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Bo Diddley

 

“The Originator” was Bo Diddley’s nickname, and he was well suited for the moniker. The list of “firsts” that he was responsible for in the world of rock and roll is longer than almost any other guitarist, and the list of artists influenced by his work is even more impressive. Even though he did not produce a huge number of chart-topping records, Diddley stands as a pioneer who was much admired and often imitated during the fifty-plus years that he worked in the music industry.
 
He was born Ellas Bates to a Mississippi sharecropping family in 1928. Because his father disappeared and his mother was a teenager, he was raised by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, and took her last name.  As a youngster he moved with his adoptive family to Chicago’s south side, where he was teased for being a “country boy.” He soon learned to defend himself from bullies on the street, however, and became a promising boxer. It was in the boxing ring that he acquired his nickname, Bo Diddley.
 
His Chicago neighborhood was where he was first exposed to formal music training, as well. He took violin lessons from a pastor at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, Prof. O.W. Frederick. Diddley studied the instrument for more than twelve years and composed two concertos for violin, which demonstrated his thorough understanding of music theory.
 
When he was twelve, his sister bought him his first acoustic guitar as a Christmas gift, an inexpensive Harmony. As a student at Foster Vocational High School he began building his own violins and guitars, and created them in shapes that made them easier for him to play in spite of his large hands and fingers. When he was about fifteen he created the first of many uniquely shaped guitars, including square and rectangular models, that he became known for throughout his career.
 
When he saw blues-guitarist John Lee Hooker play, Bo was inspired to put aside his violin and focus solely on guitar. He was fascinated by the African-inspired rhythms he heard coming from neighborhood churches and worked to incorporate them into his guitar playing. He admired blues great Muddy Waters, but found the finger style that Waters used difficult to imitate, because of the size of his own fingers. Bo then began to combine the percussion sounds he loved with his own guitar strum and soon developed his trademark “hambone” rhythm. He used the rapid wrist movements that he learned while playing the violin to strum the guitar stings. The “bum ba-bum, bum…bum-bum “ beat he employed became popular and was his signature throughout his career. He described it by saying; “I play drum licks on the guitar.”
 
After he finished school, Diddley worked at a variety of jobs including as a mechanic and a carpenter, but he always played his guitar on street corners or in local clubs during his free time. He formed a trio known as “The Langley Avenue Jive Cats,” with two of his musical friends, maraca player Jerome Green and harmonica guy, Buddy Boy Arnold. They slowly began to build a reputation in the world of Chicago musicians while developing that “freight train sound” that Bo loved. Diddley was one of the first musicians to use an electric guitar and began to experiment with amplification and special effects. His homemade guitars had a totally unique sound and were loaded with reverberation and distortion.
 
In 1955, Diddley and his band finally landed a record deal. He was turned down by several companies including Vee-Jay Records, but struck a deal with Phil and Leonard Chess to make a recording for their affiliate Checker label. Diddley and his group recorded a double-sided release with the songs “Bo Diddley,” and “I’m a Man.” The disc rose rapidly to the top of the R&B charts and established Bo as an innovative and exciting talent in American music.
 
Bo Diddley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in November 1955, a mark of widespread acceptance. Though he was asked to sing “Sixteen Tons,” a Tennessee Ernie Ford song, he decided to do “Bo Diddley” instead. Sullivan was not happy with the song substitution, and banned Bo from appearing on his show again, but the nation had seen his talent.
 
Fans of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters in Great Britain embraced Diddley’s sound even more enthusiastically than American audiences. Sales of his records in the UK were brisk, and he had a strong influence on many of the emerging British rock groups. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones both credit Diddley as an early idol, and his trademark guitar rhythms are easily recognizable in such Stones songs as “Not Fade Away.” Other British groups like the Yardbirds, Pretty Things, and Animals did covers of Diddley songs during this period, as well. Many aspiring English rock and rollers began making their own guitars in an effort to replicate the look and sound of Bo’s instruments.
 
Checker Records released eleven Bo Diddley albums in the years between 1958 and 1963. He became quite well known with white audiences and was invited to appear at the famous concerts sponsored by New York DJ, Alan Freed. Unlike his contemporary, Chuck Berry, he did not consciously try to appeal to a teenage audience, but kept the focus of his songs on adult themes. While this may have cost him some record sales at the time, it has served to make his tunes timeless, and appealing even today.
 
Diddley never stopped innovating throughout his time as a recording artist. He continued to use a variety of custom-made Gretsch guitars, each one more unique than the last. He had some that were covered with fur, shaped like a rocket tail, and bound with leather in every imaginable color. There were square, oblong, rectangular, and pointed instruments, too. Bo constantly experimented with electrical amps and accessories and could make his guitars twang, sing, vibrate, roar, mumble, or whine, depending upon his mood. He played his instruments while hopping or dancing across the stage, and held them behind his head and between his legs years before Jimi Hendrix adopted similar moves.
 
It is well established that Bo Diddley helped to define the style of rock and roll, but a case can be made that he was the father of hip-hop as well. For example, the song, “Say Man,” that he recorded with his maracas playing partner, Jerome Green, contains many elements of the modern genre. The guitar is used throughout the piece more as a percussion instrument than a melodic or harmonic one, and the beat stays constant and relentless from beginning to end. The lyrics are good-natured insults chanted back and forth between two vocalists. The entire structure of today’s rap can be found within the song, which was recorded fifty years ago in 1958.
 
Bo Diddley’s reputation as “The Originator” was also aided by the fact that he was one of the first and only artists to use female musicians for his live shows and recording sessions. For years Norma-Jean Wofford, usually called “The Duchess,” played bass guitar in Diddley’s ensemble. She was known for her fashionable evening gowns, which made a striking contrast with Bo’s dark suits and horn-rimmed glasses. Peggy Jones, known as “Lady Bo,” played lead guitar and often traded complicated rhythm riffs back and forth with Diddley.
 
During the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, Bo Diddley continued to perform, mostly doing guest appearances with other artists. He also took many low-paying gigs at colleges, schools and churches where he campaigned against the violent and obscene lyrics present in so much modern music. He felt it was important to speak to young people about the value of family and respect for authority. He encouraged his youthful audiences to continue their education and avoid gangs and drugs.
 
In his later years, Diddley received many accolades and awards for his pioneering spirit and contributions to the world of music. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Other groups including the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation have also honored him. His initial recording, “Bo Diddley” has been added to the GRAMMY Hall of Fame, and he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards Ceremony. He celebrated fifty years in the music industry in 2005 with well-attended tours in Europe, Australia, and North America. He died on June 2, 2008 after suffering a stroke and later a heart attack.
 
To this day, Bo Diddley’s songs continue to be performed by such diverse artists as marching bands, metal rockers, string orchestras, and blues combos. He will always be remembered as “The Originator” of his own sound and style, which has had untold influence on scores of musicians who followed him.

     

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Jimmy Page
Randy Rhoads
Kurt Cobain
Kirk Hammett
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Yngwie Malmsteen
Slash
Robert Johnson
Pete Townsend
Jerry Garcia
Bo Diddley
Jeff Beck
Duane Allman
Jimmy Hendrix
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John Frusciante
Joe Perry
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Santana
Chuck Berry
Eric Clapton
Dimebag Darrell
 
 
 
 
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