Y’all know Bo Diddley. You may never have heard one of his original songs, never seen his face, somehow never even heard his name; but still I guarantee that you know Bo Diddley. Born in 1928 as Ellas Otha Bates, Diddley often referred to himself as ‘The Originator,’ a title that would be lofty if it was wasted on anyone other than himself. In essence, Bo Diddley acted as the missing link between the music of the 50s and 60s, inspiring countless artists both during that time and onwards through his music, personality, and of course, his beat. Still don’t believe me? In that case, let’s start with the most pervasive piece of evidence: Bo Diddley’s eternal beat.
Unlike many contemporaries, Bo Diddley has the sole distinction of popularizing an immensely powerful rhythm, one that has been utilized and outright copied through every era of popular music. The beat comes to us through his aptly titled song ‘Bo Diddley,’ and after a quick listen to it you’ll never be the same again. Think of ‘I Want Candy,’ ‘American Girl,’ ‘How Soon Is Now?,’ even ‘Water Fountain:’ every single one of these songs utilizes a version of the Bo Diddley beat. Granted, it should be mentioned that Bo Diddley didn’t entirely come up with the beat on his own. According to an interview with Rolling Stone, Diddley asserts that he “came up with the beat after listening to gospel music,” but the rhythm itself can be traced back to both traditional African Juba music and a track called ‘Hambone’ by R&B artist Red Saunders.
While it’s understood that the beat is not ‘entirely’ Diddley’s own, it is undeniable that Diddley’s version took that framework and turned it into a force all his own. Take this quote from ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons: “You can play Bo Diddley as three year old and who can’t speak and yet they start gyrating…I think we must be wired to respond to it.” The innate and honestly primordial rhythm of the song is likely what caused it to top the Billboard R&B charts in 1955, and you can be sure it wasn’t long before many others picked up on its incredible power. Versions of the beat appear as soon as 1957, with notable examples including Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away,’ Johnny Otis’ ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ and Dee Clark’s ‘Hey Little Girl.’ Of course, the beat continues to this day, doubtless it’ll ever die; but I feel some naysayers looking in, still unconvinced of Diddley’s influence. So how about this then: let’s talk about Diddley’s personality.
On November 20th, 1955, Bo Diddley was invited to play on The Ed Sullivan Show. Due to the show’s primarily white audience, the producers of the show told him to play a cover of the song ‘Sixteen Tons,’ rather than his own self-titled hit. Being who he is, Diddley refused, and when he took the stage he delivered an animated performance of his masterpiece, changing the face of Rock music forever. Bo Diddley recalls that “Ed Sullivan got mad…[he] said that I was one of the first colored boys to ever double-cross him. Said that I wouldn’t last six months.” Frankly, the world didn’t know Diddley yet, so they weren’t used to anyone, let alone an African American disobeying authority for their art. As Diddley later in his life stated, “I had my own thing, they couldn’t change me…They just didn’t know what to do with me. I was me, and they just had to accept me the way I was.” Other musicians have since defied network requests, but imagine being there, in the 1950s, and having the chutzpah to go there and play for yourself, rather than any of them. It’s undeniably Rock n’ Roll, and notably it was before the genre even fully existed.
As Todd Snider puts it, “three months before Elvis Presley played (on) Ed Sullivan, Bo Diddley did…thus inventing Rock n’ Roll’s attitude.” Diddley carried this attitude throughout his career, cultivating and inspiring the now classic image of Rock n’ roll’s ‘bad boy’ archetype. Arts historian Rob Fields describes it best, with that “sort of larger than life personality, his braggadocio…he was this kind of dangerous guy and that was his persona.” Unfortunately, due to a certain ‘someone’ echoing his style (not to mention the racism too), Bo Diddley didn’t immediately flourish in America. Luckily though, that’s where the UK comes in.
In the fall of 1963, Bo Diddley participated in a tour of the UK, joining the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, and a small band at the time known as the Rolling Stones. Both the Stones and many other contemporaries across the pond took note of Diddley, with special attention being given to his performing style and imposing black leather get-up. In a very large sense, this tour with Diddley opened the doors for not only the oncoming British invasion but also the later punk scene as well. Eric Burdon of The Animals once claimed to have “copied the jacket [Bo Diddley] was wearing for [his] first major TV appearance,” and, when Diddley later opened for the Clash in 1979, Joe Strummer humorously stated “I can’t look at him without my mouth falling open.” This resulting adoration of Diddley led to multiple instances of direct homage too, with the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Kinks all including covers of Diddley on their debut albums. However, for other bands just covering his material was child's play, as through the 60s there was an entire string of bands in the UK naming themselves after Diddley and his songs, with examples being the Pretty Things, the Roadrunners, Bo Street Runners and the Diddley Daddies. It’s undoubtable that Diddley left a massive imprint on the UK and, luckily, the British invasion brought his influence roaring back to the States. Don’t get me started on how many bands started to cover his music afterwards.
Frankly speaking, this list of accomplishments would cement any artist as one of the greatest of all time. Also frankly speaking, there’s a myriad of other accomplishments by Bo Diddley that haven’t even been mentioned, whether it be kickstarting Marvin Gaye’s career, being one of the first to have women in his band on lead guitar, or having an inventor's mind and creating some of the first guitar effects and his own personal guitars. You could fill both a novel and a few afternoons with all that Diddley inspired, but unfortunately his impact did not equate to an easy life. Like many African American artists of the day, Bo Diddley was shorted of due royalties for a majority of his career, being forced to even sell them at one point due to considerable financial burden. He spent much of his later years touring just to make ends meet, and wouldn’t hesitate to tell younger musicians “Don’t trust nobody but your mama, and even then, look at her real good.” It was a life that Diddley never deserved, but it’s admittedly heartwarming seeing all the bands making the effort to give him due credit, whether through covers, quotes or frequent guest concert appearances. Of course it doesn’t pay the bills, there’s just a hope that it brought him some joy along the way.
In an interview with the Washington Post, near the end of his life, Diddley stated “I was there before Elvis and Bill Haley, but people don’t know that. Somebody’s got to tell the stories before I’m dead and gone.” After his passing, there was an outpour of sentiments from every corner of the music world, both thanking him for his incredible influence and lamenting the loss of the true Originator. Out of all of them, I think Robert Plant was the most succinct, stating “his voice and relentless glorious anthems echo down through my years. The royal shape shifter continues to influence four generations of musicians on a daily basis.” That’s high praise for sure, especially from Robert Plant, but you have to agree with him. Even as music changes and shifts itself into new shapes, there’ll always be one thing that stays true to the end: Bo Diddley will never die.
Written by Nick Snow