ARCHER, Fla. – His given name was Ellas Bates McDaniel — a hand-lettered sign by the long dirt driveway proudly read “McDaniel” — but his friends, neighbors and even his wife always called him Bo.
Bo Diddley, singer, songwriter, guitar legend and rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, died of heart failure Monday at home. He was rehabilitating after a 2007 stroke, which was followed shortly thereafter by a massive heart attack. He was 79.
Known for his signature square guitars (self-designed and built at home, until the end of his life), horn-rimmed glasses and primitive, bompa-bomp rhythm, Diddley was one of the 1950s’ most successful rock ‘n’ roll artists, when the music was still being crudely fashioned out of rhythm ‘n’ blues and hillbilly.
He proudly boasted that he’d appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” before Elvis Presley had even had a hit.
The Mississippi native had begun playing in Chicago blues clubs while a teenager; his best-known songs included “I’m a Man,” “Who Do You Love,” “Mona” and “Roadrunner.”
For all his globetrotting — and Diddley was a beloved and much-copied musical figure the world over — the place that meant the most to him was Florida.
In 1982, while Diddley was living in New Mexico, his dentist started enthusing about some property he’d recently bought in the piney woods of North Florida — great for fishing, relaxing, raising kids and driving tractors (one of Diddley’s passions).
So the family relocated — first to Hawthorne, a dusty, rural area near Ocala, and ultimately to humid, bucolic Archer, which was closer to Gainesville, the biggest city in that part of the state. The Diddleys brought their two teenaged daughters with them, along with first and second cousins and assorted other relatives.
The people in Gainesville got to know him well — he often played benefit shows (mostly for programs aimed at keeping kids off drugs), and turned up as a special guest on local artists’ recording sessions. He filmed anti-drug public service announcements.
Many times, I drove out to the triple-wide trailer he and fourth wife Sylvia called home. It was impeccably dressed, in a southwestern motif (they’d met in New Mexico, after Diddley’s third divorce) and the grounds were strewn with tractors and gutted cars Diddley was always “working on.”
He loved to take visitors out to the barn, where he’d wired several tape recorders together for a little studio. He was seriously into gadgets, and always seemed to have a new rhythm box, or a weird little microphone to make his voice sound mechanical, or a shiny new guitar body with synthesized drum pads built right in. You played with the tips of your fingers.
Once he was showing me one of these. I admired it out loud, and he handed it to me, saying “Go on, play something.” Incredulous, I pecked out a simple rhythm. Diddley grabbed another guitar/drum, plugged it in and started adding to my beat.
We must’ve played like that for half an hour, staring each other down like gunslingers, offering dares and matching each other’s subsequent rhythms. We laughed the whole time.
He often talked of the “bad cats” he’d met early on — show business sharpies who’d cheated him — “a little country black boy in Chicago” — out of millions of royalty dollars.
He’d never won a Grammy, and even his 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was of little personal value. The statuette sitting on his piano was scratched and broken, and the paint was peeling off.
“What is it worth in dollar bills?” he’d say. “Because this is what you need to survive. Not a medal with your name on it … It doesn’t really mean anything to me. It don’t pay none of my bills.”
Because he’d sold his songs for pennies in the 1960s, when ‘50s rockers were considered passe and he couldn’t get work to save his life, Diddley had to work as long as he could. Into his ’70s, he took to the road for 100 concerts a year. Alone, he’d drive to the Jacksonville airport with his square guitar, flying somewhere or other and playing all the old songs with a band of local musicians he only met after he landed.
“I figure I got 15 or 20 years, maybe longer than that,” he told me in 2003. “If I take care of myself. But it’s winding down. I might as well face it. I don’t look to kick off, but when you get to my age you start getting scared, and you start realizing that the day is coming, and that’s a guarantee. We’re all gonna leave out of here.
“As you get older, things become more clear to you about everyday existence. Am I going to be able to wake up in the morning? Am I going to sleep and don’t know that I’m gone? That’s the way I feel.”
Bo-Diddley is a Guitar Players Center favorite and one of our major guitar influences. Please feel free to comment, and share this article with the public using the Share it feature. Don’t let music lovers forget Bo-Diddley. Enjoy
Copyright, 2008, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, Used here with permission. No additional reproduction or distribution of this article in any form is permitted without the written approval of Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers