Rock’n’roll pioneer Bo Diddley dead at 79

Guitarist and songwriter Bo Diddley, who died of heart failure on June 2 at age 79, was an innovative R&B pioneer who forged rock’n’roll’s signature beat but rarely got the credit — or the riches — heaped on his fellow musical icons.

He died at his home in Archer, Florida, where he had been convalescing since last year after suffering a stroke and later a heart attack.

A contemporary of early rock icons Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Diddley earned a reputation as a legendary performer and “The Originator” of rock’n’roll after he created a raw and grinding rhumba-style beat that became known as “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”

The syncopated groove turned early rock music on its head and spawned countless imitators, including a young Elvis Presley.

“Boom da boom da boom, boom boom. That was basically an Indian chant,” Diddley told National Public Radio (NPR) in a March 2007 interview, looking back to the tremolo-drenched guitar line that turned on American record-buyers in the mid-1950s at the dawn of rock’n’roll.

In mourning Diddley’s passing, another American guitar legend, BB King, praised him as “a music pioneer and legend with a unique style”.

“We always had a good time when we played together. He will truly be missed, but his legacy will live on forever,” King (82) said through his publicist.

Diddley’s improvisational on-stage chatter and word play in his songs — sometimes childish, often sexually charged — prefigured hip-hop by several decades.

His signature dark glasses, black hat and homemade rectangular guitars became icons in the music industry after he topped the rhythm and blues charts in 1955 with Bo Diddley, the first of several hit singles to include his own name in the title.

Some of his all-time hits include Who Do You Love, Before You Accuse Me, Mona, Road Runner and I’m a Man.

The Diddley beat can clearly be heard on dozens of chart-toppers by other acts, including Buddy Holly on his biggest hit, Not Fade Away, the Who’s Magic Bus, U2’s Desire and George Michael’s Faith.

‘His style was outrageous’

Diddley was born on December 30 1928 in McComb, Mississippi, as Otha Ella Bates. He later changed his name to Ellas McDaniel Diddley.

At a young age he moved with his family to the Midwestern city of Chicago — a home-away-from-home for countless blues musicians from the Mississippi Delta — and began playing the clubs there.

But not before trying his hand at the violin as a child.

“I didn’t see too many black dudes with a violin playing in the big orchestras,” Diddley said in the NPR interview.

Instead he saw African Americans such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters revolutionising music through their rhythm and blues, and they inspired him to pick up the guitar.

By the mid-1950s his freight-train-like guitar groove incorporating Afro-Caribbean rhythms helped create a style years ahead of his time.

In 1956 a Harlem newspaper, the Amsterdam News, upon first seeing Elvis perform, claimed he had “copied Bo Diddley’s style to the letter”.

Keith Richards said he experienced a sense of shock, Rolling Stone magazine reported in 2005, when he first heard the Diddley beat.

“Muddy [Waters] and Chuck [Berry] were close to the straight electric blues,” Richards was quoted as saying. “But Bo was fascinatingly on the edge. There was something African going on in there. His style was outrageous, suggesting that the kind of music we loved didn’t just come from Mississippi. It was coming from somewhere else.”

But while Elvis and others went on to fame and fortune, Diddley’s influence on other bands failed to translate into great wealth — an outcome he lamented on to NPR.

“A lot of bands covered my stuff but where’s the money? Where did it go, it didn’t come to me,” he said.

Diddley was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

His popularity had sagged by the 1980s but it returned with a vengeance when he starred in a series of Nike commercials, which featured him sneering, “You don’t know Diddley.”

Tributes in his honour poured in from around the entertainment world on June 2.

“He was a wonderful, original musician who was an enormous force in music and was a big influence on The Rolling Stones,” said rock legend Mick Jagger in a statement.

“He was very generous to us in our early years and we learned a lot from him. We will never see his like again.”

In May 2007, Diddley suffered a heart attack that left him with slurry speech and unable to fully identify people around him, sources close to him said at the time. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday