Diddley’s guitar style inspired ’60s groups
Rolling Stones never forgot their debt to early rocker and his distinctive rhythms
Bo Diddley would have been immensely rich had it been possible to copyright a rhythm.
The distorted shuffle beat he created on guitar in the mid-1950s is the taproot of rhythm and blues and rock music.
Diddley, who died yesterday of heart failure at 79, strongly influenced British guitarists Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones as well as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page during their days in the Yardbirds.
In 1965, The Animals composed a tribute to Diddley called The Story of Bo Diddley, which traced the early days of R&B and gave Diddley his due as a pioneer of the music.
“I play the guitar as if I was playing the drums,” Diddley once explained.
“It’s mixed up with spiritual, sanctified rhythms, and the feeling I put into when I’m playing, I have the feeling of making people shout.”
Diddley, born Otha Ellas Bates (some sources cite it as Ellas Otha Bates) on Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Miss., moved to Chicago at age seven.
He was a consummate showman and self-mythologizer who named himself after the diddley bow — a one-string African guitar. He built his own exoticallyshaped guitars, the most famous of which resembled a cigar box with strings.
Diddley was one of rock’s first bad boys. Who Do You Love, one of his best-known songs, begins with the lines:
“I walk 47 miles of barbwire/
I use a cobra snake for a necktie.”
His house, the song goes, is covered in rattlesnake hide and has a chimney “made outta human skulls.”
With his black glasses and low-slung guitar, Diddley was rock’s gunslinger, always moving on.
His first recording on the Chess/Checker label in 1955 was the two-sided No. 1 hit on the R&B charts Bo Diddley/ I’m A Man.
On Say Man, a 1959 hit, Diddley traded insults with his maracas player Jerome Green.
The song was a musical version of “the dozens,” a sort of street corner banter between young men that originated in black neighbourhoods across the United States. Some critics cite Say Man as a forerunner of rap music, although the insults in rap went far beyond the playful stage.
Diddley styled himself “The Originator.” His music was heavily percussive, with tambourines and maracas adding textures to his chunking guitar sound, which he achieved by choking the strings as he played.
On their first tour of the United Kingdom in 1963, the Rolling Stones opened for Diddley and the Everly Brothers.
Soon afterward, Mick Jagger was playing both tambourine and maracas on the band’s first records. The Stones’ early sound was epitomized by the one-two punch of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Their version of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away is notable for its emphasis of the Diddley rhythm.
“We used the harmonica a lot back then and maracas, tambourines and that Bo Diddley jungle rhythm format,” former Stones bassist Bill Wyman said in a 2002 interview.
“We tried to get that really earthy thing because we liked it. It wasn’t fake. It wasn’t pseudo. It was really down to earth and very, very exciting. We’d play this stuff to people’s faces and we’d see their mouths gape.”
The Stones never forgot their musical debt to Diddley. In 1987, Richards was on hand in New York when Diddley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and jammed with him afterwards. Later that year, Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood teamed up with Diddley for a lengthy tour of North America, Japan and Europe as a duo.
Diddley was also invited onstage with the Stones during their televised concert in Miami during the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour.
The music business was not as kind to Diddley.
In 1994, a Los Angeles court ruled that Diddley had been cheated by his ex-manager and awarded the singer $400,000 in back payments. It’s uncertain how much money, if any, was paid back to Diddley.