Bo Diddley R.I.P.
The South has lost a cultural icon with rock star Bo Diddley's death today from heart failure at his home in Archer, Fla. He was 79.
Born Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss. in 1928, he later took the last name McDaniel for the relative who reared him. His family moved to Chicago when he was seven, and it was there that he became a musician -- first studying violin but later taking up guitar after seeing a performance by blues legend John Lee Hooker.
He once told an interviewer that he was given the nickname "Bo Diddley" by other children in Chicago. The name is a play on "diddley bow," a simple stringed instrument that originated in Africa and was brought to America by slaves.
He became famous for a distinctive strumming rhythm that became known as the "Bo Diddley beat" -- bomp ba-bomp bomp, bomp bomp. He was also known for his box-bodied guitar, reputedly developed after an unfortunate stage injury involving a more traditionally shaped electric guitar.
Early on Diddley developed a reputation as a rebel. Appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, he was asked to play Tennessee Ernie Ford's hit "Sixteen Tons" but instead played "Bo Diddley" -- and was consequently banned from the show. He also bucked tradition by including women in his band, among them Peggy "Lady Bo" Jones and Norma-Jean Wofford, better known as The Duchess.
Like too many African-American artists of his generation, he got only a small portion of the money he made during his career, earning a flat fee for his recordings with no royalty payments. He also claims he was not compensated for many live performances.
"I am owed," he once said. "A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun."
Diddley earned numerous accolades, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, and the North Florida Music Association's Hall of Fame. He was also the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the BMI Icon Award, and the Pioneer in Entertainment Award from the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters.
In 2006, Diddley took part in a fundraising concert in the Florida Keys for the Mississippi town of Ocean Springs, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. "This is the United States of America," he said at the time. "We believe in helping one another."
(Photo by Caroline Torterat from the Big Blues Festival in Remich, Luxembourg in June 2002 courtesy of Bo Diddley's Web site)
Sue is the editorial director of Facing South and the Institute for Southern Studies.