Arthur Fiedler, Laurence Olivier, Muddy Waters … there are certain celestial-types whose soaring careers were so enduring that a youthful countenance isn’t what comes to mind when their names are mentioned. And to these you can add an artist who, like Fiedler, rather amazingly began as a violinist.
Born in Mississippi in 1928, Ellas Otha Bates was raised by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel (Ellas McDaniel would be his songwriting name) in the South Side of Chicago. As a teen he not only studied the violin, he actually learned how to make them at a local vocational school.
Then he saw John Lee Hooker perform and the aspiring musician put down his bow and, with a voc-made guitar in hand, joined some friends in a street-corner band. It took a few years, but by 1951 young Ellas had developed a signature playing style and was offered a regular gig at a nearby club. All he needed was a solid stage name, which he found in a colloquial phrase (whose literal meaning is ‘absolutely nothing’), “Bo Diddley.”
Revered for the powerful, rhythmic, “jingle-jangle” beat that remains a Hip-Hop staple to this day, the inventive Blues/Rockabilly guitarist would come to cast a powerful influence over legions of music legends in the years ahead, among them: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones (and the Beatles for that matter), Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, and Parliament Funkadelic.
Bo Diddley’s trademark instrument was the cigar-box shaped “Twang Machine” that he designed after a memorable performance early in his career. While leaping around the stage with a traditional Gibson guitar he injured himself in the groin and quickly decided to come up with something a little “less restrictive” to keep the good-time acrobatics alive.
Paired with “I’m a Man” as its B-side, this song (named for the performer, not the writer) impressively became a Two-Sided Number One (!) R&B hit in 1955 … which led to a much coveted appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Unfortunately the short-fused Sullivan was expecting a rendition of (the Tennessee Ernie Ford hit) “Sixteen Tons” and was so furious when Bo Diddley played “Bo Diddley” that he never invited him back again. “Ed Sullivan said that I was the first black boy to ever double-cross him on the show,” Diddley later recalled. “ He said I wouldn’t last six months.”
Fortunately, for those of us who took a while to discover him, that prediction fell slightly shy of the mark and the great Bo Diddley’s career lasted for another 52 years, with tracks that would be covered by the likes of: Bruce Springsteen, CCR, Aerosmith, The Clash, The Kinks, The Who, Tom Petty, The Zombies, The Animals, Bob Seger, The Yardbirds, The Grateful Dead, The Doors…
“I used to get mad about people recording my things,” said Diddley late in his career. “But now I got a new thing going. I don’t get mad about them recording my material because they keep me alive.”
Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring
If that diamond ring don’t shine
He gonna take it to a private eye
If that private eye can’t see
He’d better not take the ring from me
Bo Diddley caught a nanny goat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday coat
Bo Diddley caught a bearcat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday hat
Mojo come to my house, ya black cat bone
Take my baby away from home
Ugly ol’ Mojo, where ya been?
Up your house and gone again
Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley have you heard?
My pretty baby said she was a bird…