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Published: Saturday, 6/7/2008

The beat goes on

AT THE dawn of rock 'n' roll, there was Bo Diddley's syncopated beat. Those who heard it could feel it deep in their bones. It was three shuffling strokes and a rest followed by two strokes. It was instantly memorable.

Bo Diddley, the guitar pioneer who provided rock with its beating heart in the 1950s, died Monday after a long illness. He was 79.

Though Otha Ellas Bates was the name on his birth certificate, it was changed to Ellas B. McDaniel when his family moved to Chicago from McComb, Miss., when he was a boy.

For years, he studied violin, but it wasn't until he picked up another instrument - a box-shaped guitar he made himself - that he found his true outlet. He became "Bo Diddley," and the rest is music history.

Along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly, he popularized a sound that had been the exclusive province of black musicians. Berry may have been the better guitarist, but Bo Diddley tapped into the joyful, elemental beat that ran from blues to gospel to R&B.

He influenced a pantheon of rock superstars - the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, U2 - who in turn became an entire generation of pioneers in their own right.

As one of rock's architects, Bo Diddley felt he was never properly compensated for his work. But all the riches in the world would be a mere down payment on royalties owed to the ubiquity of his beat.

Fans will forever argue about who deserves the crown of "King of Rock 'n' Roll," but there can be no debate that Bo Diddley was its ever-beating heart.

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