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Obituary: Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley

Obituary by Jack Foley

SINGER and guitarist Bo Diddley has died from heart failure at the age of 79, according to his spokeswoman.

The Grammy-winning music legend – for his homemade square guitar, dark glasses and black hat – passed away on Sunday, June 1, in Florida. He had previously suffered a heart attack in 2007, three months after suffering a stroke which affected his ability to speak.

Diddley influenced countless musicians – including U2 and Bruce Springsteen – during his time in the music industry and they have subsequently lined up to pay tribute to his legacy. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger led the tributes, describing him as “enormous force in music” and “a big influence on the Rolling Stones”.

Diddley rose to fame in 1955 when he topped the R&B charts with Bo Diddley and went on to deliver hits including Who Do You Love?, Before You Accuse Me and Mona.

Born Ellas Otha Bates in Mississippi in 1928, Diddley changed his name to McDaniel when he was adopted by his mother’s cousin.

He then acquired his Bo Diddley nickname at school, after moving with his new family to the South Side of Chicago.

As a teenager, Diddley regularly played guitar on street corners when not in school and built his first rectangular guitar while still a student. He also trained as a boxer.

But music was to become his passion and it wasn’t long before Diddley was given regular gigs at the 708 Club in 1951 which, in turn, led to a record deal with Leonard Chess’s Checker label in 1955.

Bo Diddley became his first single and quickly established the artists’ trademark sound, thanks to its characteristic beat and heavily amplified guitar. It shot to number one in the R&B charts and marked the birth of a legend, eventually becoming inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1997.

Ever willing to diversify, Diddley then enjoyed pop success in 1959 with Say Man, which entered the Top 20, and then You Can’t Judge a Book By The Cover, in 1962, which made the top 50.

But he was consistently at his most memorable live when he’d perform with an all-star line-up, including Jerome Green, Otis Spann, Billy Boy Arnold and Frank Kirkland, and gleefully married the blues with rock ‘n’ roll.

In the 1950s, he songs were credited with influencing the likes of Buddy Holly, while in the ’60s – when Diddley hit his prime – he could count British acts such as The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Animals among his greatest admirers.

His musical reach extended still futher come the end of the ’70s, when a supporting slot alongside The Clash introduced his music to an even younger generation.

But it was The Rolling Stones who felt his influence longest and hardest, as they teamed up with him at several points during their careers. In the late ’80s, for instance, Diddley toured with Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood as The Gunslingers and released the album Live At The Ritz, while Wood and fellow Stones guitarist Keith Richards appeared on Diddley’s 1996 release, A Man Amongst Men.

Diddley went on to receive a lifetime achievement honour at the Grammy Awards, in 1999, in recognition of the influence he had cast over the history of popular music.

Tributes

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mick Jagger was among the first to pay tribute to Bo Diddley following the announcement of his death.

Describing him as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, he said that Diddley was “a wonderful, original musician” and added: “He was very generous to us in our early years and we learned a lot from him. We will never see his like again.”

The Stones regularly cited him as a major influence on their music and even recorded cover versions of his hits Mona and Crackin’ Up.

US blues legend BB King, meanwhile, stated that Diddley’s legacy would “live on forever”. He added that Bo was “a music pioneer and legend with a unique style” and concluded: “We always had a good time when we played together.”

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, meanwhile, said Diddley’s “voice and relentless, glorious anthems echo down through my years”, stating that “this royal shape shifter continues to influence four generations of musicians on a daily basis”.

Neil Portnow, chief of Grammy organisers the Recording Academy, said: “He leaves an indelible mark on American music and culture and our deepest sympathies go out to his family, friends and fans.”

Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, The Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr and UK singer Richard Hawley have also paid tributes on various music sites.