If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Bo Diddley’s had all the flattery a body can take.
Or as Diddley, who will play at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Maine Center for the Arts in Orono, once said, “I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob.”
Diddley, 77, is the songwriter behind such classic rock staples such as “Bo Diddley” (natch), “I’m a Man,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Before You Accuse Me” and “Love is Strange.”
In his 50 years in music, Diddley has influenced a couple of generations of musicians. Both The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds cut their musical teeth at the Crawdaddy Club in Surrey, England, named after the Diddley song “Doing the Craw-Daddy,” and learned playing Diddley covers. Among the others who have covered the rocker through the years are Bob Seger, The Doors, Aerosmith, George Thorogood and The Animals.
That doesn’t count his indirect descendants, who have co-opted his Bo Diddley beat, a Latin-based rhythm which also employs “hambone,” a method of creating percussive sounds by slapping arms, legs, chest and cheeks while chanting rhymes. His beat can be heard in songs from contemporaries such as Buddy Holly (“Not Fade Away”) and Johnnie Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”) to The Who (“Magic Bus”) and Bruce Springsteen (“She’s the One”) in the next generation to more recent performers such as U2 (“Desire”) and George Michael (“Faith”).
Diddley was also a pioneer with his custom-made, rectangular Gretsch guitars, his use of special guitar effects such as reverb, tremolo and distortion, his hiring of female musicians and his stage style of strutting and hopping around on stage, playing his guitar every which way. He was even one of the earliest rappers.
Diddley, who has been called “The Originator,” has stated his philosophy quite simply: “I wanted to do my thing … I didn’t want to do something I heard somebody else do.”
Born Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss., he became Ellas McDaniel when he was adopted, along with three of his cousins, by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel. The family moved to Chicago in the mid-1930s, which is where his musical education began.
He took violin lessons for 12 years, eventually composing two concertos for the instrument. But when his sister Lucille gave him a cheap guitar as a Christmas present in 1940, he’d found his true calling.
Bo Diddley was the moniker hung on him by fellow pupils at Foster Vocational High School in Chicago. But he did his real learning on the street corners, as he honed his chops and developed the percussive, rhythmic style that would make him famous.
After a decade of playing the clubs in Chicago, Diddley finally cut a two-song demo in 1955. After numerous rejections, he found sympathetic ears in the persons of brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, owner of Chess Records. They soon released the double-A side disc “Bo Diddley”/”I’m a Man,” and it went straight to the top of the rhythm and blues charts. And the rest was musical history.
Showing the scope of his legacy, Diddley has been inducted into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards. Things he started as a songwriter, musician and performer can still be observed today, even if young fans of this generation’s acts aren’t really aware of the man with the big eagle badge on his black hat.
Perhaps a Rolling Stone writer summed up Diddley’s impact best: “History belongs to the victors and in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, three men have emerged as winners: Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, a holy trinity who were there at the start.”
Tickets for Bo Diddley and Friends, with featured guests Alvin Youngblood Hart and Ruthie Foster, are available at the Maine Center for the Arts box office, by calling 581-1755 or online at mainecenterforthearts.org.