Legal name, Ellas McDaniel; born Otha Ellas Bates, December 30, 1928, in McComb (Pike County), Mississippi; son of Ethel Wilson; legally adopted by mother's cousin, Gussie McDaniel, 1934; married Ethel Mae Smith, 1946 (divorced); remarried; wife's name, Kay; children: (first marriage) two; (second marriage) two. Addresses: Home --Hawthorne, Flordia. Office --c/o Otelsberg, 5530 Keokuk Ave., Woodland Hills, CA 92364.

Alongside Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley is recognized as one of the first and most influential rock guitarists. In a career that has spanned well over three decades, Diddley has remained true to his original style. As Jeff Hannusch wrote in Guitar Player in 1984, perhaps the greatest thing one can say about Diddley is that "he has never had to sound like anyone else but Bo Diddley." He was born Otha Ellas Bates in 1928 in Pike County, Mississippi. In 1934 his mother sent him to Chicago to live with her cousin, Gussie McDaniel. After the McDaniels adopted Otha, he dropped his first and last names and was known as Ellas McDaniel. However, he soon acquired his nickname and soon-to-be professional title, Bo Diddley, which Guitars, From the Renaissance to Rock refers to as a mischievous or bully boy. "That's how I got my name ... from messin' 'round," stated Diddley in Rock 100.

Diddley studied violin under Professor O.W. Frederick for 12 years starting at age 7. He began teaching himself guitar in the early 1940s while attending Foster Vocational High School. At age 13 he was playing for change on Langley Avenue in Chicago with his friend Jerome Green. "I had a raggedy guitar, a washtub bass, a dude 'sanding' on a sheet of paper, and Jerome had maracas, shakin' 'em, and man ... it was lovely," Diddley told Guitar World. Besides violin and guitar, Diddley was also a trombonist with the Baptist Congress Band. By the time he was 20, Diddley had formed The Langley Avenue Jive Cats, with legendary slide guitarist Earl Hooker, playing at the 708 Club in Chicago.

After graduating from Foster's, Diddley got married and began working odd jobs outside of music in construction and semi-pro boxing. He was laid off from the construction job for a spell and decided to take another shot at music. Diddley went out and bought an electric guitar for its volume potential in the rowdy clubs and then recorded a single on a disc cutter owned by one of his neighbors. Diddley pedaled the songs--"I'm a Man" backed with "Bo Diddley"--to various labels before arriving at the Chess brothers' (Leonard and Phil) label in Chicago, home label to blues stalwarts like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, and the chart-climbing Chuck Berry.

Chess saw a market for Diddley's sound but they insisted that he change the lyrics to "Bo Diddley," which were rather obscene, and rerecord it. Diddley agreed and signed a contract with Chess in 1955. The single was released on a subsidiary label, Checker, and skyrocketed all the way to number 2 on the national R & B charts but didn't even crack the pop charts. The album Bo Diddley was also released in 1955 and Diddley appeared on the Ed Sullivan television show before hooking up with Alan Freed's rock and roll package to tour the country.

The "Diddley beat" was a simple, yet extremely infectious, "shave and a haircut, two bits" (a.k.a. "hambone") pattern. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock calls it an "idiosyncratic syncopated rhythm." Perhaps it was in Diddley's early influences (his mother was Cajun), this hypnotic guitar sound with little or no chord progressions being propelled by Jerome Green's pounding congas, maracas and bass. Diddley's lyrics were equally strange and laced with his odd sense of humor, "a view of all life ... particularly sex, as a profound cosmic joke, played out at the expense of everyone, but particularly the solemn and pompous," wrote Dave Marsh in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. On stage, Diddley was backed by his equally bizarre stepsister, the Duchess, and her counterparts, Cookie and Sleepy King. "[Diddley's] Bo-dacious caricatures are pure diddley daydreams out of a dada Disneyland," reported Rock 100.

As appealing as the sound was, Diddley did little to vary from it and it took another four years for him to break Billboard's Hot 100 with "Crackin' Up" in 1959. That same year, "Say Man" made the Top 20 pop charts but Diddley has never had another single make it past number 50 since. "I had this idea that everybody would like everything I recorded, which was totally wrong, and I had to learn that," he told Howard Mandel in Guitar World. During the ensuing lull in his career, Diddley was rediscovered by foreign rock and blues groups that comprised the British Invasion: the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds. Their cover versions of Diddley tunes brought him somewhat back into the limelight. He continued to release a batch of albums during the sixties and seventies with jacket covers that portrayed him as everything from a gunslinger to a black gladiator in Ben Hur garb.

As corny as his album covers and outlandish clothes may have seemed, when Diddley plugged in his axe, guitarists took note. His wild collection of instruments, custom-built for him alone by the Gretsch company, were years ahead of their time with their oblong, triangle, and star shapes sometimes covered in carpet or fur. They were as much a part of the show as the man himself. "Bo Diddley used the guitar as a part of a flashy strutting performance of flamboyance and obvious sexual suggestion," as stated in Guitars, From the Renaissance to Rock. Diddley tunes to an open D (D,A,D,F#,A,D), which accounts for part of his signature sound, but his use of tremolo, volume, pick-scraping, and various electronics are what make him one of the true innovators of rock guitar. "Bo Diddley on acid ... I always just wanted to be wilder than Bo Diddley--which hasn't happened yet, and probably is impossible," said Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan in Guitar Player.

Living Blues quotes Diddley as having called his former boss and label head, Leonard Chess, a "thief." Writer Pete Golkin explained: "When Diddley, who during a difficult period years later sold the rights to his hit songs of the '50s, complains about not receiving money owed him, it is done with a certain air of confusion about the times in which he and other artists quickly rose to stardom." Having experienced the financial plight that so many musicians have fallen into, Diddley decided to take career matters into his own hands and can now be found distributing his records on his own through Bokay Productions. "I've really been ripped off so much in the past, I don't trust any of them anymore ... I just got tired of beating my head against the wall. I don't know what these companies are looking for, but I'll tell you one thing: I'm going to sound like Bo Diddley until the day I die," he told Guitar Player.

Although his last charted single was "Ooh Baby" in 1967 (which only reached number 88), Diddley remains active by playing one-nighters with pickup bands and touring with his daughter's band, Offspring. In 1979, English punk rockers, the Clash, paid tribute to Diddley by having him open a series of shows for them and he toured with Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood on a double bill called The Gunslinger's Tour in 1988. "That term--rock and roll--has been misused," Diddley said in Guitar World. "A guy in the audience the other night, he kept buggin' me: 'Play some rock and roll!' But I looked at him, pulled him off to the side, and said 'Can I explain something' to you?' I had to school him. Because I was playin' the only thing I knew how, my type of rock and roll--which is where it came from, because I was the beginning."

by Calen D. Stone

Bo Diddley's Career

Formed Langley Avenue Jive Cats with Earl Hooker during early 1940s; did construction work and fought as a semi-professional boxer; signed to recording contract with Chess/Checker Records, 1955; owner and president of Bokay Productions (record distribution company); toured with the Clash, 1979, and Ron Wood, 1988; appeared in television commercial promoting athletic shoes, 1989--.

Bo Diddley's Awards

Member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; recieved Guitar Player magazine's Editors Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1990.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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