Early Rock Hall of Famer known for innovative beat, wide influence

1928-2008:

June 03, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

It's the beat that will forever link him to rock 'n' roll: Bomp, da-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp. Bo Diddley only scored a handful of hits in the mid-1950s and early '60s. But his incantational rhythmic innovations - as heard on such classics as "Bo Diddley" (1955), "Say Man" (1959) and "You Can't Judge a Book By the Cover" (1962) - helped cement blues' transition into rock.

For that alone, Mr. Diddley, who died yesterday of heart failure at age 79, was a celebrated pop figure for more than 50 years.

His influence was immediate. Not long after the artist topped the R&B charts with 1955's "Bo Diddley," his bedrock beats, echoing with rhythms of Africa, were absorbed into music by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Perhaps the most blatant Diddley rip-off came a decade later with "I Want Candy," an immortal pop hit for the Strangeloves.

But the impact of his music went well beyond the famed Bo Diddley beat. His wisecracking, boastful lyrics and conversational style on the microphone set the foundation for hip-hop, which flowered some 20 years after Mr. Diddley released his string of hits. His fuzzy, tremolo guitar, prominent on "Bo Diddley" and "I'm a Man," expanded the instrument's role in rock and set the foundation for funk and, later, punk. He even fashioned a square-shaped guitar, which served more of a functional purpose: It was easier to handle during Mr. Diddley's jumping and hip-wiggling antics on stage. And decades before Sly and the Family Stone and the White Stripes, Mr. Diddley prominently featured female musicians in his band.

But the most amazing thing about the performer's deceptively simple approach is that it never forsook the grit of the blues. In Mr. Diddley's music, you felt the unrelenting Mississippi sun of his early childhood and the jaggedness of his rough adolescence on Chicago's South Side. Bo Diddley's music - every stinging guitar note and every hypnotic rhythm pattern - kept it real.

He was born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Miss., on Dec. 30, 1928. He was raised by a woman named Gussie McDaniels, his mother's cousin, who later gave him her surname. At age 7, Mr. Diddley moved with Ms. McDaniels to Chicago, where he took violin lessons. But the city's emerging electric blues sound (as heard on early Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf records, which were issued by the bustling local label, the legendary Chess Records) fascinated the boy. When Mr. Diddley was 12 years old, he saw a life-changing John Lee Hooker performance. Soon afterward, he laid down the violin and picked up the guitar. By age 17, he had pieced together a band and was performing on street corners on Chicago's South Side. Even then, Mr. Diddley was innovative.

"We used to carry a washtub bass around and, since we didn't have no drums, we made noise on a board," the rock legend told Rolling Stone magazine in 2005. "But then I learned about a paper bag. Put a paper bag in your pants and then you can hit it to make a beat."

To snatch more attention of passers-by, Mr. Diddley eventually electrified his guitar from old radio and phonograph parts. For percussion, he made maracas for one of his bandmates, using the floating rubber ball from an old toilet and filling it with black-eyed peas. Mr. Diddley worked the street corners and local clubs for a while before signing a deal with Chess Records, which released 11 albums by the artist between 1958 and 1963.

Right out of the gate, Mr. Diddley's music defied easy categorization. And more than 50 years later, it still does. The sound of "Bo Diddley" - its insistent beat, heavily reverberating guitar and frenzied maracas - was primal and progressive, rural and urban. The song's B-side, "I'm a Man," was a musky, swaggering tune whose lyrics revealed glints of nihilism ("Just 22, and I don't mind dying") that presaged gangsta rap. In his music, Mr. Diddley tightly wove together threads of ancient African rhythms, the raw blues of the South and streetwise urban noise. He overlaid it all with whip-smart lyrics that dirtied up old nursery rhymes and echoed "the dozens," the old street corner game of put-downs.

In his later years, he regularly toured the international oldies circuit, performing with much of the same swagger of his youth, before his health started to fail. He was rightfully one of the first inductees into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and nearly 10 years later he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In interviews, Mr. Diddley was always forthright about the uniqueness of his music.

"I couldn't play like other people wanted me to," he said three years ago. "I played backward. You can't change my stuff. I am me."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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