A mother of a father

The history books are written with his blood and the blood of half a dozen men just like him, fathers sacrificed on the altar. They created this thing called rock and roll, snatched it from thin air and gave it shape and breath and voice, and then they were gone. Look back at your history books: They came and went almost like that, replaced and destroyed by greed, racism, ignorance, and, finally, apathy. One minute, they're recording and releasing records every month, climbing the charts like King Kong. The next, their discographies become a litany of on-the-cheap best-ofs, assembled by gluttonous labels trying to rub a little more polish off some golden oldies.

The strongest among them never quite disappeared; they lingered like shadows, like ghosts. They toured as oldies acts, went into the studio to rerecord their jukebox classics, and popped up whenever some upstart needed a little instant cred. But if they were not forgotten, they were ignored -- as though their brilliant yesterdays rendered them somehow unimportant today.

Forty-five years ago this very month, Ellas Otha Bates McDaniel, the adopted son of Mississippi sharecroppers, went into a Chicago recording studio and emerged with a two-headed beast that devoured anything that stood in its way. On one side of the vinyl was a song called "Bo Diddley"; on the other, "I'm a Man." Not until Ali would any man have a more volatile one-two punch. McDaniel came out swinging with his homemade cigar-box guitar and a rhythm all his own: chick-a-chick-a-chick a-chickchick, boom boom boom boomboom. His was a sound no more indispensable to rock and roll than electricity. Yes, it's hyperbole, but the man and his contributions demand no less: Without the man called Bo Diddley, there might have been no Buddy Holly, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Led Zeppelin, no Iggy Pop. No nothing.

As a child growing up in Chicago, he played the violin; imagine how barren the landscape might be now had he stuck with the instrument. He got his first guitar when he was 10, formed a band in high school, got his first regular gig at a Chicago club, the 708, in 1951. Fact is, his story isn't all that different from any other musician's: He fell in love with noise, then spent so many years learning how to tame it. And the first time he went into the Chess Studios in 1955 to record, it was as a backing musician for Chuck Berry. Many men might have been content with that -- being part of history, if not exactly making it.

But Diddley craved something more, even if, all these years later, he's not exactly sure how he did it. Critics often write of how Diddley's sound was born on the African continent, based on a rhythmic tribal pattern. Such talk doesn't concern him anymore. All he recalls is that he wanted to sound different, stand apart from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker and all the other Chicago bluesmen who were around at the time. He wanted a bigger, badder sound -- something you could dance to, something you'd be afraid of.

"To create something all your own, you gotta not be like somebody else," Diddley says. Though the man is 71, his voice contains barely a hint of a rasp; there's still a great deal of power left in those vocal chords. "You gotta shut your ears and get away from somebody else. Muddy Waters was Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker was John Lee Hooker. They didn't need another John Lee Hooker. They needed somebody else to go along with those bluesmen, so I came up with a rhythm pattern they started calling rhythm and blues, and rhythm and blues ain't nothing but rock and roll.

"I always knew I was different, and it was a hard road, man, for me to break into the business being different, having that different beat -- ya know, that boom boom boom boomboom. It was a hard thing when I came up with that rhythm pattern and that beat. It was a time when everybody was freakin' out. Parents were freakin' out. They even had it in the paper once down in Alabama where they said girls were comin' up pregnant because of the jungle music, and they were talkin' about me. I said, 'Ain't no note ever made anybody pregnant.' But they had to say something, because they didn't understand it. Like they said when I went on The Ed Sullivan Show, I was the dirtiest thing that ever hit the stage. But it was a good feeling, because it shows you don't have to copy somebody else's stuff. I never copied somebody else's thing. I used the same notes, but the way I put it together and the way I played made it different."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky