Grab a stack of albums at random and scan the liner notes. Ten bucks says you’ll find the name “E. McDaniel” listed among the song credits on at least one of them.
That’s Bo Diddley — born Ellas Otha Bates, in McComb, Mississippi. He later adopted the surname of his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, who raised him, before taking his famous stage name in the ’50s. That he is one of the most covered songwriters in music history is beyond dispute. What’s really remarkable is the catholicity of the artists who’ve dipped reverently into his catalogue — from “Diddy Wah Diddy” (Captain Beefheart) to “Before You Accuse Me” (Clapton, Creedence) to “Who Do You Love?” (pretty much everyone else).
Billy Childish recorded an excoriating album of Diddley covers. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith lauded him (“He had the best riffs and the drums are whacking out.”). And, of course, be it Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” or Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy,” that Bo Diddley Beat — chug-chug-chug, chug-chug — is inescapable in rock music.
“He was playing really rhythmically, and I think you can trace that stuff back as far as having a direct link to African rhythm,” says Berklee professor Dan Bowden. “It really broke through in the pop market and obviously had an appeal for a wide range of listeners. People really grab on to that rhythm and use it through the generations.”
Best of all, the guy was one of music’s quintessential bad-asses. It wasn’t just the black fedora tipped low, or the omnipresent shades, or that iconic open-tuned square Gretsch that he crafted himself. It was his sheer force of personality, his convention-smashing creativity. Many of his songs only had one chord. He was playing behind his head and with his teeth when Hendrix was still in the Army. His 1959 jive-talking “Say, Man” is considered by some to be the first rap song.
He was hot shit, and he knew it: Bo Diddley didn’t just refer to himself in the third person, he named songs — “Bo Diddley,” “Diddley Daddy” — and entire albums — Go Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger — after himself. (And he wasn’t lying about the gun, either: for a time in the ’70s he served as a deputy sheriff in New Mexico.)
Mike Williams, another Berklee prof, says Diddley’s influence can sometimes creep up on you when you least expect it. Just this past Saturday, Williams was playing with the Toni Lynn Washington blues band at Johnny D’s. “There’s an intro, the guitar starts, and lo and behold, it’s a Bo Diddley groove,” he says. “That’s just how common and how frequently you run across his influence. It’s just all over the place.”
Although in poor health for the past year or so, earlier this decade Diddley could often be found playing Harper’s Ferry in Allston. “Really funny guy,” says the club’s general manager, Andrew Wolan. “Always had a joke. Loved to tell stories. He would stop in the middle of his sets and just tell stories for 20 minutes.”
The first and only time I saw Diddley play was in 2004, at Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival in New York. He was frail, sitting in a chair throughout the set, but his voice still boomed and he strummed his “Twang Machine” with gusto. There were 40 bands on the bill, spanning 40 years of rock history. And none of them would have existed were it not for him.
“Simply put: no other person in the history of music has a rhythm named after him,” says Entrain drummer Tom Major, who pounded the skins in Diddley’s band for most of the ’90s. “He taught us all how to groove. He was like the walking jungle, this guy. I’m a better drummer and a better person because of the time I spent with Bo Diddley. He was just a massive influence on everybody he touched.”