By Joan Anderman
Bo Diddley, one of the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll, died of heart failure yesterday at his home in Archer, Fla., according to his publicist. He was 79.
Mr. Diddley, whose signature bomp ba-bomp bomp bomp bomp beat influenced musicians from Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen and U2, had suffered a heart attack last August, three months after being felled by a stroke during a performance in Iowa. He had returned to Florida, his home of 20 years, to rehabilitate.
Mr. Diddley cut a distinctive figure in music during a career that spanned more than a half-century with his ever-present black hat, horn-rimmed glasses, and rectangular guitar - originally rigged with junkyard clockworks and car parts to create a distorted and otherworldly tremolo sound that would be heard a decade later in the work of Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy.
Even though Mr. Diddley enjoyed only a handful of hits during a 40-year recording career, his impact on the evolution of rock music was vast.
"Bo Diddley is one of the seminal American guitarists and an architect of the rock 'n' roll sound," said Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. "His unique guitar work, indelible rhythms, inventive songwriting, and larger-than-life personality make him an immortal author of the American songbook."
Mr. Diddley, who bridged the blues and rock 'n' roll with a string of groundbreaking records in the 1950s, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (by the members of ZZ Top) in 1987 at the museum's second annual ceremony.
He received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards in 1996 and a similar honor at the Grammys in 1999.
But like other black, midcentury music innovators, Mr. Diddley said he received neither the credit he deserved from the press or the public, nor financial compensation for his recordings. He remained bitter for the rest of his life about what he viewed as the exploitation of early rock 'n' rollers by record companies, promoters, and publishers.
"Elvis was not first; I was the first son of a gun out here, me and Chuck Berry. And I'm very sick of the lie," Mr. Diddley said in a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. "You know, we are over that black-and-white crap, and that was all the reason Elvis got the appreciation that he did. I'm the dude that he copied, and I'm not even mentioned. . . . I've been out here for 50 years, man, and I haven't ever seen a royalty check."
Mr. Diddley performed tirelessly until last year, and his busy tour schedule brought him to the Boston area for countless shows, most recently at the Regattabar in 2006. Charlie Abel, the former co-owner and booking agent at Harpers Ferry in Allston, booked Mr. Diddley at least a dozen times during his 18 years at the club's helm, and the two became good friends.
"I would pick him up at the airport, and we would go over to Guitar Center before he even checked into the hotel," Abel said. "He liked to sit down and play a little bit, and, of course, he would gather a flock around him. Then we'd go out for dinner before the shows. His favorite was the Village Fish in Brookline. I brought him to a couple of fancy places, but he said: 'Charlie, I don't want that. I want some good fish and fries.' Bo was a down-to-earth guy."
He was born Ellas Otha Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Miss., and was brought up by his teenage mother's first cousin, Gussie McDaniel.
The boy who would become Bo moved to Chicago when he was 6 and discovered music at that city's Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, where he sang in the choir.
He soon took up violin and trombone and then the guitar at the age of 12, after hearing a John Lee Hooker record.
Mr. Diddley said that playing the violin influenced his muted-string, choke-neck style of rhythm guitar, an early forerunner of funk that can be heard on such songs as "Pretty Thing," according to his biography on the Hall of Fame website. "It's mixed up with spiritual, sanctified rhythms," Mr. Diddley explained, "and the feeling I have of making people [want to] shout."
His first band, the Hipsters, formed in high school and was often found busking on the city's street corners. Mr. Diddley landed his first regular gig at the 708 Club on Chicago's South Side in 1951. Four years later, he signed with the Checker label, a subsidiary of famed Chess Records, and released the first of several seminal singles: "Bo Diddley" on the A-side and "I'm a Man" on the B-side.
His influence was felt almost immediately. Holly borrowed the primal Bo Diddley beat for his 1957 classic, "Not Fade Away." In 1964, the Rolling Stones' cover of the song gave the band its first chart hit in the United Kingdom and was the Stones' debut single in the United States.
Among the other artists to co-opt Mr. Diddley's famous rhythm are Johnny Otis (1958's "Willie and the Hand Jive"), the Strangeloves (1965's "I Want Candy"), the Who (1968's "Magic Bus"), the Stooges (1969's "1969"), Springsteen (1975's "She's the One"), and U2 (1988's "Desire").
While Mr. Diddley's recorded output slowed over the years, he became familiar to a younger generation when he appeared in George Thorogood's 1982 video for "Bad to the Bone" and Nike's 1989 "Bo Knows" ad campaign, in which he commented on Bo Jackson's guitar-playing prowess: "He don't know Diddley."
"I never could figure out what it had to do with shoes, but it worked," Mr. Diddley told the Associated Press that year. "I got into a lot of new front rooms on the tube."
Mr. Diddley, who divorced his fourth wife several years ago, leaves four children, 15 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren.
Material from wire services was used in this obituary.
About Sound Effects
ContributorsSarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.
James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.
Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.
Michael Brodeur is the assistant arts editor for the Boston Globe, covering pop music, TV, and nightlife.
Julian Benbow is a staff writer at the Boston Globe, covering sports and music.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.