Personalities | Bo Diddley | Influential Rhythm Master | Guitar Heroes
A pivotal figure in the transition from blues to rock’n’roll, Bo Diddley was born Elias Bates in McComb, Mississippi in 1928. When he was seven, the family relocated to Chicago, where he took violin lessons before switching to guitar, inspired by John Lee Hooker. He began by playing on street corners, then in the Hipsters.
In 1951, he secured a regular gig at the 708 Club in Chicago’s South Side, the cradle of the blues. Here, he adopted the stage name Bo Diddley, which was also the title of the first single he recorded for Checker (a subsidiary of Chess) in 1955. The song featured the distinctive jerky rhythm based on the ‘patted juba’, an African tribal beat adopted by street performers in Chicago, but known subsequently as the ‘Bo Diddley beat’.
Diddley was also known for his rectangular-bodied Gretsch, which he adapted himself. Nicknamed ‘The Twang Machine’, the guitar was at Diddley’s side throughout his career, along with similar instruments made by other companies. The modifications made the guitar smaller and less restrictive onstage. Diddley’s hard-driving rhythmic style was a major influence on the development of rock’n’roll. Songs such as ‘Who Do You Love?’ and ‘Hey! Bo Diddley’ were based on one chord, de-emphasizing harmony in favour of rhythm. He often used a capo at G to help achieve his staccato sound.
Diddley made 11 albums between 1958 and 1963, while touring relentlessly. In the late 1960s, he added funk to his repertoire, and greatly influenced successive generations of musicians. Buddy Holly adapted the Diddley beat for ‘Not Fade Away’, covered by The Rolling Stones. Diddley was one of the godfathers of the 1960s British rhythm and blues movement. Artists as diverse as George Michael and Guns N’ Roses have used the Bo Diddley beat as a basis for songs. The Clash invited him to open for them on their 1979 American tour. He was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and The Rockabilly Hall Of Fame in 1987, and in 1998 received lifetime achievement awards from the Rhythm And Blues Foundation and NARAS.
In 2008, Diddley died of heart failure at his home in Florida.
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