Smith, 1946 (divorced); married Kay Reynolds, 1960.


Formed Langley Avenue Jive Cats with Earl Hooker, early 1940s; recorded for Chess Records, 1955-74; toured the United Kingdom and performed with the Rolling Stones, 1963; toured with the Clash, 1979; performed at Live Aid Concert in Philadelphia, 1985; played at George Bush's presidential inaugural, 1989; performed at Bill Clinton's presidential inaugural, 1993.

Life's Work

Bo Diddley surprised the music world in the mid-1950s when he unleashed a new guitar sound, one dominated by heavy rhythmic drive and distortion, and one that was quickly absorbed by other players. "Unarguably one of the most-influential musicians in rock 'n' roll," noted Doug Pullen in Music Hound Rock, "Diddley's distinctive 'chunka, chunka' rhythm guitar riff is the stuff of which rock's bedrock was made." The sound formed the core of several hits, including "Who Do You Love," "Bo Diddley," and "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover." Dave Marsh wrote in the New Rolling Stone Record Guide, "Bo Diddley was one of the great fathers of rock & roll, ranking with such transitional blues artists as Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in both importance and influence."

Diddley was born Elias Bates in McComb, Mississippi, on December 30, 1928. At eight he was adopted by his mother's cousin, who taught Sunday school in Chicago, and changed his last name to McDaniel. He took classical violin lessons from Professor O.W. Frederick at Ebenezer Baptist Church, but later switched to guitar after hearing John Lee Hooker on the radio. In his teens he started boxing and became known by his nickname, Bo Diddley. He attended Foster Vocational High School, where he learned to build violins and guitars, but eventually quit school in order to work at manual labor jobs. He also played guitar on street corners during his spare time to make money, but his adoptive mother, his uncles, and the church's preachers and deacons protested against the "devil's music." Due to these conflicts, he later left home.

In the early 1950s Diddley and Billy Boy Arnold formed a band that included a washboard and maracas player. By 1954 the group was performing at the Sawdust Trail and Castle Rock in Chicago, and they recorded a demo to circulate at record labels like United and Vee-Jay. The disc finally came to the attention of Leonard Chess of Chess Records. He liked it, he told Diddley, but the song would have to be re-recorded and the obscene lyrics changed to make it marketable. Named after the singer, the single "Bo Diddley" rose to number two on Billboard's rhythm and blues chart. Mark Guarino wrote in the Arlington Heights, Illinois, Daily Herald, "Starting with his first hit, Diddley infused a raw, distorted guitar power that hadn't been heard before."

Diddley's guitar sound, filled with propulsive rhythm, helped to lay the foundation for rock-n-roll. In Marshall Cavendish's Illustrated Guide to Popular Music, writer Val Wilmer declared, "An entire rock generation cut its teeth on the 'Diddley beat,' which Bo first heard played on tambourines in church." Music scholars have traced the roots of the beat to an even earlier time. "Musicologists have pointed to that beat's roots in West Africa before slavery," wrote Dave Scheiber in the Chicago Sun Times, and "then to Deep South slaves patting out what became known as the 'Hambone' rhythm on their bodies."

As "Bo Diddley" rose on the chart, the singer was invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, but there was a hitch. The producers had originally wanted Tennessee Ernie Ford to appear, because his hit "Sixteen Tons" was the fastest-rising single on the charts. They asked Diddley to perform "Sixteen Tons," believing it was the song, as opposed to the performer, that really mattered. When he complained that he didn't know the song, the producers rehearsed it with him and wrote the words to the song in large letters on cue cards. When the time came for the live broadcast, Dr. Jive introduced the guitarist, who took the stage and promptly began to sing "Bo Diddley." As he exited, he was reported to have said: "Man, maybe that was 'Sixteen Tons' on those cards, but all I saw was 'Bo Diddley!'"

1950s' rock-n-rollers like Diddley fell on hard times during the 1960s. Even though Jimi Hendrix and others built their guitar techniques on the work of early innovators like Diddley, the earlier style was considered passé. This attitude made it difficult for old-school players to find steady, good paying work. During this time Diddley acquired a number of debts attempting to finance his children's education. In order to meet expenses, he sold the rights to a number of his songs. Despite these difficulties, he continued to score a number of minor hits in the United States and England. "You Can't Judge a Book By It's Cover" rose to number 48 in the United States in 1962 and "Ooh Baby" entered the Hot Hundred; in the United Kingdom "Pretty Thing" reached the top forty in 1964 and "Hey Good Lookin'" followed in 1965.

Despite general public recognition of his contributions to rock-n-roll, and acknowledgements from high-profile players like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, Diddley's innovative sound and string of hits have generated few financial rewards for the musician. "Like many early rock 'n' roll artists--especially African-American acts," noted Scheiber, "record producers, music publishers and booking agents pocketed most of the cash." Because he has received inadequate compensation for his work, Diddley has had to maintain an active touring schedule in order to support himself, despite health problems. "You gotta work," he told Anthony DellaFlora in the Albuquerque Journal. "If I ever got paid, maybe I wouldn't have to work. But I got ripped off very bad with the record companies and the publishing mess." Since 1980 Diddley has fought an ongoing legal battle seeking compensation for his music.

Diddley's legal and financial difficulties, however, have done little to slow the rock-n-roll innovator down. At the end of 2002, he had begun work on a rap song about Saddam Hussein ("Saddam Hussein, pick up your phone, if you do we might leave you alone"), and was planning to record his first album in four years at his home studio. He is one of the rare musicians to have performed at both Republican and Democratic presidential inaugurations. Diddley earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. "We may never know exactly who is the father of rock 'n' roll," wrote DellaFlora, "but if a paternity test is ever performed, Bo Diddley's musical DNA will surely have to be sampled."


Lifetime Achievement Award, Rhythm and Blues Foundation; Star, Hollywood Walk of Fame; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987.


Selected discography

Bo Diddley, Checker, 1957.
Go Bo Diddley, Checker, 1959.
Have Guitar, Will Travel, Checker, 1959.
Bo Diddley's Beach Party, Checker, 1963.
Golden Decade, Chess, 1973.
The Chess Box, Chess, 1990.
His Best (Chess 50th Anniversary Collection), Chess, 1997.

No comments:

Post a Comment