Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates in Mississippi, on December 30, 1928. After his father’s death at just seven years old, Ellas moved up to Chicago with his aunt, who later adopted him, and he took the surname McDaniel. In Chicago, he was introduced to the classical violin by Professor O.W. Frederick at the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which soon led him to the guitar. His first band took the name of “The Langley Avenue Jive Cats,” and they played primarily at the Maxwell Street market. Although they did not have much success on a local level, they were soon recognized by Checker Records, a Chess Records subsidiary, where McDaniel made his first recorded single on March 2, 1955, as Bo Diddley. The hit “Bo Diddley”/”I’m A Man” was a major success and stood at the top of the R&B charts for weeks. Despite his success, like many other Blues artists of the time, Bo Diddley struggled in his relationships with record labels and television companies since they refused to give him credit and royalties that he rightfully deserved. Although his popularity diminished in the United States, he did become widely popular across the seas in many European countries. Unfortunately, his unwillingness to travel cost him several years of touring, and the attention of the people moved from the Chicago Blues to the British Invasion. In his last years, he was recognized for his talents and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. He then passed away in 2008 at the age of seventy-nine.
The Bo Diddley Beat
Bo Diddley is much more than a name; rather, Bo Diddley is a legacy and musical style that has impacted the world’s take on music. Bo Diddley began to solidify his unique sound after picking up the guitar by reconstructing his musical equipment, such as his amplifier and his tremolo unit, which he made from various car parts and other household mechanisms. These adjustments complemented his violin-like techniques that featured distorted and muted string sounds.
This sound was first featured on the song recording “Bo Diddley,” and it uses a combination of maracas and guitar. Coined by Ellas McDaniel, the Bo Diddley Beat is a two-measure, syncopated pattern. This beat was similar to “ham boning,” also known as “Pattin’ Juba,” a traditional African American slapping rhythm. This musical technique allowed musicians to create different rhythms by hitting different body parts to create various sounds and tones. It can also be found in the roots of African-Cuban music.
In accompaniment with McDaniel’s unique sound, he created a pathway towards the creation of rock and roll. We can often identify this sound in songs by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Buddy Holiday, Johnny Otis. Bruce Springsteen, U2, and many more. Other rock and roll influences include Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Although Bo Diddley did not feel that he received enough recognition for his impact on American music, today, the Bo Diddley Beat is recognized by musicians worldwide. It can still be found in today’s rocker’s vocabulary.
For my readers who are uninformed about what the Bo Diddley Beat sounds like, here is a video of Bo Diddley performing on the Ed Sullivan Show.
How did Bo Diddley Get His Name?
Given the song’s success, many say that McDaniel took on the name, but others disagree, claiming that it came much earlier. Many have speculated the origins. There are many valid interpretations of why he selected Bo Diddley to be his stage name, ranging from the usage of stage names in vaudeville shows to its correspondence to various instruments, and even to its slang translation meaning “absolutely nothing.”
The most straightforward interpretation of the three is logical in its approach. This theory states that his name is rooted in the instrument, the diddley bow, referred to as the jitterbug, the one-string, or a monochord zither. This one stringed West African guitar was a homemade instrument that required only four components to make, a wooden board, a glass bottle bridge, two screws, and a single wire tied around each bolt. By plucking the string and applying pressure with an instrument slide, the player changed the pitch and tones of the sound emanated from the tension string. This instrument was first documented during the 1930s in the Mississippi Delta regions and is often associated with the cigar box guitar. The diddley bow was the starter instrument for children who expressed an interest in music early on. Given that these children proved their musical skills, they would then learn the guitar and several other instruments.
Diddly Bow Dulcimer made by Compton Jones; Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
Despite there being no record that Bo Diddley did use a diddley bow as a child, he did play other stringed instruments such as the violin before picking up the guitar, which uses similar finger plucking methods. Perhaps influenced by his African roots and his love for strung instruments, Ellas McDaniels took on the name.
Others have speculated that the name Bo Diddley takes root in the insults given to him by his peers. Being derived from the slang phrase “diddley squat,” which translates to “absolutely nothing,” Bo Diddley was given the nickname Bo Diddley from his neighborhood friends.
Another account of the story is as follows. Coming from the countryside into the Chicago area, he was teased and harassed by the younger children. At times, the teasing also became more hands-on, and as a result, McDaniels learned how to fight. One day, while fighting, one of the by-standing neighborhood girls yelled out, “Man, you’re a bo diddley!” No one had a clue as to what it meant, but it stuck to him throughout his life, even as a boxer during his early years.
The final interpretation we will be discussing in this post was inspired by Black vaudeville performers. Before his birth, many performers took on the stage name Bo Diddley, and names similar to it, for its colorful interpretation and thought-provoking appeal. Some say that this name is directly related to his aunt’s friend, but many have stated otherwise.
Many other stories exist that focus on how Bo Diddley goes his name, but the examples above are a few more prominent accounts. As we look at the early history of the Blues and famous Black Blues musicians, we tend to find several interpretations of the same stories that vary greatly. Primarily, Blues historians rely on first-person narratives. However, due to the social and racial implications of the United States during the early 1900s, we have little to no physical records about some of these stories.
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