Bo Diddley: The Originator is Born
Bo Diddley is known as “The Originator” of rock ‘n’ roll, but Diddley knew a thing or two about the blues, too. In fact, Diddley served as one of the crucial bridges between the blues and early rock when the latter was first coming into being. Although he had an indelible impact on rock, influencing many bands from The Yardbirds to The Rolling Stones and beyond, Diddley began his career as a man steeped deeply in the blues.
He certainly had the right geography for it. Born in McComb, Mississippi on December 30, 1928, Elias Bates – the man who later came to be known as Bo Diddley – moved to the south side of Chicago at age 7. The young boy would happily go to church, but not because he loved to pray. Instead, he was there for the music. Church music left a lasting impression on the young Bo Diddley. Before turning to guitar, he took up the violin. But once he heared John Lee Hooker playing “Boogie Chillen,” he knew he had to become a guitar man. The young boy bought his first guitar at age 12 and never looked back.
Bo Diddley Becomes a Man
The aspiring musician began to perform, at first on the streets. Soon enough he was booking gigs in clubs like the 708 club in Chicago. The blues heavily influenced his repertoire and he incorporated music by favorites like John Lee Hooker and Chicago blues innovator Muddy Waters.
At age 26 he decided to audition for Chess Records. It went well and he was able to secure a contract with the subsidiary label Checker Records. After signing the deal, he played a show with Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans which helped to further secure his solid blues credentials. His first single “Bo Diddley” was a monster hit and reached #1 on the R&B charts. The song introduced the world to the “Bo Diddley” beat which is the musical invention he is most famous for. The beat is an African influenced 4/4 rhythm and its syncopated, five-accent swing is instantly recognizable.
But for lovers of pure blues history, it’s the B-side of the smash #1 hit that is of even more interest. That B-Side, “I’m A Man,” is a swaggering, swampy, stop-time, blues powerhouse. Not only did The Yardbirds later cover the song, but it prompted a musical conversation with Muddy Waters who wrote “Mannish Boy” as a musical response to the Diddley tune.
Super Blues & Beyond
Bo Diddley was far from done with the blues after the 50s’. His blues career culminated in the 1967 supergroup studio album Super Blues featuring Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter. The album would feature a new rendition of the song “I’m a Man” along with other songs made famous by members of the group including “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and “Juke.”
In 1997, Diddley released a solo studio album called A Man Amongst Men that was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Speaking of honors and awards, Diddley has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll, Rockabilly, and Blues Halls of Fame. Talk about being a formative influence on twentieth century music!
The blues and rock giant passed away in 2008 of heart failure. But Bo Diddley is still and forever with us in his music and in the infectious, inescapable rhythm of the Bo Diddley beat.
– Brian M. Reiser,
Keeping the Blues Alive