Bo Diddley, 1928-2008: Remembering One of the Fathers of  Rock and Roll

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I'm­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.  Bo Diddley was one of America's greatest rock and roll guitarists.  His influence was so widespread that it is hard to imagine what rock and roll would have sounded like without him.  Today, we explore the life and music of Bo Diddley.

(MUSIC: "Bo Diddley")

That was the song "Bo Diddley," released in nineteen fifty-five.  It was his first hit.  It established what became known as "the Bo Diddley beat."  It is linked to a children's hand clapping game, "hambone."  Bo Diddley said he first heard the beat in a church.  But it is also a rhythm found in African-Caribbean music.  And it has a southern blues base as well.

This hit song from the same year is another good example of the Bo Diddley beat. It is called "Pretty Thing."

Bo Diddley died of heart failure in two thousand eight at his home in Florida. He was seventy-nine.

Music had been a part of his life since his early years.  He was born Otha Ellas Bates in nineteen twenty-eight in McComb, Mississippi. His mother, Esther Wilson, was an unmarried teenager.  She and her son went to live with her cousin, Gussie McDaniel.  Bo Diddley later said Gussie McDaniel raised both him and his mother. Otha was re-named Ellas McDaniel.  The family moved to Chicago, Illinois.

When Ellas was seven, he began learning classical violin from a church music teacher.  He continued to study violin until he was fifteen.  He did not even pick up a guitar until he was twelve and received one as a gift from his sister.  But it was the guitar that captured his imagination forever. Here he explains how he developed his guitar sound.

BO DIDDLEY: "I took it home and learned how to play on one string, 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' The other strings didn't make a difference.  Then I accidentally tuned it the way I'm tuning it now.  I say I'm playing it backwards.  I don't play like the average guitar player, the cats who move their fingers all around like this.  I do it in chords, and basically, do almost the same thing."

When he was in his twenties, Ellas McDaniel formed a band called the Langley Avenue Jive Cats.  He was not able to make enough money to support himself, however.  So he found other work. He worked in a food store and a picture frame factory. He worked as an elevator operator and a meat packer. He even fought as a boxer. Finally, in nineteen fifty-four, the band got the break it was hoping for.  The Jive Cats made a recording of their music to present to Chess Records.

Leonard and Phil Chess were happy with what they heard and agreed to sign the band to a recording contract.

(MUSIC: "The Story of Bo Diddley")

There are many stories about how Bo Diddley got his name.  Some reports say one of the band members suggested the new name shortly after they were signed by Chess Records.  Other reports say Bo Diddley took the name when he became a boxer.  Still others say the name came from a homemade one-string instrument called a diddley bow.  Apparently Bo Diddley did not clear up the mystery.  He told several versions of the source of his name.
Many bands sang this next Bo Diddley song for many years.  From nineteen fifty-seven, here is "Mona (I Need You Baby)."

Bo Diddley's success continued through the nineteen fifties.  He appeared on television and on stage.  He performed in a national concert series, sometimes with another rock and roll guitar great, Chuck Berry.

However, his love life was never as smooth as his music.  Diddley was first married at age eighteen and three times after that.  All of his marriages ended in divorce.

However, Bo Diddley did have good relationships with female musicians.  He was one of the first rock and rollers to have a female guitarist.  Peggy Jones joined his band in the late nineteen fifties as "Lady Bo."  Later, she was replaced by Norma-Jean Wofford, whose stage name was "the Duchess."

(MUSIC: "I'm A Man")

That was the Yardbirds performing Bo Diddley's song "I'm A Man."  The so-called British Invasion by that band, the Rolling Stones and others in the nineteen sixties helped renew interest in Bo Diddley's music.  Now, others were recording his songs or performing his style.  In fact, American musician Buddy Holly admitted his hit "Not Fade Away" borrowed much of Diddley's sound. At first, Bo Diddley said he was not happy about other musicians copying him.  But then he said he realized he "must be doing something right."

In the early nineteen seventies, Bo Diddley moved to the state of New Mexico and became a law official in the town of Los Lunas.  However, he continued to make records for Chess until nineteen seventy-four.

Later Bo Diddley appeared in the popular movie, "Trading Places." He also appeared in a well-known television advertising campaign for the Nike sportswear company.  He was admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio in nineteen eighty-seven. He won a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in nineteen ninety-eight.

Bo Diddley lived his final years on more than thirty hectares of land near Gainesville, Florida.  He liked to fish.  He also still performed at shows around the country.  His last recording was "A Man Amongst Men," released in nineteen ninety-six.  Here is the title song from that album.

This program was written by Caty Weaver and produced by Lawan Davis.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.  You can learn about other interesting Americans on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com.  We leave you now with Bo Diddley performing "Bo Diddley Nineteen Sixty-Nine."