His name was Ellas (Bates) McDaniel, taking on the name of his adoptive parents. “Bo Diddley” came about, as his harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold says in this priceless Richie Unterberger interview, because the record “Bo Diddley” came out with Bo Diddley as the artist, too. It meant nothing–as a put down, like “you ain’t Bo Diddley”–or it was just a funny-sounding name of some local hack playing in Chicago at the time, depending on whose account you believe.
I stand before you today not to bury Bo Diddley, but to appreciate him. Here’s where the rappers can just take a seat and shut their pieholes: Bo Diddley didn’t just rap and boast and insult his way into the hearts of rock fans, he did it with a guitar he built himself. Now I like Snoop Dogg and all, but I bet he couldn’t build a vocoder. In fact, most of us just weren’t born with that manufacturing gene.
Oh, but the catcalls of “Les Paul built his guitars, right?” shall rain down. But Paul didn’t invent a fistful of standards and whole new rhythms that drove the kids wild. Bo Diddley did. He invented the Bo Diddley Beat, which also can be referred to as “shave, haircut, two bits” or as Arnold refers to it, “the hambone beat.” Diddley, however played shiny-high chords over it, tremolo cranked over the top. Sounded a little like this:
Did we mention he could dance better than Usher? While playing that guitar, no less. Holy smokes.
And while Muddy Waters and other blues, R&B and rock singers of the era could throw down a ferocious stop-time blues, Bo Diddley commanded ownership of it with the testosterone-fueled “I’m A Man,” which became a rock and blues standard that no self-respecting band will set foot on a stage without knowing.
All those pretty women, stand in line, indeed. Did you know that he built the chimney on his house, made out of a human skull? Now that’s freaking gangsta. I bet he had to kill several men just to find one that fit right.
As many American originals go, Diddley was his own guy. A crank with a lot of people, he seemed to have been soured by the lack of credit, respect and money he received. Some of his surliness came, we’d guess, as a result of the hard knocks that all career musicians must take. Add to that the shameful indignities endured by black musicians coming up during the segregation and post-segregation eras. No wonder he sometimes had a rough time of it.
Bo played blues, Bo played soul, Bo played rock, Bo played R&B. And he even got to tell Bo Jackson, “you don’t know Diddley.”
It’s hard to believe they let Bo Jackson touch one of those hallowed square Bo Diddley guitars. Nike was just trying to be funny there, but Bo Diddley did have a right to put that Jackson guy in his place. After all, Diddley was a rock renaissance man who did it all–from invention to performance. He’s one of the few big-headed rock stars who probably deserved all the hero worship he craved. Yeah, if Bo Jackson had invented a better football or perhaps figured out some way to get rid of the Infield Fly Rule, he might be on a sports par with what Diddley did in the music realm. If, that is, like Bo Diddley he’d kept playing for 50 years.
We lost a rock pioneer. But don’t mourn. Just crank up them records and groove to the Bo Diddley Beat.