Cover bands play the Bo Diddley beat formulaically. But in Bo Diddley's hands, the beat was alive. He did something different with it every time he recorded it. It's the difference between copying and creating.
He was born Ellas Bates in McComb, Mississippi, not far from the Louisiana border, on December 30, 1928. His teenage mother was unable to care for him, and he never knew his father, so the future Bo Diddley was adopted by his mother's cousin Gussie McDaniel, who gave him her last name and moved him to Chicago when he was about 7. There he was present at the creation of one of the great American musics: the electric Chicago blues.
The city was full of African-Americans looking for work and escaping the poverty, discrimination and lynchings of the Jim Crow South, and they constituted a strong local audience for music. More than a decade younger than Muddy Waters, and almost 20 years younger than Howlin' Wolf, Ellas McDaniel was a punk kid by comparison. "We used to be three dudes going down the street with a washtub, a little raggedy guitar and another cat with maracas," he told writer Neil Strauss in 2005. "Bo Diddley," his first record, went to No. 1 on the rhythm and blues chart without denting the pop chart. He appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on November 20, 1955—almost a year before Elvis Presley did. But Sullivan got mad at him for playing "Bo Diddley" instead of his one-chord cover version of "Sixteen Tons" (then the top recording in the nation, but by Tennessee Ernie Ford) and never had him back.
A generation of white kids first heard the Bo Diddley beat through cover songs and knockoffs, such as the Everly Brothers' 1957 hit "Bye Bye Love." Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" (1957), originally a B-side but his most-covered song over the years, was based on Bo Diddley's "Mona." The entire British Invasion generation felt Bo Diddley's impact. He played dates in the United Kingdom in 1963 with Little Richard, the Everly Brothers and, making their first tour, the Rolling Stones. Bo Diddley's material was a basic building block of the Stones' sound. In 1964, their version of "Not Fade Away," in a style that was more Diddley than Holly, became their first U.S. single.
Bo Diddley revolutionized the texture of pop music. He put the rhythm in the foreground, stripping away the rest, and customized the space with tremolo, distortion, echo and reverb, to say nothing of maracas. The way he chunked on the lower strings was a primary model for what was later known as rhythm guitar. He had lots of space to fill up with his guitar, because his records had no piano and no bass. Which also meant no harmonic complications.
Hanging on a single tone, never changing chords—the writer Robert Palmer called that the "deep blues," something that reached from Chicago back to the front-porch style of Missis- sippi and Louisiana. Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters recorded one-chord songs before Bo Diddley did, but he made them central to his repertoire.
Both sides of Bo Diddley's first single were one-chord tunes. "I'm a Man," the B-side, cut at the same March 2, 1955, session as "Bo Diddley," was just as potent, with a marching, swinging, one-bar throb that hit a bluesy chord insistently every fourth beat. It was a rewrite of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man," and Waters in turn reworked "I'm a Man" into one of his biggest hits, the one-chord "Mannish Boy," the stretched-out highlight of Martin Scorsese's concert film The Last Waltz.
The very name Bo Diddley implies a single chord, though he disclaimed having known the term "diddley bow" when he began using his stage name. The diddley bow, a single strand of wire nailed at both ends to a board, was a fundamental African musical instrument of the down-home American South. Bo Diddley played guitar as if it was a diddley bow with frets, barring up and down with his index finger—he did not play with a bottleneck—while chopping the rhythm with his right hand.
He was a key figure in the invention of psychedelic guitar. He found new ways to mess with the sound, making rhythm out of everything the pickups could detect. At first he couldn't afford an electric guitar; he used spare parts to electrify his acoustic one. He built his own tremolo device, creating a complex sound pattern when he played rhythm chords through it. "Down Home Special" (1956), with its railroad-chug guitar, echo, distorted vocal, rhythmic train whistle sound effect and wash of maracas, all in a minor-key blues, was ten years ahead of its time. The now-classic, much-abused Pete Townshend string scrape—running the edge of the guitar pick down the length of the wrapped wire of the low E string—was lifted from Bo Diddley's 1960 proto-garage classic "Road Runner."
The first instrument Bo Diddley played as a child was the violin—along with the banjo, a common African-American instrument in the 19th and early 20th centuries—and he may have been the first person to play a blues violin solo in a rock 'n' roll context. With echo, of course.