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Rockphiles Artist Profile

Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley might not have had as many hit singles as some of his contemporaries, but his influence on rock and roll is incalculable - reflected in his early (1987) induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though he didn't (as he occasionally professes to believe) invent the "Bo Diddley" shave-and-a-haircut beat heard on The Rolling Stones's Not Fade Away, the Who's Magic Bus and Bruce Springsteen's She's the One, he certainly popularized it, while writing and recording a strong of standards including Who Do You Love, I'm a Man, Crackin' Up, Before You Accuse Me and Mona. He was especially popular among the bluesier '60s British acts, including The Animals, the Yardbirds, the Stones...and The Pretty Things, who took their name from one of his songs.

Ellas Bates (you didn't think "Bo Diddley" was his birth name, did you?) was born in McComb, Mississippi, and moved to Chicago at an early age with his mother's cousin, who raised him. By 1955, when he was signed to Chess Records' subsidiary, Checker, Diddley had been a professional musician for five years; his first single, coupling the jaunty Bo Diddley (a re-working of the old folk song Mockingbird) and the threatening I'm a Man, became a national hit. Unlike many of his fellow Chicago bluesmen, Diddley moved easily between blues and rock and roll circles.

Like Chuck Berry, Diddley's music was often humorous; his hit singles Say, Man and Say Man, Back Again drew from the old black tradition of cheerily tossing insults at one another; he and maracas player Jerome Green acting like a couple of old vaudevillians, speaking (not singing) over an insistent beat. It wasn't exactly a direct ancestor of rap, but certainly a close relative. On the other hand, his ominous Who Do You Love sounded as though it had been wrought in the bowels of hell - or at least a dark voodoo ritual. Young white kids on both sides of the Atlantic (at least those who weren't still hooked on Frankie Avalon and Connie Francis records) ate it up.

Later in life, Diddley attempted to adapt to musical changes, never successfully, and seemed to resent having to play his old hits verbatim. He retired from time to time (most oddly, perhaps, to a stint as sheriff of a small New Mexico town), and occasionally showed up on the rock and roll revival circuit. But whether or not he was able to produce anything of value after the mid-'60s, when scores of younger musicians took over his songbook, his place as a founding father and genuine icon cannot be denied.

© 2004