Bo Diddley, a singer and guitarist who invented his own name, his own guitars, his own beat and, with a handful of other musical pioneers, rock ’n’ roll itself, died Monday at his home in Archer, Fla. He was 79.
The cause was heart failure, a spokeswoman, Susan Clary, said. Mr. Diddley had a heart attack last August, only months after suffering a stroke while touring in Iowa.
In the 1950s, as a founder of rock ’n’ roll, Mr. Diddley — along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and a few others — helped to reshape the sound of popular music worldwide, building on the templates of blues, Southern gospel, R&B and postwar black American vernacular culture.
His original style of rhythm and blues influenced generations of musicians. And his Bo Diddley syncopated beat — three strokes/rest/two strokes — became a stock rhythm of rock ’n’ roll.
It can be found in Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” Johnny Otis’s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” the Who’s “Magic Bus,” Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One” and U2’s “Desire,” among hundreds of other songs.
Yet the rhythm was only one element of his best records. In songs like “Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love,” “Mona,” “Crackin’ Up,” “Say, Man,” “Ride On Josephine” and “Road Runner,” his booming voice was loaded up with echo and his guitar work came with distortion and a novel bubbling tremolo. The songs were knowing, wisecracking and full of slang, mother wit and sexual cockiness. They were both playful and radical.
So were his live performances: trancelike ruckuses instigated by a large man with a strange-looking guitar. It was square and he designed it himself, long before custom guitar shapes became commonplace in rock.
Mr. Diddley was a wild performer: jumping, lurching, balancing on his toes and shaking his knees as he wrestled with his instrument, sometimes playing it above his head. Elvis Presley, it has long been supposed, borrowed from Mr. Diddley’s stage moves; Jimi Hendrix, too.
Still, for all his fame, Mr. Diddley felt that his standing as a father of rock ’n’ roll was never properly acknowledged. It frustrated him that he could never earn royalties from the songs of others who had borrowed his beat.
“I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob,” he told The New York Times in 2003.
He was a hero to those who had learned from him, including the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. A generation later, he became a model of originality to punk or post-punk bands like the Clash and the Fall.
In 1979 Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon of the Clash asked that Mr. Diddley open for them on the band’s first American tour. “I can’t look at him without my mouth falling open,” Mr. Strummer, star-struck, said during the tour.
For his part Mr. Diddley had no misgivings about facing a skeptical audience. “You cannot say what people are gonna like or not gonna like,” he explained later to the biographer George R. White. “You have to stick it out there and find out! If they taste it, and they like the way it tastes, you can bet they’ll eat some of it!”
Mr. Diddley was born Otha Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss., a small city about 15 miles from the Louisiana border. He was reared primarily by Gussie McDaniel, the first cousin of his mother, Esther Wilson. After the death of her husband, Ms. McDaniel, who had three children of her own, took the family to Chicago, where young Otha’s name was changed to Ellas B. McDaniel. Gussie McDaniel became his legal guardian and sent him to school.
He was 6 when the family resettled on Chicago’s South Side. He described his youth as one of school, church, trouble with street toughs and playing the violin for both band and orchestra, under the tutelage of O. W. Frederick, a prominent music teacher at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Gussie McDaniel taught Sunday school. Ellas studied classical violin from 7 to 15 and started on guitar at 12, when a family member gave him an acoustic model.
He then enrolled at Foster Vocational School, where he built a guitar as well as a violin and an upright bass. But he dropped out before graduating. Instead, with guitar in hand, he began performing in a duo with his friend Roosevelt Jackson, who played the washtub bass. The group became a trio when they added another guitarist, Jody Williams, then a quartet when they added a harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold.
The band, first called the Hipsters and then the Langley Avenue Jive Cats, started playing at the Maxwell Street open-air market. They were sometimes joined by another friend, Samuel Daniel, known as Sandman because of the shuffling rhythms he made with his feet on a wooden board sprinkled with sand.
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