- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

That leaves three.

Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are still standing, but Bo Diddley, self-described “Originator,” is gone.

He declared in his seminal 1956 single “Who Do You Love?” that “I’m just 22, and I don’t mind dying.” When he turned 70, he said, with equal bravado, “I ain’t quit yet.”

He finally died this week at his home in Archer, Fla., according to a spokeswoman. He was 79 and suffering from heart disease.

Born Otha Ellas Bates and later known as Ellas McDaniel, Mr. Diddley may have derived his professional moniker from a one-stringed homemade folk instrument called a “diddley bow,” although he recalled picking up the slang name from classmates in grammar school.

Nearly everything else about the man was self-invented - including the trademark rectangular design of his guitars and his percussive, tremolo-laden style of playing them.

Mr. Diddley was adopted by his mother’s cousin; the family moved to the South Side of Chicago when he was 6.

Before he settled on guitar, Mr. Diddley took up classical violin. With his first band, the Hipsters, he busked for change on Chicago’s Maxwell Street. According to Nadine Cohodas’ history of the Chicago-based Chess Records, “Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records,” an underage Mr. Diddley slipped surreptitiously into clubs to watch local bluesman Muddy Waters perform.

Mr. Diddley’s first single for the Chesses, the self-titled “Bo Diddley” (with the B-side “I’m a Man”) was released in 1955. A major hit on Billboard’s retail and jukebox charts, the single also charted on a new tally called “R&B; radio” - a harbinger of the coming triumph of so-called “race music.”

With a definitive promotional boost from disc jockey Alan Freed (purported popularizer of the term rock ‘n’ roll), this new sound dominated American teenage culture - and made a profound impression on a cadre of discerning young Brits - in the mid- and late-‘50s.

In Bob Spitz’s massive biography of the Beatles, he notes that Little Richard’s “explosiveness and extraordinary range” suited the young, preternaturally talented Paul McCartney just fine. Bo Diddley’s “freakish bump-and-grind vamping”? “Undoubtedly puzzling,” Mr. Spitz speculates.

Most striking was Mr. Diddley’s guitar method. Along with Mr. Berry, Bo Diddley brought the electric guitar to the forefront of rock music. (Both were, incidentally, delightfully witty and - following in the tradition of blues - risque lyricists.) Before they arrived on the scene, proto-rock was driven as much by piano as blues-based guitar.

Chuck Berry’s and Bo Diddley’s styles became the bridge over which blues became rock. (It was the reliably audible electric bass, as Keith Richards has observed, that eventually glued together the whole package.)

Mr. Berry had big enough hands to cover the five-fret spread it took to adapt the boogie-woogie rhythm of pianists’ left hands. Also, he developed their high-octane right-hand licks into his foundational style of lead guitar.

Mr. Diddley’s playing, meanwhile, was built less on technique than brute physicality. “I was all rhythm,” he would explain. “I could drive you right out of your tree with chords and that fast wrist work.”

Such a minimalistic, unfussy attack, you might say, anticipated punk rock - which might explain why the Clash invited Mr. Diddley to perform on its 1979 tour.

What became the “Bo Diddley beat” - a chugging, rattling, pulsating machine - was a quintessentially American amalgam of the “hambone” dance as well as Afro-Cuban and black street rhythms. It was referred to in musical vernacular as “shave and a haircut, two bits.”

Bomp da-bomp bomp, bomp bomp: It’s rock ‘n’ roll DNA. Buddy Holly borrowed it for “Not Fade Away.” The Who built “Magic Bus” on it. Bruce Springsteen and U2 used it for “She’s the One” and “Desire,” respectively.

Through no fault of Mr. Diddley’s, the Bo Diddley beat became something of a cliche.

By the ‘60s, Mr. Diddley’s chart successes began to wane, but he was still a touring mainstay - as, indeed, he remained until he was physically incapable of performing. In 1963, he toured the United Kingdom with Little Richard and the Everly Brothers; near the bottom of the bill was an up-and-coming native act that adored him - the Rolling Stones.

“It was my first engagement in England,” Mr. Diddley recalled. “Me, Brian [Jones] and Keith [Richards] became ‘jug buddies’ … we drank out of the same jug. They were nice to me then, like brothers. I don’t mean black brothers; I mean brothers, period.”

Although he’s widely recognized as one of rock’s founding fathers, he made no secret of his frustration, in retrospect, over a lack of financial rewards to match that cultural recognition.

He said he never received royalty payments for record sales; instead, he was paid flat fees for his recordings. Even his live appearances often went unpaid, he said.

“I am owed. I’ve never got paid,” he said in the 1990s. “A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun.”

Aside from exploitative contracting, there was another reason for the windfall that never was: You don’t technically own a beat or rhythmic pattern, however distinctive.

As anyone who does “know Diddley” (to paraphrase the ubiquitous one-liner from the singer’s appearance in a series of Nike commercials in 1989) will tell you, that’s like saying a body doesn’t own its backbone.

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