Bo Diddley’s Lasting Legacy

Often credited with being a key figure in the transition from blues to rock and roll, Bo Diddley (30 December 1928 – 2 June 2008) introduced powerful rhythms and a hard-edged guitar sound to the music world, spanning the racial divide between black and white music lovers. Readily recognized for his black Stetson hat, dark-rimmed glasses and rectangular guitar, Bo Diddley’s innovative approach to music had a far-reaching influence on many of today’s music genres.

Born as Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi on 30 December 1928, Bo Diddley was raised by his mother’s cousin Gussie McDaniel. He was legally adopted by his guardian and took on the name Ellas McDaniel. He was seven when the family moved to Chicago, where he took violin lessons for a time. After seeing John Lee Hooker, Bo was inspired to become a guitarist. Along with some friends, he played on street corners as a band called the Hipsters – humble beginnings to what would become a long and illustrious music career.

In 1951 he adopted the stage name of Bo Diddley when he landed a regular spot at Chicago’s South Side 708 Club, a popular nightclub venue which regularly hosted musical greats such as John Lee Hooker, Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters. In March 1955 his first single was released with the A-side “Bo Diddley” becoming a #1 R&B hit, introducing the talented musician to the world.

Bo Diddley was renowned for the rumba-like beat of his music, which came to be known as the “Bo Diddley Beat”. Some of his songs have no chord changes at all, with the musicians playing the same chord throughout the piece, allowing the rhythms to carry the song, examples of this being “Hey Bo Diddley” and “Who Do You Love?”. He used a variety of rhythms in his recordings, including back beat and pop ballad styles, often featuring Jerome Green playing the maracas. Bo Diddley was both an accomplished guitarist and violinist and many of his witty lyrics were inspired by folk music themes. He was one of the first American male musicians to include women in his band. Musicians and bands who have acknowledged that they were influenced by Bo Diddley’s music include Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, the Clash, Iggy Pop, U2, ZZ Top and the White Stripes.

Bo Diddley received many accolades for his role as one of the founders of rock and roll. These include being inducted into the Washington Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame and the North Florida Music Association’s Hall of Fame. He received a Pioneer in Entertainment Award from the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters in 2002, as well as an Icon Award from Broadcast Music Incorporated.

The news of Bo Diddley’s death on 2 June 2008 was greeted with an outpouring of sadness, but also of appreciation for the significant contribution that he had made to the music industry during his 50 year career.