“I’m a man, I spell m-a-n…man,” Bo Diddley sang with male assertiveness in 1955 when this song hit No. 1 on the rhythm and blues charts. And to hear him tell it, he was more than 100 percent man. That man and his remarkable stay among us ended Monday at his home in Archer, Fla. Diddley, who suffered from diabetes, died of heart failure at 79.
Black baby-boomers cut their eyeteeth on Diddley’s “hambone”-style beat, which African American children would do, slapping their hands against the outside and inside of their thighs, now and then popping their mouths to obtain an additional beat and sound effect. Diddley took this game and turned it into a rhythm that would bring lasting fame and influence hundreds of rock ‘n’ roll artists.
“All you pretty women, stand in line,” Diddley commanded–and not only women rushed to hear him, but young men with guitars tried their best to emulate that chomp-da-chomp pulse that can be heard on all of his most popular hits, particularly on “Bo Diddley,” which was on the flip side of “I’m a Man.”
Born Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss., Diddley changed his surname to McDaniel after his mother’s cousin, who raised him. He told so many different stories about how he acquired the name Diddley that it’s hard to tell how it really came about. In one version, he said it came from a one-stringed bow-like instrument that southern musicians used to accompany themselves.
After settling in Chicago in the ’40s, Diddley tried boxing for a while but found a better use for his hands. When he first picked up the guitar, he said he had difficulty separating one hand from the other, so he learned the violin and that helped to keep one hand from following the other. Getting them to work independently was all he needed to launch his career.
For several years he worked the blues clubs of Chicago, playing the music of Louis Jordan, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. But once he hooked up with Billy Boy Arnold late in 1954, Diddley’s first two hits were on the way on Chess Records with an ensemble that included pianist Otis Spann, Lester Davenport on the harmonica, drummer Frank Kirkland and Jerome Green on maracas. On “Say Man,” Diddley and Green would exchange choruses and anyone who knows the “dozens” will find many similarities here. This call and response, like Diddley’s beat, has a connection to African rhythms, and some see “Say Man” as seminal to the development of rap music.
A performance by Diddley at the top of his game was a romping jamboree, and with his conked pompadour hairstyle, black-rimmed glasses, signature hat and box-shaped guitar, he was like a freight train of motion and, like Chuck Berry, he had unique dance steps–a combination of hopping, prancing and the hip gyrations that Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger expropriated. And the later inclusion of Norma Jean Wofford on guitar and back up singers gave his performances even more flair and flamboyance.
Of course, Diddley needed very little to enhance his vibrant, pulsating showmanship, and even toward the end of his career, as a solo act he was as engrossing as ever.
Diddley’s surging sound and incessant beat was “a fundamental building block of the new musical vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll,” said blues scholar Pete Welding.
Among his survivors are Evelyn Kelly, Ellas A. McDaniel, Tammi D. McDaniel and Terri Lynn McDaniel; a brother, the Rev. Kenneth Haynes; 15 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
After a concert in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on May 13, 2007, Diddley had a stroke and was taken to Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha. On Aug. 28, he suffered a heart attack in Gainesville and was hospitalized.
From song to song, Diddley boasted of being a gunslinger, lumberjack and a lover, among other things, but he will probably be remembered best as a phenomenal blues man–with a strong emphasis on “man.”
Funeral services are scheduled for this week in Gainesville, Fla.