Clarion ledger Bo Diddley Photos
Billy Watkins writes about Bo Diddley today in the Clarion Ledger:
Seventeen months before he took his final breath, rock 'n' roll legend Bo Diddley was handed the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. As far as anyone can remember, Diddley didn't let go of it until after he had arrived back home in Archery, Fla.
"Up until then, he was all about his guitar. 'Where's my guitar?' Seems like he would ask about it every five minutes," recalls Sally Killebrew of the Mississippi Arts Commission. "But after he got that award, he wouldn't turn it loose. He held it in his lap all the way to the airport. The guitar was thrown in with the rest of his luggage, and when the skycap asked about checking the award, he said, 'Uh-uh. I got this from the governor, and it's staying with me.'
"He would show it to anybody who came near him. 'I'm Bo Diddley, and I just received the Governor's Award.' It really struck me that a man who has received so many honors in his lifetime was so touched by this award."
Diddley, who was born in McComb and credited with helping blues transcend into rock 'n' roll during the 1950s, died Monday of heart failure at his Florida home. He was 79 and had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in May 2007 - three months after the governor's award ceremony.
Public and private ceremonies are scheduled for this weekend.
Diddley returned to Mississippi at least once after the Governor's Awards - last November, when he was honored with a marker in McComb as part of the Mississippi Blues Trail project.
"They told me he wouldn't be able to play, not to even ask him," says Jackson blues musician Jesse Robinson, who performed at the event. "But when I kicked off a blues song, he looked at me, and I looked at him. Musicians can feel things. Next thing I know, he is up on stage singing - and I mean singing down-home, cotton-pickin' blues. He took over."
Diddley, who moved around age 7 with his family to Chicago, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, and one of his songs, Bo Diddley, is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 37 among its Top 100 Guitarists of All Time.
Born Ellas Otha Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, he changed his name to Ellas McDaniel after being adopted by his mother's cousin. Numerous stories exist about how he might have settled on his stage name.
His first instrument was the violin, which he learned when he was 5. He took up guitar at age 10 but later used his hands to form fists instead of chords. Diddley was a Golden Gloves boxer during his teens and early 20s.
But it was his guitar licks that scored the most knockouts.
"He was one of four guys - along with Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino - to take blues or R&B into a new territory with a heavy beat," says Mississippi-based blues historian Scott Barretta. "Bo Diddley's entire vision was complex. His music was all over the place. But it was his own style, his own signature."
Says Robinson: "He came up with that bomp-de-bomp-de-bomp, bomp bomp beat that made everybody want to dance. That's what Bo Diddley brought to the table."
In a 2005 interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Diddley said: "I don't call myself a guitar player. I'm more of a showman. I make a guitar do things that others can't - beatin' and bangin' on it - and people seem to enjoy it."
He was a pioneer, becoming the first black person to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. Diddley loved talking about that historic 1955 television performance.
"Sullivan had asked me to sing Sixteen Tons, the old Tennessee Ernie Ford hit," Diddley said in the interview with The Clarion-Ledger . "When I saw a list of the program, it read 'Bo Diddley. Sixteen Tons.' Well, I had a No. 1 song called Bo Diddley, so I thought he wanted me to play both. But he only wanted the one song played. The show was live, so it wasn't like we could stop.
"Afterward, he came unglued backstage. He said something to me I won't repeat, and I told him I'd punch him out. My manager was saying, 'But, Bo, this is Ed Sullivan.' I told him I didn't care who he was, that I was gonna bust (Sullivan's) lip if he said another word. That guy was a control freak."
Diddley wasn't invited back to the Sullivan stage, but it didn't hurt his popularity, especially with young British musicians such as The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Eric Burdon and The Animals.
"I was hearing all this music as a teenager coming from England ... guys like Eric Burdon singing 'Hey Bo Diddley!' - and I suddenly realized they were singing about a guy from Mississippi, this special, unique place where I was growing up. It gave me a sense of pride. It was life-changing," says Malcolm White, who helped book Diddley in Jackson on three occasions.
"Then to meet him and hang around with him was just unbelievable. Bo was a little bitter about some things ... royalties (from songs) he never received. But he was also a jokester. He had fun."
His stream of hits in the 1950s and '60s included Who Do You Love, Say Man, You Can't Judge A Book By the Cover and Pretty Thing.
In the 1980s, Nike introduced him to a new audience. Commercials featuring Diddley and professional baseball and football player Bo Jackson aired constantly. "Bo, you don't know diddley!" he would say to Jackson, who was attempting to play a guitar.
Even into his seventies, Diddley kept playing and writing music. "He never became an oldies act, and I really respect that," Barretta says. "He never became a parody of himself. He was very strong-willed and very independent."
Diddley is survived by four children, 15 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.