Today is the birthday of Ellas McDaniel, better known as Bo Diddley (1928-2008). While not usually placed in the pantheon of influential 50s rockers that includes Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard, he most assuredly belongs there. His shadow is long, and falls in many directions. The songs that he wrote have been covered far and wide; his signature beat (the rhumba-influenced “Bo Diddley Beat”) has become a permanent part of any rock band’s tool kit (I first learned it when my high school punk band covered “I Want Candy”), and ultimately his style, humor and flair would come to influence rap and hip hop (Run-DMC in particular, I’ve always thought. )
I got to see him live once, in around 1988, at the Bottom Line, I think. He was an hour late and his set was a half hour long. This is why playing records at home will always be preferable to live music.
A Mississippi native, McDaniel (no one can agree on why he is named Bo Diddley) moved to Chicago as a youth, where he began his career as a busker before playing local blues clubs, heavily under the spell of Muddy Waters. There is much in his work that harkens back much earlier, though. The Latin rhythms that influenced his famous beat have their origin in Africa, as does the old tradition of “doing the dozens” on which his comedy routines are based, and which lead us all the way to hip hop.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.