Born Otha Ellas Bates, 30 December 1928, McComb, Mississippi
Singer, guitarist, songwriter.
"You Can’t Judge A Book By the Cover” is the title of one of Bo Diddley’s best known songs. Likewise, you can’t judge the influence of an artist by his chart statistics. Believe it or not, but Bo has been included in Wayne Jancik’s “Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders” on the grounds that he had only one Top 40 pop hit. He played a key role in the transition from blues to rock & roll and the influence of his unique rhythm (often called “jungle music”) has been immense, both in and outside of the USA.
Born near McComb, Mississippi, as Otha Ellas Bates, he was adopted and raised by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, whose surname he assumed. In 1934, the McDaniel family moved to the South Side of Chicago, where he dropped the Otha and became Ellas McDaniel. He learned to play the violin in the Ebenezer Baptist Sunday School Band, but he was more interested in the guitar and from the age of twelve McDaniel started experimenting with building his own guitars in various shapes. By the early 1940s he had acquired the nickname “Bo Diddley” from his fellow pupils, but he wouldn’t use that name as a musician until 1955. In 1946 he formed his first group, a trio called the Hipsters, later known as the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. They played on street corners for nickels and dimes. McDaniel mixed his music with a stint as a boxer and catch-as-catch-can work - truck driver, elevator operator, manual labourer. In 1950 maracas player Jerome Green joined his group, followed a year later by harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold. When the group got good enough to move off the streets and into the clubs, McDaniel started experimenting with new sounds and began to write his own material.
Early in 1955, the group cut a demo of two songs that McDaniel had written, “Uncle John” and “I'm A Man”. After being turned down by United and Vee-Jay, they tried to get a recording deal with Chess Records. Leonard Chess liked what he heard and called the boys back for a session on March 2, 1955. The band was augmented with Otis Spann on piano and James Bradford on bass. The inspiration for the African rhythm of "Uncle John” came from a 1952 record by the Red Saunders orchestra, “Hambone”. Leonard Chess found the lyrics of “Uncle John” too suggestive. He said it wouldn’t get any airplay unless the words were changed. It was Billy Boy Arnold’s idea to substitute the name Bo Diddley for Uncle John. “Bo Diddley” became the A-side of McDaniel’s first single and also his new stage name. Released in April 1955, “Bo Diddley”/“I’m A Man” was a double-sided smash, topping the R&B charts for two weeks. The Bo Diddley beat was born. The next two singles, “Diddley Daddy” and “Pretty Thing”, also charted. There followed a steady stream of releases on the Checker label, with a unique sound, consisting of guitars, piano, harmonica, maracas and drums. Soon his rhythm would be copied by many other artists, most successfully by Johnny Otis on “Willie and the Hand Jive”, a # 9 pop hit in 1958.
Bo didn’t have any pop hits until 1959-60, with four consecutive singles, all of which were also released in the UK (on London). His only Top 20 pop hit was “Say Man”, an exchange of insults between Bo and Jerome Green, his maracas player and a near-constant member of his backing band. In 1960 Bo Diddley moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C., where he set up one of the first home recording studios. Though Bo didn’t have many releases in the UK until the mid-1960s, he was a big influence on the British beat boom of the sixties. In 1963 he starred in a UK concert tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard. The up-and-coming Rolling Stones were billed as a supporting act and they copied Bo's sound on their third single, “Not Fade Away” (co-written by Buddy Holly and originally recorded by him in 1957). Bo Diddley included women in his band. Among them were Norma-Jean Wofford, also known as The Duchess, and later Peggy Jones, nicknamed Lady Bo, who played lead guitar (rare for a woman at that time).
The 1960s were Bo’s most successful (though not necessarily in chart terms) and most productive period. No less than fifteen albums were released during that decade, excluding compilations and repackaged LPs. His last chart entry was “Ooh Baby” (# 17 R&B, # 88 pop) in 1967. He stayed with Chess/Checker until 1974. Between 1974 and 1988 he recorded only sporadically, but he kept on performing, all over the world. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many other awards would follow. From 1988 onwards Bo released several new albums on the L.A.-based Triple-X label. His last performance took place in 2006. Then a stroke affected the left side of his brain. Bo Diddley died on June 2, 2008, of heart failure, at his home in Archer, Florida.
Official website (with discography) : http://members.tripod.com/~Originator_2/index_2.html
Biography : George R. White, Bo Diddley : Living Legend. Chessington, Surrey : Castle Communications, 1995. 248 pages.
Acknowledgements : Jim Dawson & Steve Propes, Wayne Jancik, Wikipedia, the official website.
Dik, December 2016
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