In the early 1950s, Bo Diddley created a trademark sound that brought together aspects of Blues, Gospel and R&B with Latin and African rhythms. In the process, Diddley (a.k.a. “The Originator”) became one of the early giants of Rock and Roll, widely credited as one of the genre’s pioneers.
Diddley was born Otha Ellas Bates in southern Mississippi in 1928. Raised by his mother’s cousin, he moved north with her family to Chicago at the age of 6, and took her last name, becoming Ellas McDaniel. Growing up on the city’s South Side, he was an active member of his local Baptist church, and studied trombone and classical violin.
Inspired in part by hearing Bluesman John Lee Hooker, Diddley turned his attention to the electric guitar in his late teens. He put together a band and started playing for tips on street corners, eventually graduating to a local clubs He developed a unique style of pulsating, rhythmic music with his electric guitar in the forefront, utilizing then-innovative effects like tremolo and distortion, and writing clever, wisecracking songs often featuring a syncopated rhythm (“shave-and-a-haircut, two bits”) that would come to be known as the Bo Diddley Beat. This primal beat (bomp-ba-domp-ba-domp, ba-domp-domp) would be incorporated into scores of well known Rock and Roll records, from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” to the Who’s “Magic Bus,” to U2's "Desire."
Diddley signed to Chicago’s Chess Records and recorded his first single, “Bo Diddley,” backed with “I’m A Man.” Released in March of 1955, the record was a success and spawned a long string of recordings that combined the grit of the Blues, the swing of R&B, a measure of streetwise humor and a dose of eccentricity into something that’s not easily categorized. Diddley proved popular as a live performer, with his hypnotic, driving rhythms, plaid suit jackets, rectangular Gretsch guitar, female band members and nonstop movement and clowning on stage.
A prolific songwriter, Diddley continued to record even as he faded from the limelight, releasing more than 25 albums throughout his career, the last in 1996. His songs — “Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love.” “Mona,” “Pretty Thing” — have been covered countless times, and he’s been cited as an influence by acts from the Rolling Stones and the Animals to the New York Dolls and the Clash (who tapped Diddley as an opening act on their 1979 tour). He continued to record and tour until his death from a heart attack in 2008.