Bo Diddley: Biography, Songs & Death

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

A key figure in the transition from blues to rock and roll, Bo Diddley was a tragically, commercially under-appreciated American musician. A pioneer in both technique and style, this lesson will examine Diddley's life and music.

Who Was Bo Diddley?

If you went out on the street, David Letterman-style, and asked random people about Bo Diddley, they'd probably say one of a few things: 'You don't know diddley', from the Nike commercials. Maybe they'd clap the beat to Toni Basil's Mickey. They might tell you he was called the 'Originator' because his music paved the transition from blues to rock and roll, or they might know about how he basically ruled the charts from the mid '50s to the mid '60s. Or they'd just look at you funny. Let's look at all those answers more in depth.

A Quick Look at Bo Diddley's Life

Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates on December 30, 1928, in McComb, Mississippi. He went to live with his mother's cousin, Gussie McDaniel, in Chicago, where she eventually adopted him. He received musical training from the local church musicians, and became proficient on the trombone and violin. He married four times, and had four children. His third marriage took place in Birmingham, Alabama and caused some controversy, it being an interracial marriage in the Deep South. He died of congestive heart failure on June 2, 2008 in Archer, Florida.

Bo Diddley Guitar
Bo Diddley Guitar

The Originator

Bo Diddley's sound was a progressive, driving version of the blues. He earned the nickname, 'The Originator' because of this aggressive, electrified sound. His songs featured a much more relentless rhythmic drive than was previously heard in most blues. Combine this with the electrified nature of Chicago blues, and you have the earliest hints of what would become rock and roll. Bo Diddley was even in the second class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

His legacy was both his innovative sound and the sheer influence he had on other musicians of his time and beyond. The Beatles list him as an influence, as do the Rolling Stones. Buddy Holly was a fan; even Elvis Presley was influenced by his style and sound.

What about the name Bo Diddley? Well, he was a bit of a storyteller, so there have been a lot of different explanations as to how he ended up with that name. It might have been a singer friend of his mothers, it might have been an insult that his friends used to call him (short for 'diddly squat', it basically meant 'absolutely nothing', like nothing there or useless). It might have been his ring name when he was a boxer. There are a bunch of stories out there, and we may never know the truth.

The Bo Diddley Beat

The Bo Diddley Beat
Diddley Beat

How famous do you have to be to have your name immortalized as a rhythm pattern? Considering it's basically a clave rhythm (an Afro-Cuban style of rhythmic organization found in nearly all music of this style), the fact that a specific rhythm is remembered as the Bo Diddley beat is remarkable. The difference from the original? It's faster and leans ahead on the beat, rather than relaxing on the beat. To hear what it sounds like, think of the clapping part in Toni Basil's Mickey or I Want Candy by The Strangeloves (originally, though later covered by Bow Wow Wow and Aaron Carter).

The Mid '50s and Mid '60s

Bo Diddley released an absurd amount of albums from 1958 to 1963. Eleven full-length albums with hit singles like Sixteen Tons, Pretty Thing, and You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover. For reference, a full-length album generally runs between 35 to 50 minutes, so we're talking about upwards of 5 hours of music. This doesn't even include his biggest hit singles, Who Do You Love, and Bo Diddley. After this period, Diddley continued as a touring and recording musician, but never really achieved the same commercial success.

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