Bo Diddley, Rock And Roll Pioneer, Dead At 79

The great guitarist invented one of rock's most distinctive rhythms.

Rock-and-roll pioneer Bo Diddley died early Monday morning (June 2), of heart failure, at his home in Archer, Florida. He was 79 years old.

Diddley’s given name was Ellas McDaniel. He was born in Mississippi but moved as a child to Chicago, where he first learned to play the violin (an instrument to which he returned on “The Clock Strikes Twelve,” the B-side of 1959′s “Say Man,” one of his biggest hits). It was as a guitarist, though, that he began working on the streets of the South Side, and later made his most important contribution to rock music with the pummeling “Bo Diddley beat.” This instantly recognizable rhythm figure, drenched in tremolo, was featured on the 1955 single “Bo Diddley,” his first release on Chicago’s Checker Records. (Checker was a subsidiary of Chess, which helped launch the rock-and-roll era that same year with Chuck Berry’s epochal “Maybelline.”)

Although he never really stopped working, Bo’s biggest chart period was from the mid-1950s into the early ’60s, with such memorable hits as “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover,” “Road Runner” and “Who Do You Love?” His influence, however, reverberated further. His 1957 “Mona” and 1959 “Crackin’ Up” were covered by the Rolling Stones; and “I’m a Man,” the flip side of “Bo Diddley,” was resurrected (and kicked into overdrive) by the Yardbirds. And Bo’s beat was the clear inspiration for the Buddy Holly hit “Not Fade Away” (which the Stones also covered), the 1958 Johnny Otis smash “Willie and the Hand Jive” (itself covered by Eric Clapton) and the Strangeloves’ 1965 “I Want Candy” (which has been covered by everyone from Bow Wow Wow to Good Charlotte).

Since it’s not possible to copyright a beat, Bo Diddley never received any royalties from the hits other musicians created around his trademark rhythm — a situation he always found annoying. There were other, less-remunerative compensations, though: In 1987, Bo was among the second round of legendary performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.