Bo Diddley:1928–2008

Some musicians are remembered for a single remarkable album; some are remembered for a hit song—Bo Diddley will always be remembered for a beat. That eponymous beat—a rhumba-inflected Bomp a-bomp-a-bomp, bomp, bomp—may well have been "the most plagiarized rhythm in rock," as Rolling Stone claimed in 2005.

Diddley was born in December 1928 as either Ellas Otha Bates or Otha Ellis Bates (like many details of Diddley's life, he recounted several versions of the story). He was raised by his mother's first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, who became his legal guardian when he was six. He eventually dropped Otha from his name and called himself Ellas McDaniel. McDaniel studied classical violin for eight years, starting at the age of seven. When he was 12, he began playing guitar. (Several versions of that story exist, too. My favorite was his claim that he looked around and didn't see any black classical violinists, so he did the math and learned guitar.)

Diddley and two friends began entertaining on the street for tips and made such good money, he said, that he never looked back. The songs were primarily variations on the "dozens," which, Diddley would later claim, meant that he had pioneered rap music 50 years ahead of its popularity.

Diddley also developed his signature beat, his stage name, and the two songs that became his breakout hit: "Bo Diddley" and "I'm a Man." Released on Chess, that double-A single became a monster hit—bursting out of the R&B charts (where it topped at #2) into broad popularity. Other musicians immediately recognized the power of the beat and adopted it—Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" obviously borrowed it (when the Rolling Stones covered "Not Fade Away," they amplified that beat and the single that resulted made them stars).

While Diddley had other hits—"Who Do You Love?" and his surprisingly popular "outtake" "Say Man," for example—he never had a lot of chart success. He was, however, enormously influential. Diddley himself claimed that he and Chuck Berry invented rock'n'roll and that Elvis simply borrowed the formula they had created.

Diddley also created a sound—he claimed to have invented the whammy bar and he frequently added electronic devices to his guitars to create his signature fat, heavily distorted sound. He was also known for his stage antics, which included wild dances, playing behind his back, and picking with his teeth.

Diddley's records could be very good indeed, but his concerts always delivered 110%. In the '70s, if you went to a Chuck Berry concert, he was likely to arrive late and phone it in; Bo Diddley, in contrast, would simply wear out his audiences, playing until they had to respond. This video, despite its "arty" effects, distills the experience perfectly—even the MC can't get Diddley to stop before he was good and ready.

Diddley was the real thing: an originator, a pioneer, an inventor, but most of all, he was an entertainer who was most alive when he was in front of thousands of admirers. Count the Stereophile family among them—not that he ever lacked for them.