Ellas Otha Bathes, more commonly known by his stage name “Bo Diddley”, was an American R&B vocalist, guitarist and songwriter. Diddley was also known as ‘The Originator’ due to his vital role in the transition of Blues music to Rock and Roll.
Bates was born on December 30, 1928 in McComb, Mississippi. He was soon adopted by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniels, who raised him in Chicago. Bates was highly interested by the Church Music of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Pentecostal Church; the latter inspired him to take up the guitar, and the former was where he studied the trombone and the violin.
Bates dropped his last name and replaced it with McDaniels in his early years in Chicago. He initially worked as a mechanic and a carpenter, but after listening to a performance by blues guitarist John Lee Hooker, he decided to play at various street corners alongside musicians such as Jerome Green, and later Earl Hooker, Jody Williams, and Billy Boy Arnold. In 1954, McDaniels officially adopted the stage name “Bo Diddley”, and released a record by that name in 1955 alongside Billy Boy Arnold, Clifton James, and Roosevelt Jackson. The record topped the R&B charts in 1955.
Diddley garnered a lot of attention in 1955 when he appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. Diddley double-crossed Sullivan by playing his own song, “Bo Diddley”, in addition to the song that he was instructed to play. The stunt was quite publicized and Diddley was banned from the show. Even so, Diddley defended himself by saying that it was a misunderstanding and that it was not his intention to go behind Sullivan’s back.
In 1956, Diddley released another album titled “Pretty Thing”, which was followed by “Say Man” in 1959, “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger” in 1960, and “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover” in 1962. One of the songs that significantly augmented his popularity was the pop hit, “Love is Strange”, that he co-wrote with Jody Williams for “Mickey & Sylvia”.
Diddley’s line-up changed from time to time; it included the Chess Brothers, Harvey Fuqua, and even some female guitarists including Norma-Jean Wofford, Gloria Jolivet, and Peggy Jones. He also played alongside “The Rolling Stones” while it was in its early stages, Alan Freed, the Everly Brothers, Little Richards, and The Clash. His musical style gave rise to ‘the Bo Diddley Beat’; a clave rhythm pattern that was exceptionally popular.
Diddley is a recipient of several Lifetime Achievement Awards and is also a member of several prominent Hall of Fames. In 1986, he was inducted into the Washington Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame, which was followed soon by an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1990, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award by Guitar Player Magazine, and in 1998, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the same institution that hands out Grammies) and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. His 1955 recording of “Bo Diddley” was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a record of immense historical significance.
Bo Diddley died in Archer, Florida on June 2, 2008 due to heart failure. He was already under treatment due to a stroke that he had suffered in 2007. His grandson had reported that moments before his death, he was listening to “Walk Around Heaven” and that his last words were “I’m going to heaven”.