JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Bo Diddley, a founding father of rock and roll whose distinctive rhythm and innovative guitar effects inspired legions of other musicians, died yesterday. He was 79.
Diddley had suffered a heart attack in August, three months after suffering a stroke while touring in Iowa. Doctors said the stroke affected his ability to speak, and he had returned to Florida for more rehabilitation. He died of heart failure at his home in Archer, Fla., spokesman Susan Clary said.
The legendary singer and performer, known for his homemade square guitar, dark glasses, and black hat, was an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and received a lifetime achievement award in 1999 at the Grammy Awards.
The name Bo Diddley came from other youngsters when he was growing up in Chicago, he said in a 1999 interview.
"I don't know where the kids got it, but the kids in grammar school gave me that name," he said, adding that he liked it so it became his stage name. Other times, he gave somewhat differing stories on where he got the name. Some experts believe a possible source for the name is a one-string instrument used in traditional blues music called a diddley bow.
His first single, "Bo Diddley," introduced record buyers in 1955 to his signature rhythm: bomp ba-bomp bomp, bomp bomp, often summarized as "shave and a haircut, two bits." The B side, "I'm a Man," with its slightly humorous take on macho pride, also became a rock standard.
The company that issued his early songs was Chess-Checkers records, the storied Chicago-based labels that also recorded Chuck Berry and other stars.
Howard Kramer, assistant curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, said in 2006 that Diddley's Chess recordings "stand among the best singular recordings of the 20th century."
Diddley's other major songs included, "Say Man," "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover," "Shave and a Haircut," "Uncle John," "Who Do You Love?" and "The Mule."
Diddley's influence was felt on both sides of the Atlantic. Buddy Holly borrowed the signature rhythm for his song "Not Fade Away."
The Rolling Stones' bluesy remake of that Holly song gave them their first chart single in the United States, in 1964. The following year, another British band, the Yardbirds, had a Top 20 hit in the U.S. with their version of "I'm a Man."
Despite his success, Diddley claimed he only received a small portion of the money he made during his career. Partly as a result, he continued to tour and record music until his stroke. Between tours, he made his home near Gainesville in north Florida.
"Seventy ain't nothing but a number," he said in 1999. "I'm writing and creating new stuff and putting together new different things. Trying to stay out there and roll with the punches. I ain't quit yet."
Diddley won attention from a new generation in 1989 when he took part in the "Bo Knows" ad campaign for Nike, built around football and baseball star Bo Jackson. Commenting on Jackson's guitar skills, Diddley turned to the camera and said, "He don't know Diddley."
Born as Ellas Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, in McComb, Miss., Diddley was later adopted by his mother's cousin and took on the name Ellis McDaniel, which his wife always called him.
When he was 5, his family moved to Chicago, where he learned the violin at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He learned guitar at 10 and entertained passers-by on street corners.
By his early teens, Diddley was playing Chicago's Maxwell Street.
"I came out of school and made something out of myself. I am known all over the globe, all over the world. There are guys who have done a lot of things that don't have the same impact that I had," he said.
Diddley was scheduled to play at the Valentine Theatre's gala last year but had to cancel after he suffered a stroke. He played in Monroe in 2005, and his most recent appearance in Toledo was in 2004. In an interview four years ago with The Blade's David Yonke, Diddley said he was proud of his role in rock music, which he felt was overlooked for too long.
"We had that racial [stuff] going on and they overlooked Bo Diddley," Diddley said. "Elvis later became really great. Elvis was really good. But Elvis did not start rock and roll. It was me and Chuck Berry.
"I used to not want to talk about it. I didn't want to open a can of worms. But I want credit for what I started, for what I did. When I leave off of this planet and go to another world - I have no idea where I'm going, and I don't plan on dying anytime soon - I want kids to know."