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Shave And A Haircut… posted on June 3rd, 2008

Bo Diddley, distinctive rock ‘n roller and creator of the well-known “shave and a haircut, two bits” rhythm died Monday at the age of 79. He had struggled with poor health for months, having suffered both a stroke and a heart attack within the last year. Diddley will be remembered for his square guitar, dark glasses, black hat with eagle badge and, of course, his great contribution in the early days of rock ‘n roll. As Rolling Stone magazine writes: “History belongs to the victors and in the annals of rock & roll, three men have emerged as winners: Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, a holy trinity who were there at the start.” In fact, Diddley claims that Alan Freed was talking about him when he introduced the term “rock and roll” into the culture, saying, “Here is a man with an original sound, who is going to rock and roll you right out of your seat.” Prior to this, disc jockey’s referred to Diddley’s style as “Jungle Music.”

Diddley was born as Ellas Bates on December 30, 1928 in McComb, Mississippi, but after being adopted by his mother’s cousin he took on the name Ellis McDaniel. He told reporters that the moniker “Bo Diddley” was bestowed upon him by fellow children who grew up with him in Chicago, but others cite the name as having origins in the traditional blues instrument called a diddley bow. At the age of five, Diddley began to play the violin at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, an instrument he studied for twelve years and wrote two concertos on. For Christmas in 1940, his sister Lucille bought him his first guitar, a Harmony Acoustic. At the age of 10, he was entertaining passersby on street corners and by his teens, he was playing Chicago’s Maxwell Street and developing his unique style Diddley had always been fascinated with the rhythms he heard in church music, but as he became frustrated with attempting to match them on the drums, he translated them for the guitar.

He formed his first band just before leaving school, a trio a named The Hipsters, later known as The Langley Avenue Jive Cats, after the Chicago street where he lived. After playing various Chicago clubs and streetcorners and joining with Jerome Green and Billy Boy Arnold, Diddley was able to cut two demos, “I’m A Man” and “Uncle John.” At first, he was turned down by the labels, notably Vee-Jay. It was Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess Records who gave him his break, offering a recording session and suggesting that he change “Uncle John” to make it more personal. His first single, the much more personalized “Bo Diddley,” was released in 1955; the B side “I’m A Man” was a humorous take on stereotypical male machismo.

Diddley’s influence was vast. Buddy Holly borrowed the “bomp ba-bomp bomp bomp…” rhythm in his song, “Not Fade Away,” which in 1964 became the first charting single in the US for the Rolling Stones. In the following year, the British band ‘The Yardbirds’ had a Top 20 hit in the U.S. with Diddley’s “I’m A Man.” Other artists, such as the Who, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello took lessons from Diddley’s style. Diddley, however, was displeased that others had copied his style, saying, “I don’t have any idols I copied after, [but] they copied everything I did, upgraded it, messed it up.”

Diddley’s innovation’s went beyond music composition, as he helped pioneer the electric guitar and rigged it for effects such as reverb and tremelo. E. Michael Harrington, professor of music theory and composition at Belmont University, said: “He treats it like a drum, very rhythmic.” Furthermore, he pre-dates most artists on his use of psychedelic guitar sounds, wild stage shows complete with strut and bizarre guitar tricks, female musicians such as Lady Bo, and even rapping.

Despite being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, earning a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and receiving a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Grammy’s, Diddley said, “it didn’t put no figures in my checkbook.” He was paid a flat rate rather than a royalty, and reported receiving very little of the money he made during his career, and as a result continued to tour and record music up until his recent stroke. Even in his later years, he continued to innovate, saying, “I ain’t quit yet.”