Ellas McDaniel started playing classical violin at age 11 while getting interested in playing guitar.
“Yeah, I was trained to play all that funny music. I’m doing something of it now with the synthesizers hooked up to my guitar. I started playing guitar when I heard John Lee Hooker play. I said, ‘If that cat can play, I can learn.’ John Lee Hooker turned out to be a hell of a dude,” he said.
Born and partially raised in McComb, Miss., his family moved to Chicago when he was 7.
“I used to sneak in and listen to the radio. My mama didn’t want any of that shit playing in the house. Even when I got good enough to play, she said, ‘You playin’, but you ain’t workin.’’ (Laughs). I don’t know why some parents act like that with their kids. If you got some talent, let them use it,” he said.
As a teen, Diddley (the name came from kids at school: “I don’t know. They just started callin’ me that.”) hooked up with harmonica great Billy Boy Arnold and underrated guitarist Jody Williams and formed the nucleus of the Bo Diddley band.
“We were kids runnin’ around, playing guitars, beating on tin cans and I was the ringleader of the whole shebang. I always wanted to be the leader. I didn’t want to be no boxcar. I was the locomotion. I had the expertise.”
Diddley helped build the bridge between blues and rock and roll in the 1950s with his Chess recordings. His “Shave and a Haircut” guitar riff, now known as the Bo Diddley Beat, hit the radio airwaves in songs like “Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?” (later covered by several, including George Thorogood) and “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover.” He recorded “I’m a Man” in 1955, which Muddy Waters covered that same year as “Mannish Boy.” Diddley also experimented with his guitar sound, adding effects with his playing (check out his guitar sound on “Bo Diddley” and “Pretty Thing”). Because it was new and unique, his music was loved by kids and hated by their parents. While artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker started out acoustic and later went electric, Diddley was plugged in from the get-go.
“I was the first to start changing and people thought I was fuckin’ crazy. Back then it wasn’t the real thing. They fought me about my music. I don’t know. I just play it. You know I got accused of getting women pregnant to my music. They made it sound like I got in the backseat with their daughters. Me and Elvis were supposed to bring the biggest threats at that time. Now they’re yelling at Janet Jackson. What’s the big deal? There are titties everywhere. People need to stop being so hypocritical. There are people rapping about killing their sisters and their mama, but they all went crazy over a tittie,” he said.
Artists like Diddley and Presley also help build the bridge between white and black kids with their music. Fortunately, Pat Boone never covered “Diddley Daddy.”
“It was crazy when we were going through all the racial bullshit. I’m glad it’s over. Nobody been hurt by the change. The change was meant to be and it was great,” he said.
The Bo Diddley Beat came from his attempt at playing a Gene Autrey song. This attempt is now a staple riff in rock.
“I was trying to learn (sings) ‘I got spurs that go jingle jangle jingle’ and I stumbled upon it. I got a drummer and we just started working on it. People come up with beats. They say you can’t copyright a beat and that’s a lie. Do you know how many songs and how many musicians use the Bo Diddley Beat? If they collect a dime off that song from the publishing company, then they lied to me for 49 damn years,” he said.
Even his guitars weren’t conventional. Diddley custom-built his first box guitar, which he now gets made by Gretch. Another unique sound to Diddley’s music was the maraca work by Jerome Green (who verbally sparred with Diddley on Dirty Dozens classic “Say Man”). Diddley literally walked into the Chess studios in Chicago and became a recording artist.
“I told them I had something they might like. One [Chess] brother said to the other brother, ‘Let’s give it a try,’ and ever since then, things have been different. They gave it a shot and I took it,” he said.
Chess released 22 Bo Diddley albums (Bo Diddley Is a Gun Slinger, Have Guitar Will Travel, The Black Gladiator, The London Bo Diddley Sessions) and a mess of hit singles between 1958-’74.
“I won’t talk about Chess Records. All I’ll say is that I don’t see any royalty checks from them,” he said.
He’s toured with the Rolling Stones, later with Ron Wood and was on the first American tour of The Clash.
“I made it hard for them to get on stage. I had to mess with them a little. ‘I’m not up for a dollar bill / I’m up there for the thrill and kill.’ When I finished my set, I’d look at them and say, ‘Get some nails, new wood and a fire hose because I just burned a hole on that stage,” he said.
His music has been covered by, among others, Bob Seger, the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Who and George Thorogood (that’s Bo in the “Bad To The Bone” video). Aerosmith covered his tune “Road Runner” on their latest album, Honkin’ On Bobo. His last album, A Man Among Men, was released in 1996. Evidence Records released a Bo Diddley tribute album called Hey Bo Diddley — A Tribute! in 2002 featuring Taj Mahal, Joe Louis Walker, Otis Rush and Charlie Musselwhite.
Last month, Rolling Stone magazine listed Diddley as one of the 50 greatest artists of all time. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987 and received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1998.
Diddley, now 75, is still constantly on the road. Not wanting to be labeled an oldies act and just do his ’50s material, he’s blended rap in with his live act.
“I’m your man in that area. I now rap with no dirty lyrics; it’s clean all the way. I don’t need dirty words to get everyone’s attention. I think rap artists are really great. If they need teaching, I’ll teach them. I’ve got 49 years of rockin’ and rollin’ and I’m still going. I got another generation to run this music by,” he said.