Ellas Otha Bates (Bo Diddley) was born December 30, 1928 on a small farm near the town of McComb, Mississippi, close to the Louisiana border. The only child of Ethel Wilson and Eugene Bates, he had three half-brothers and a half-sister.
In 1936, at age of 8, he was adopted by his mother's cousin, along with three cousins. His name was changed to Ellas McDaniel.
In the mid-1930's, the family moved to the south side of Chicago. Soon after, he began to take trombone and violin lessons the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. He studied the violin for twelve years, composing two concertos for the instrument. For Christmas in 1940, his sister Lucille bought him his first guitar, a cheap Harmony acoustic. He taught himself how to play.
He had long been fascinated by the rhythms that he heard coming from the sanctified churches. A frustrated drummer, he tried to translate the sounds that he heard into his own style. Gradually he began to duplicate what he did with his violin bow by rapidly flicking his pick across his guitar strings. "I play the guitar as if I'm playing the drums....I play drum licks on the guitar."
Shortly before leaving school he formed his first group, a trio named The Hipsters, later known as The Langley Avenue Jive Cats, after the Chicago street where he lived. Upon graduation, he pursued a variety of work including truck driving, construction, and semi-pro boxing, playing locally with his group to supplement his income. Around this time, he married his first wife Louise Woolingham, but the marriage did not survive. A year later, he married Ethel "Tootsie" Smith, a marriage that lasted just over a decade.
He adopted the stage name "Bo Diddley". The origin of the name is somewhat unclear, as several differing stories and claims exist. Bo Diddley himself said that the name first belonged to a singer his adoptive mother was familiar with, while harmonicist Billy Boy Arnold once said in an interview that it was originally the name of a local comedian that Leonard Chess borrowed for the song title and artist name for Bo Diddley's first single. A "diddley bow" is a typically homemade American string instrument of African origin, probably developed from instruments found on the coast of west Africa.
With musical influences of his own ranging from Louis Jordan to John Lee Hooker and from Nat "King" Cole to Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley was now set to help shape and define the sound and presentation of rock music for all time. He took up blues and R&B after hearing John Lee Hooker.
In the early '50s, he began playing with his longtime partner; maraca player Jerome Green, to get what Diddley's called "that freight train sound." After more than a decade of playing on street corners and in clubs around Chicago, Bo Diddley finally got the chance to cut a demo of two songs that he had written; "Uncle John" and "I'm A Man". After various rejections from local record labels, in the spring of 1955 he took the recordings to Chess Records. They suggested that he changed the title and the lyrics of "Uncle John" to more reflect his own unique personality.
Billy Boy Arnold, blues harmonica player and singer, was also playing with Diddley when he got a deal with Chess. His very first single from the two songs were re-recorded at Bill Putnam's Universal Recording Studio and released as a double A-side disc "Bo Diddley/I'm A Man" on the Chess Records subsidiary label Checker Records. The A-side had futuristic waves of tremolo guitar, set to a timeless nursery rhyme; the B-side, a bump-and-grind, harmonica-driven shuffle, based around an overwhelming blues riff. The result was a new kind of guitar-based rock & roll, saturated in the blues and R&B, but owing loyalty to neither. It went straight to the top of the rhythm 'n' blues charts, establishing Bo Diddley as one of the most exciting and original new talents in American music.
Though he only had a few hits in the 1950s and early '60s, Diddley produced greater and more influential music than all but a handful of the best early rockers. The Bo Diddley beat is one of rock & roll's bedrock rhythms, showing up in the work of Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, and even pop-garage knock-offs like the Strangeloves' 1965 hit "I Want Candy." From Elvis Presley to George Thorogood, from The Rolling Stones to ZZ Top, from The Doors to The Clash, from Buddy Holly to Prince, and from The Everly Brothers to Run DMC, all acknowledged the unique influences of Bo Diddley upon their styles of music.
Diddley's spellbinding rhythmic attack and booming vocals stretched back as far as Africa for their roots, and looked as far into the future as rap. His trademark otherworldly vibrating, fuzzy guitar style expanded the instrument's power and range. Diddley's bounce epitomizes rock & roll at its most humorously outlandish and freewheeling.
Diddley was never a top seller like Chuck Berry, but he produced a catalog of classics that rival Berry's in quality. "You Don't Love Me," "Diddley Daddy," "Pretty Thing," "Diddy Wah Diddy," "Who Do You Love?," "Mona," "Road Runner," "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover;" all are standards. Oddly enough, his only Top 20 pop hit was an atypical, absurd back-and-forth rap between him and Jerome Green, "Say Man", that was almost by accident while fooling around in the studio.
On stage, Diddley was great, using his trademark square guitars and distorted amplification to produce new sounds that preceded the innovations of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix. In Great Britain, he was revered as a giant on the order of Berry and Muddy Waters. The Rolling Stones in particular borrowed a lot from Diddley's rhythms and attitude in their early days, although they only officially covered a couple of his tunes, "Mona" and "I'm Alright." Other British R&B groups like the Yardbirds, Animals, and Pretty Things also covered Diddley standards in their early days. Buddy Holly covered "Bo Diddley" and used a modified Bo Diddley beat on "Not Fade Away"; when the Stones gave the song the full-on Diddley treatment (complete with shaking maracas), the result was their first big British hit.
The British Invasion helped increase the awareness of Diddley's importance, and ever since then he's been a popular live act. Yet his career as a recording artist in commercial and artistic terms was over by the time the British music invasion hit America. He recorded with declining frequency and after 1963; his writing or recording material was never on par with his early classics.
He began exploring different music venues. For example, in 1972 he played with The Grateful Dead at the Academy of Music in New York City.
In 1979, he toured with the Clash and had a cameo role in the film 'Trading Places'. In 1998, he appeared alongside legendary guitarists B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter as members of the Louisiana Gator Boys in the film 'Blues Brothers 2000.'
Some of his other accomplishments include being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987; doing a late-'80s tour with Ronnie Wood, and a 1989 television commercial for sports shoes with star athlete Bo Jackson. That same year he got a star in the sidewalk on the Hollywood Hall of Fame.
Diddley has been a well-respected artist playing a concert for the President and Jackie Kennedy. He also played at the Inaugural gala in Washington D.C. for President Bush, and he performed at the Democratic National Convention for Bill Clinton.
Into his early 70s, he continued active in the recording studio and in clubs and concert halls around the world. He performed benefits such as the televised 1985 Live Aid Concert and a Hurricane Katrina Aid Concert in 2006.
He was an early inductee into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. In 1996, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm 'n' Blues Foundation at the Seventh Annual Pioneer Awards and in 1998 received another Lifetime Achievement Award this time from the Recording Academy at that year's annual Grammy Awards Ceremony. He released Road Runner Live in February 1999. In 2000, he was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.
Bo Diddley spent many years in New Mexico, living in Los Lunas, New Mexico from 1971 to 1978 while continuing his musical career. He served for two and a half years as Deputy Sheriff in the Valencia County Citizens' Patrol; during that time he personally purchased and donated three highway patrol pursuit cars. In the late 1970s, Diddley left Los Lunas and moved to Hawthorne, Florida where he lived on a large estate in a custom made log-cabin home, which he helped to build. For the remainder of his life he spent time between New Mexico and Florida, living the last 13 years of his life in Archer, Florida, a small farming town near Gainesville.