Bo Diddley’s syncopated “hambone” beat-CHINK-a-CHINK-a-CHINK, a-CHINK-CHINK – is a cornerstone of rock & roll songs, from Diddley’s own “Who Do You Love”, “Mona”, “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man” to the Who’s “Magic Bus”, Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One” and the Pretenders “Cuban Slide”.
Adopted by a Mississippi share cropping family, he moved with them to the South Side of Chicago. As a child, he began studying violin under Professor O.W. Frederick at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In grammar school he acquired his Bo Diddley nickname (a ‘Diddleybow” is a one-stringed African guitar). By the time he entered Foster Vocational School in his early teens, he had switched to the guitar and regularly played on Chicago’s Maxwell Street when he was not in school, where he learned to make violins and guitars. (He also built his first rectangular guitar at age 15). After several years of performing on street corners, he played at the 708 Club in 1951 and became a regular South Side performer for the next four years.
In July 1955 Leonard Chess signed Diddley to his Checker label. Diddley’s first single, “Bo Diddley”, was an immediate #1 R&B success. “I’m a Man” (1955, later recorded by the Yardbirds and others) also fared well on the R&B chart. His biggest pop success came in 1959, when “Say Man” (#3 R&B) hit the Top 20 late in the year. He had a lesser hit in 1962 with the rollicking “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” (#38 pop, #21 R&B).
Diddley toured steadily through the late ‘50’s and early ‘60s, playing rock package tours and one-nighters’ at R&B venues. The band that recorded with him in the mid-‘50s included drummers Clifton James and Frank Kirkland, pianist Otis Spann, Bo’s half sister “The Duchess” on guitar and vocals, and Diddley’s eternal sidekick, bassist and maracas shaker Jerome Gren (who also provided call-and-response repartee on “Hey Bo Diddley” and “Bring It to Jerome”).
Diddley’s legacy was enhanced considerably during the mid-‘60s, when many of his songs were covered by British Invasion groups like the Rolling Stones. In 1964 the Animals paid tribute to him in an album track entitled “The Story of Bo Diddley”. Through the years, his material has also been recorded by countless other artists.
Diddley had recorded erratically since the early’60s, with a catalogue that even includes surfing albums (“Surfin’ With Bo Diddley”). In the mid-‘60s he recorded traditional blues with Little Walter and Muddy Waters on ”Superblues” (re-issued in 1986). In the early ‘70s Diddley continued to tour frequently, concentrating on Europe. One such outing was documented in ”Let the Good Times Roll”. Around the same time, he also appeared in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Keep On Rockin”. In 1976 RCA released “20th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, a tribute to Diddley that featured over 20 artists. Diddley opened several dates for the Clash on their 1979 U.S. tour. He made cameo appearances in George Thorogood’s video “Bad to the Bone” (1982) and played a pawnbroker in the Dan Aykroyd-Eddie Murphy movie, “Trading Places”. In 1998 he appeared in “Blues Brothers 2000”. He tried recording over electro-funk grooves on 1992’s “This Should Not Be”; critics agreed with the album’s title.
Despite a lack of commercial success, Bo Diddley’s stature as a founding father of rock & roll is undiminished. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1996 he released his first major-label album in two decades, “A Man Amongst Men”.