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Monday, June 2, 2008

BO DIDDLEY 1928 - 2008

Bo Diddley

Obituary By Gene Sculatti

One of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll has left the building he helped construct. Bo Diddley, aged 79, died of heart failure today at his home in Archer, FL where he resided for over 20 years.

With Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, Diddley (born Ellas Otha Bates) was one of music’s principal architects in the mid-1950s. The guitarist-singer-songwriter scored major pop hits with “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man” in 1955 and “Say Man” (1959) and made an almost incalculable impact on rock from the Fifties onward. His music influenced artists working in such disparate styles as rockabilly, British Invasion pop, surf, psychedelic, hip-hop and punk rock.

Diddley is most often cited for his signature “Bo Diddley beat,” a syncopated 5/4 pattern similar to the West African-derived “hambone” rhythm or “Shave and a haircut two-bits” couplet. Over the years, Diddley variously claimed to have adapted the beat from music he heard in church, from trying to play the Gene Autry song “Jingle Jangle” and from attempting to play his guitar like a drum. Whatever its origins, the taut, rumba-like beat has powered literally hundreds of rock and pop records, everything from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Who’s “Magic Bus” to Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” George Michael’s “Faith” and Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One.” A half dozen key Diddley compositions have held down prized spots in the repertoire of thousands of performing artists for decades.

One of Diddley’s first hits was the rock ballad “Love Is Strange,” recorded by New York duo Mickey & Sylvia in 1957 and immortalized in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing. Equally as durable are the classics “I’m a Man” and “Who Do You Love.” The former, a boasting blues in the mode of Willie Dixon’s “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,” has been covered by, among others, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Yardbirds, Iggy & the Stooges and British garage-punk icons the Pretty Things (who took their name from another Bo Diddley tune), while the latter has found its way onto albums by The Band, the Doors, Bob Seger, Patti Smith and George Thorogood. Mojo magazine credited Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1969 album Happy Trails with “defining acid-rock” by “taking two simple Bo Diddley songs—‘Who Do You Love’ and ‘Mona’—and stretching them into every possible permutation.”

Diddley’s music, particularly hard-driving numbers like “Who Do You Love,” “Roadrunner” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,” provided the foundation for the blues wing of the 1964-65 British Invasion. Diddley was frequently cited as a hero by Mick Jagger and others, and his songs were cut by the Rolling Stones, Kinks, Manfred Mann and the Nashville Teens. In the Animals’ song “Story of Bo Diddley,” Eric Burdon describes the young Newcastle combo’s first meeting with their hero, who, when asked his opinion of their music, answers, “Man, that sure is the biggest load of rubbish I ever heard in my life!” Indeed, the case could be made that Diddley’s attitude—proud and defiant, but always laced with sly humor—was as much a draw for young rockers as his sturdy guitar riffs were. Elements of this aspect of his style, articulated as far back as 1959’s “Say Man,” in which Diddley traded insults with maracas player Jerome Green, can be found in the braggadocio and “ranking” of latter-day hip-hop artists as well. Indeed, some pop observers have credited “Say Man” as the first rap record.

Diddley’s influence also extended to soul music (his last charting single was the Top-20 R&B hit “Ooh Baby”), Seventies punk-rock (he toured internationally with the Clash in 1979), teen pop (he wrote 1959’s “Mama, Can I Go Out Tonight” for Jo-Ann Campbell) and even surf music (tremolo-laden instrumentals like 1961’s “Aztec” predated the form’s exotic ballad side).

Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates, Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Mississippi. He was raised by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, with whom he moved to Chicago at the age of seven and whose surname he took, becoming Ellas McDaniel. Sources differ on where the stage name Bo Diddley originated, but McDaniel was using it professionally by 1954, when he recorded “I’m a Man” and his namesake song at Chess Records’ studios. Issued as a single, “Bo Diddley” topped Billboard’s R&B Singles chart in 1955 (its flipside, “I’m a Man,” charted for 11 weeks in its own right) and was followed by Top-20 hits “Diddley Daddy,” “Pretty Thing,” “I’m Sorry,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Say Man.”

He cut 11 albums for Chess between 1958 and 1963, a number of which are now highly collectable. In ’63 he co-headlined a U.K. tour with the Everly Brothers; opening the bill were the as-yet-unheralded Rolling Stones. “Watching Bo Diddley was university for me,” Keith Richards recently told Rolling Stone, referring to that tour. “Every set was 20 minutes long. When he came off, if he had two strings left on his guitar it was a fuckin’ miracle.”

Diddley’s last recording was the 1997 Grammy nominated LP, “A Man Amongst Men (Code Blue/Atlantic). He was inducted into the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. His music was ever present—on the soundtracks to movies like Boys Don’t Cry, The Color of Money, Dirty Dancing and La Bamba, on television (The Cosby Show, Sesame Street), in a 1989 series of Nike ads, in which Diddley appeared with football/baseball star Bo Jackson. In 1997, Diddley performed at the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton. The following year his “Bo Diddley” was inducted into the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame as a recording of lasting historical significance by the Recording Academy at the 40th annual GRAMMY Awards ceremony.

Diddley’s music and presence has been little absent in the new millennium. Diddley rang the Opening Bell at the American Stock Exchange in New York in a ceremony held in his honor, and starred (with Jerry Lewis, Darlene Love and others) in the PBS special Rock & Roll at 50. His “Roadrunner” was used in a series of commercials for Chase Bank, and Paul McCartney’s recording of “Love Is Strange” was featured in the UK documentary Wingspan. More recently, Diddley joined with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons in developing the Billy-Bo Jupiter Thunderbird guitar for Gretsch, a model whose form and function Gibbons described as “very nasty pieces of pure rock ’n’ roll.” The guitar, together with his instantly recognizable cigar box shaped square guitar, is featured prominently in the soon to be released video game Rock Band 2.

Throughout his career, Diddley lent his support to a variety of national charities and non-profit organizations, including the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, as well as numerous local organizations in Florida and Illinois, including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, for whom he performed an annual fundraiser.

He had continued performing well into 2007, until he suffered a stroke in May 2007 in Council Bluffs, Iowa followed by a heart attack in August. Diddley is survived by his children, Evelyn Kelly, Ellas A. McDaniel, Tammi D. McDaniel and Terri Lynn McDaniel, as well as 15 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

Private and public services are planned for this weekend.

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