“I don’t sound like nobody!” was Bo Diddley’s proud boast when he burst onto the scene with his irresistible, driving beat in the mid-1950s. Yet before long there were dozens trying to imitate his relentless rhythm which clattered and blew like a runaway freight train and which he called his “tradesman’s knock”.
The ‘Diddley beat’ became a key component in the transition from blues and R&B to rock’n’roll and was copied by a generation of British groups including the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things, who named themselves after one of his songs. His oeuvre was soon also being plundered by American rock bands such as the Doors and Quicksilver Messenger Service and alongside Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, none of the first generation of American rock’n’rollers had a greater impact on the subsequent course of popular music than Diddley. Songs such as ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’, ‘Who Do You Love?’, ‘Road Runner’, ‘Pretty Thing’ and ‘Say Man’ remain part of rock music’s DNA to this day.
Born Otha Elias Bates in Mississippi in 1928, his mother was too poor to raise him and when he was five he was handed over to be raised by her cousin, Gussie McDaniel, a Chicago Sunday school teacher. Taking the name Ellas McDaniel, he began playing the violin but after a broken finger made it difficult to continue with the instrument, he took up a battered old acoustic guitar.
By his teens he was a promising young boxer and acquired the name by which he was to be known for the rest of his life, derived from the Southern putdown “you ain’t bo diddley”.
At the same time, he took to playing guitar on the streets of Chicago with his friend Jerome Green, inspired by the jump jive of Louis Jordan and the blues of Muddy Waters. Berated by his aunt for playing “the Devil’s music”, he left home and by 1954 had switched to an electric guitar, forming a band that included Green on maracas and Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica. After being turned down at audition by Vee Jay Records, he was offered a deal at Chess Records, Chicago’s premier blues label. His first single, ‘Bo Diddley’ backed with ‘I’m a Man’, became a double-sided hit on the R&B chart in 1955. It was not exactly blues or even R&B — although it owed an allegiance to both — but represented a new kind of guitar-based rock’n’roll which was earthy, unrefined, funky, jive-talking - and every bit as revolutionary as the sound being forged by his fellow Chess artist and rival Chuck Berry around the same time. A second single, ‘Diddley Daddy’, followed it up the R&B charts and he became the first black artist to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. Further hits were rattled off in quick succession, many of them featuring the great Otis Spann on piano.
The recordings compiled here, made for Chess and its subsidiary Checker in the late 1950s and early 1960s, represent the high tide of his achievement. As musical fad and fashion changed with the arrival of The Beatles, he remained a dynamic live performer, but his recordings never again matched the potency and originality of his early work. It hardly mattered for he had already changed the course of popular music forever.