Who’s that big black guy with a square guitar? Those were some of my first thoughts when I saw the George Thorogood & The Destroyers video for the single “Bad to the Bone.” It was 1982, MTV had been launched just a year prior, and I was 11 years old. I had no idea who Bo Diddley was; hell, I had no idea who Thorogood was except for that awesome video where he was shooting pool with Bo. Somehow, I found out that Bo wasn’t just a pool hustlin’, square guitar playin’ extra in the video. This was someone I had to find out more about.
He was born Ellas Otha Bates on December 30, 1928, in McComb, Mississippi. Diddley’s string of name changes came early in his life when he was adopted by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel. Diddley became Ellas McDaniel. When Ellas McDaniel was 6 years old, the family relocated to the South Side of Chicago, where Ellas McDaniel became active in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, learning the trombone and violin. Ellas McDaniel was so well-versed on the violin he played in the church orchestra until he was 18.
Working as a carpenter and mechanic, Ellas McDaniel became enthralled with the guitar after seeing John Lee Hooker in concert. Turns out Ellas McDaniel was just as proficient on the guitar as he was on the violin. He started a street corner band with a group of friends; they dubbed themselves The Hipsters and later changed their name to The Langley Avenue Jive Cats.
By 1951, Ellas McDaniel and his backing band scored a regular gig at the 708 Club on Chicago’s South Side. Ellas McDaniel’s music career was on the rise and he assembled the backing band of Billy Boy Arnold (harmonica), Clifton James (drums), and Roosevelt Jackson (bass) to record the songs “I’m A Man” and “Bo Diddley.” The demo found its way to the would-be legendary record label Chess Records, who had Ellas McDaniel re-record the songs with session musicians Otis Spann (piano), Lester Davenport (harmonica), Frank Kirkland (drums), and Jerome Green (maracas). Chess, just four years into their label, released the single in March of 1955, and the A-side, “Bo Diddley,” became a number one R&B hit.
Now in his late 20s and his music career ready to break wide open, Ellas McDaniel took the stage name Bo Diddley, a nickname Ellas McDaniel’s friends had given him. Why he changed his name is uncertain. [A “diddley bow” is a typically homemade American string instrument of African origin.]
Eight months after releasing the “Bo Diddley” single, Diddley became a household name when he appeared on the “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The show requested that Diddley sing the Merle Travis-penned/Tennessee Ernie Ford hit “Sixteen Tons,” but he sang “Bo Diddley” instead. After Diddley played two songs instead of the scheduled one, Sullivan was furious and told the rising star he wouldn’t last six months in music. Needless to say, Diddley was never invited back to “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Despite the debacle on “The “Ed Sullivan Show,” Diddley’s performance only fueled an already raging fire leading to many more hits thoughout the 1950s including “Pretty Thing” (1956) and “Say Man” (1959). Diddley’s work ethic was impeccable—writing, recording, touring. Between 1958 and 1963, Checker Records released 11 full-length albums by Diddley. In 1963, Diddley went on an all-star tour with Little Richard and the Everly Brothers in the United Kingdom; the opening act for the trio of bands was an upstart London band called the Rolling Stones.
On the road to being a blues, not to mention cross-over success, Diddley broke many barriers in music. He was one of the first performers to surround himself with female musicians. When no other musicians would give female players a second glance, Diddley brought them in. “The Duchess” Norma-Jean Wofford, Gloria Jolivet, Peggy Jones (a.k.a. “Lady Bo,” a rare, for the time, female lead guitarist), Cornelia Redmond (a.k.a. Cookie), and Debby Hastings, who led his band for the final 25 years of his performing career.
Diddley was also one of the first to have his own home recording studio when he moved from Chicago to Washington D.C. He not only recorded the album ‘Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger,’ but he produced and recorded his valet, Marvin Gaye. The Diddley-penned, “Wyatt Earp” was Gaye’s first single released on Okeh Records; Diddley was responsible for giving Gaye his major break in music.
The early 1970s took an odd turn for Diddley, who moved once again, this time to Los Lunas, New Mexico, where he lived from 1971 to 1978 and became the Deputy Sheriff in the Valencia County Citizens’ Patrol for more than two years. While on the force, Diddley bought and donated a trio of highway patrol cars. After his time in New Mexico, Diddley packed up and move to a large estate in Hawthorne, Florida where he lived in custom made log-cabin home. For the remainder of his life, Diddley spent time between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Florida, living the last 13 years of his life in Archer, Florida, a small farming community outside of Gainesville.
In between moving, building a log home, and being a Sheriff, Diddley’s musical career kept him steadily busy. In 1979, the blues legend opened for punk rock royalty, The Clash , on their American tour. He went back overseas as part of the Legends of Guitar tour which also featured B.B. King, Les Paul, Albert Collins, and George Benson, among others.
Then there was the George Thorogood video, where I first discovered the man with the square guitar. A few years later, Diddley was part of the major Nike campaign “Bo Knows” with two-sport athlete Bo Jackson. Diddley was 74, and once again a household name much like after his Sullivan appearance. The more I saw Diddley in his live performances and the more I discovered his back catalog of music, the more I found a great respect and love for the man.
On May 12, 2007, Diddley was playing a show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but was telling his friends he wasn’t feeling well. He went on to play an energetic show for an enthusiastic crowd, but after the show on his way home, Diddley, who had a history of hypertension and diabetes, suffered a stroke and was admitted to intensive care at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Once Diddley was home in Florida and recovering from the stroke, he suffered a heart attack on August 28.
A few months later, Diddley was being honored with a commemoration on the Mississippi Blues Trail in his hometown of McComb, Mississippi. Despite his failing health, Diddley made the trip, but wasn’t scheduled to perform. But when he heard local musician Jesse Robinson playing a song he had written especially for Diddley on this occasion, Diddley got on stage with Robinson for a performance, which would be his last.
Bo Diddley died at 1:45 am EDT on June 2, 2008, of heart failure at his home in Archer, Florida, with more than 35 family members at his home.
In the years since his death there have been many tributes, awards, books, and documentaries in honor of Bo Diddley. His music lives on in television, movies, and, of course, YouTube. When I watch the George Thorogood & the Destroyers video for “Bad to the Bone” now I feel like I am that little kid discovering music again—only this time I know who the cat is with the square guitar. That is the one and only Bo Diddley.