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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Bo Diddley lives on

November 12, 2018 - 12:00 PM



There’s a rural cemetery - Rosemary Hill - just a couple miles from our horse farm on State Road 24 in Bronson, Florida. We - my wife, Bonnie, and I - drive past the acres of headstones every few days…coming and going to Gainesville…a town a little bigger than Kelowna.

Our small town, Bronson, has a population of maybe 1,100…and that’s counting people, dogs, cats and horses…so we head to Gainesville every few days to buy groceries or get a haircut.

The cemetery - dotted with lovely old spreading Live Oak trees laden with Spanish moss - is unremarkable save a huge headstone under one of the oaks. There is a life-size depiction of a red electric guitar on it.

Curiosity finally got the best of us after passing this headstone a couple hundred times…perhaps in too much of a rush to get here or there. Who would put a life size red electric guitar on a headstone we would occasionally ask each other? We wanted to know. So, I pulled onto the road’s shoulder and walked 50 feet to the grave site.

I read the headstone…smiled, shook my head in a sort of “I’ll be damned” way, turned to Bonnie, sitting in the passenger side of our Ford F-350, and told her, “It’s Bo Diddley!”

Bo Diddley's classic Gretchen red electric guitar, and his adopted name, Ella's B. McDaniel on his headstone in Bronson, FL.
Bo Diddley's classic Gretchen red electric guitar, and his adopted name, Ella's B. McDaniel on his headstone in Bronson, FL.
Image Credit: Don Thompson

Now, if you don’t know Bo Diddley…you’re probably under 35 years old, not a fan of rhythm and blues or rock and roll…and should probably get out more.

I first heard Bo Diddley - a 45 rpm record released in 1957 - as a teenager sometime in the mid-1960s. Side A…“Bo Diddley”…and side B…“I’m a Man” introduced a new way of playing rock and roll and rhythm and blues…what would become known by musicians worldwide as the “Bo Diddley Beat.”

Without devolving into a complex musicological treatise that only someone from Juilliard School of Music might read, suffice it to say that the “Bo Diddley Beat” was rhythmically similar to “hambone”, a technique used by street musicians from New Orleans to Chicago in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that involved slapping various parts of the body to create a syncopated rhythm and song.

It is reminiscent of African rhythms…and when Diddley added something unique…maracas…the sound had a Cuban soul. It was original…and everyone recording rock and roll and rhythm and blues going forward adopted or adapted his beat.

A long list of recording artists credit Bo Diddley as their inspiration…the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Little Richard, B.B. King, Buddy Holly, The Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley, Jefferson Airplane and Bruce Springsteen, among others. He was - and remains - a giant in his industry…much like Nicklaus in Golf, Gretzky in hockey and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture.

Image Credit: Don Thompson

Of course, he wasn’t born with the name Bo Diddley. Born December 30, 1928 in McComb, MS, his birth name was Ellas Otha Bates. He was adopted before he was two years old and raised by his mother's cousin, Gussie McDaniel, and assumed her surname. By the time he was a teenager and moved to Chicago, he dropped his middle name - Otha - and was known as Ellas McDaniel.

The name Bo Diddley came from a nickname by some of his peers…fellow musicians in the 1940s…who knew a diddly bow was a simple, single-string instrument from the Old South…and were perhaps a little jealous of McDaniel’s talent and innovation. McDaniel turned it around, dropping the “w” from bow and adding an “e” to diddly…and wore it as a badge of pride for more than 60 years.

I heard more Bo Diddley songs after I joined the U.S. Air Force in 1969, when a friend and fellow Airman, “Booker” Washington, shared with me every rhythm and blues and rock and roll recording Diddley ever made…along with the songs of B.B. King and a host of Black musicians I had never heard before. We were roommates, and often over a beer we would play great music night after night.

If you aren’t familiar with Bo Diddley’s music, please…do yourself a favour and listen to some of his songs. Songs like “Road Runner” and “Who Do You Love” and “Pretty Thing” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” and “Hey, Good Lookin’” are great…and you’ll easily see how other singers and musicians copied - the sincerest form of flattery - Diddley.

Diddley is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame, and received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences…among dozens of other accolades.

Beyond making great music, Diddley was a real member of his communities…wherever he lived. The 30 years before his death, Diddley called Archer…another community of about 1,100 people, dogs, cats and horses…home. He helped homeless people, poor people, patronized mom and pop shops and he was loved by those who knew him.

When Diddley died on June 2, 2008, hundreds of people - from President George W. Bush to Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger paid tribute to the man and his music.

Jagger of the Rolling Stones then said, “He was a wonderful, original musician who was an enormous force in music and was a big influence on the Rolling Stones. He was very generous to us in our early years and we learned a lot from him…We will never see his like again."

As for me, every time I drive past Diddley’s grave site my eyes are drawn toward that red guitar on his headstone…and I find myself humming one of his songs…and tapping out that Diddley Beat on the steering wheel. Bo Diddley lives on.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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