June 2nd, 2008
07:12 PM ET

Bo Diddley: Elvis "ripped off my leg-wriggling"

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/06/02/art.diddley.jpg caption="Bo Diddley at the second annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner in 1987."]
Editor's note: Bo Diddley died of heart failure today, according to a statement released by his family.

Tim Lister
Executive Editor

Nine years ago, I was producing a CNN show called ‘World Beat’ – and we had the good fortune to sit down with Bo Diddley. He was about to turn seventy but still had extraordinary vigor and a busy touring schedule. He also had opinions.

It wasn’t difficult to get him started. All you had to do was suggest: “Some people think Elvis Presley founded Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Diddley’s response was immediate and unequivocal: “You ask Chuck Berry, he'll tell you the same thing. Ask Little Richard, Little Richard will tell you the same thing, ask Fats Domino, any of us. We will tell you that he did not do it and go back in the history books and see if you can find anybody before me. That's all I gotta say.” Diddley also said he remembered Presley visiting the Apollo Theater in Harlem where he was a regular fixture – “and then [he] ripped off my leg-wriggling.”

Bo Diddley never had the profile of a R & B or Rock ’n’ Roll superstar – but among two generations of musicians he was admired as much as James Brown and Buddy Holly for his creative genius. To the day he died, he felt he never received the recognition he really deserved as one of the pioneers of Rock ‘n’ Roll. "I opened the door for a lot of people,” he once said, “and they just ran through and left me holding the knob." He said he wasn’t bitter – several times – but he was at the very least resentful.

Diddley really was one of the progenitors of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In the early 1950s he was combining his Mississippi roots with life on the streets of Chicago to produce a unique musical marriage. Its offspring included his debut single, a two-sided offering that paired “Bo Diddley” with “I’m a Man.”

Diddley started off playing the violin – but as his hands got bigger (and because he was also an amateur boxer in his youth!) he turned to the guitar, inspired by John Lee Hooker. He began playing in a Chicago club long before he was 18. “I had to go and sit by the boiler in the back because we wasn't old enough to be actually in that club,” he told us. And he remembered exactly what he was paid – “eighteen dollars for five shows a night. So musicians have come a long way from back then.”

The “Diddley Beat” was widely admired and imitated – by artists such as Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards once said: "Watching Bo Diddley was University for me.” At the Beatles’ first news conference in New York in 1964, a reporter asked John Lennon: "What are you most looking forward to seeing here in America, John?" He replied, "Bo Diddley."

Diddley’s electric guitar-playing with its reverb and distortion also laid some of the foundations for funk. When Diddley called his 1966 album “The Originator” he wasn’t exaggerating.

But as artists like Buddy Holly and later the Rolling Stones used the “Diddley Beat” to conjure up hits like “Not Fade Away,” Diddley himself was left with little financial recognition for his contribution to music. Of the record labels he said: “Everybody is getting ripped off because they get the money before you get it. So a half a million dollars come in, they give you fifteen thousand or something like that.”

He did eventually get the recognition he deserved from his peers, being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 – among the earliest musicians to receive the honor. “This is the top of the hat," he told CNN at the event "and I’m happy to be here to be sittin’ on the rim.”

When our 1999 interview came to an end, Diddley paused and then summarized his contribution to Rock ‘n’ Roll. “I changed the rhythm patterns of the electric guitar in 1955, and I learned all that stuff in Chicago, my hometown and I didn't know what I was doing, but I brought rhythm to six strings and with three guys it sounded like twelve.”

Rolling Stone magazine apparently agreed, writing in 2005: "History belongs to the victors and in the annals of Rock ‘n’ Roll, three men have emerged as winners: Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, a holy trinity who were there at the start."

Filed under: Pop Culture
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Steve Wachholder

    Lets get the facts correct. Bill Haley and His Comets had the first nation-wide Rock N Roll hit in August of 1954 with Shake, Rattle And Roll. This was several months before Bo had his first hit with the song Bo Diddley in 1955. The song, Rock Around the Clock was the theme song for the movie Black Board Jungle which was released in May of 1954. Haley had several other songs in the top 20, months before Diddley had his first hit record. So it is clear to say that Bill Haley is the true father of Rock N Roll and the first artist to have several rock n roll songs reach the top 20 on the Billboard charts. Even before Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Little Richard. Bill Haley was the first offical Rock N Roll artist and the true father of Rock N Roll. Bo Diddley was a great artist in his own right.

    June 2, 2008 at 11:36 pm |
  2. Raymond Duke Texas

    He was a great entertainer and will be sorely missed by my generation. I figure "GOD" will welcome him in and probably ask him for a few tunes.

    June 2, 2008 at 11:22 pm |
  3. Lenwood

    R.I.P. Bo diddley truly a legend that will be missed! his music and dance skills were unmatched!

    June 2, 2008 at 11:13 pm |
  4. Tim -Henderson, NV

    O.K, but it's the music that will endure the test of time.

    June 2, 2008 at 10:50 pm |
  5. Kent Fitzsimmons,Illinois

    Yes............Bo Diddley was an "Originator". He was terrific and will be missed......................

    June 2, 2008 at 10:13 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    I grew up listening to Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis and I still love their music. I'm glad Bo Diddley got his recognition in the Hall of Fame but all of us fans recognized him and his genius a long time ago.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 2, 2008 at 10:03 pm |
  7. Maureen T

    Rest in peace dear Bo Diddley! Some wicked music has made it's way to join the great Rock 'n Roll heaven in the sky!

    June 2, 2008 at 8:42 pm |
  8. Ashley

    He and his talent will be missed!

    June 2, 2008 at 8:22 pm |
  9. Larry

    With no loss of respect to the 'holy trinity' I'd toss Robert Johnson's name in with that group; sadly his early exit from the world has left him a forgotten legend by many who stood on his shoulders.

    June 2, 2008 at 7:56 pm |
  10. Anders Scooper

    Elvis was the KING.

    June 2, 2008 at 7:55 pm |
  11. Jacqueline

    Kudos to you for noted this musical icon's passing.

    June 2, 2008 at 7:29 pm |