Bo Diddley, 79, the pioneering guitarist and songwriter who helped give birth to rock-and-roll and whose signature "Bo Diddley beat" became an archetypal rhythm powering hits by Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Bow Wow Wow, died yesterday.
He died of heart failure at his home in Archer, Fla., according to his representative, Susan Clary. In May 2007, he suffered a stroke while on a concert tour in Iowa, and he had a heart attack the following August.
Bo Diddley was an electrifying performer and a profoundly influential guitarist known for playing a "cigar box" rectangular Gretsch guitar. He was one of the key figures, along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, who forged a new musical style in the 1950s out of elements of blues, R&B, country and gospel music. As a songwriter, he made often-covered contributions to the rock-and-roll and blues canon that include "Who Do You Love," "Before You Accuse Me" and "Mona."
He was a genius of self-invention - and self-promotion. Before he was Bo Diddley, he was Otha Ellas Bates, his given name when he was born in McComb, Miss. After he was adopted by his mother's cousin, Gussie McDaniel, with whom he moved to Chicago at age 6, he became Ellas McDaniel, the name found on the credits on his own songs such as "I'm a Man" and "Ride On Josephine," as well as tunes he wrote for others, such as the Mickey & Sylvia hit "Love Is Strange."
Depending on when he told the story, he said his stage moniker came from either a childhood nickname - "I don't know where the kids got it, but the kids in grammar school gave me that name," he said in 1999 - or from an inversion of the one-stringed Diddley Bow, a guitarlike instrument played with a slide and popular among Mississippi children.
He scored his first hit, "Bo Diddley," in 1955, on Checker, a subsidiary of Chess, the Chicago blues label that was home to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. On it, he introduced the "boom-boom-boom, boom-boom" rhythm that he would use over again, in songs in which he often name-checked himself, such as "Hey Bo Diddley," "Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger" and "The Story of Bo Diddley."
The rumbalike rhythm would be used by Holly in "Not Fade Away," Springsteen in "She's the One," the Strangeloves (and later, both Bow Wow Wow and Aaron Carter) with "I Want Candy," and U2 with "Desire," among many others.
In his 1950s and early '60s heyday, Bo Diddley favored bow ties with his plastic-frame glasses. But there was nothing retiring or bookish about his manner: "I may look like a farmer, but I'm a lover," he sang in a hit written for him by Willie Dixon called "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover." His songs were full of pre-rap braggadocio: "Bo Diddley don't stand no mess," he sang. "He wears a gun on his hip and a rose on his chest."
He was an innovator both in the studio, where the musician - who studied violin before picking up his first guitar when he was 12 - experimented with distortion and tremolo effects. (Shame on Rolling Stone magazine for not including a single Bo Diddley song among its 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time current issue.) And on stage, he often employed - along with longtime collaborators such as maraca player Jerome Green (author of the Bo Diddley hit "Bring It to Jerome") - female electric guitarists such as Peggy "Lady Bo" Jones and Norma Jean "the Duchess" Wofford.
"It's mixed up with spiritual, sanctified rhythms and the feeling," he said in 1990, describing his sound. "The feeling comes through the instrument through the man that's playing it. I can take somebody else's guitar and do the same thing I do with mine. It's just a feeling that I put into it when I'm playing."
As for the Bo Diddley beat, he said: "I've always been a lover of African-sounding drums. I went into the movies one time and heard a drum pattern, an Indian drum pattern, boom boom boom ch-boom. That's when I came up with the beat. . . . I always just played what I felt."
Bo Diddley toured continually in his later years, and though he remained well-known - "Bo, you don't know Diddley," he told two-sport athlete Bo Jackson in a 1990 Nike commercial - he remained bitter about not receiving his financial due for his cultural contributions. "If the musical copyright laws of the United States more accurately reflected the way American vernacular music is created and disseminated, Bo Diddley would be a wealthy man," critic Robert Palmer wrote in 1990.
"I am owed," Bo Diddley, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, once told the Associated Press. "A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun."
He had been married four times. Survivors include four children, 15 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren.
Services are planned for Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.