Sunday, June 22, 2014

How "Bo Diddley" Got That Name (with videos)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents various theories about how "Bo Diddley" got his stage name. Information about Bo Diddley and YouTube examples of Bo Diddley's recordings of the songs "Bo Diddley" and "Hey Bo Diddley" are also included in this post.

A video of Lonnie Pitchford playing a diddley bow is also featured in this post. are also found in this post along with another YouTube video.

The content of this post is provided for cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Bo Diddley for his musical legacy. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publishers of these YouTube videos that are featured in this post.

Ellas Otha Bates (December 30, 1928 – June 2, 2008), known by his stage name Bo Diddley, was an American R&B vocalist, guitarist and songwriter (usually as Ellas McDaniel)... He introduced more insistent, driving rhythms and a hard-edged electric guitar sound on a wide-ranging catalog of songs, along with African rhythms and a signature beat (a simple five-accent clave rhythm) that remains a cornerstone of hip hop, rock and pop.[3][4][5] Accordingly, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation[4][6] and a Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He was known in particular for his technical innovations, including his trademark rectangular guitar.

Stage name
McDaniel adopted the stage name Bo Diddley. The origin of the name is somewhat unclear, as several differing stories and claims exist. Diddley claims that his peers gave him the nickname, which he first suspected to be an insult.[15] Bo Diddley himself said that the name first belonged to a singer his adoptive mother was familiar with, while harmonicist Billy Boy Arnold once said in an interview that it was originally the name of a local comedian that Leonard Chess borrowed for the song title and artist name for Bo Diddley's first single, and guitar craftsman Ed Roman reported that another (unspecified) source says it was his nickname as a Golden Gloves boxer".
This Wikipedia article also includes information about the American colloquial phrase "diddley squat", but although the authors of that article cite two books about American slang as their references for that information, I'm not sure that everything that is written in that article about that phrase is actually true. I've used a similar phrase "doddley squat" which means "Of no significance, rank or importance" (as given in, and I'm sure that it's possible that some people say "diddley squat" instead of "doodley squat". However. I'm not sure that I buy that "Diddley is a truncation of diddly-squat, retaining the same meaning[18] of "nothing"[19] and bo is an intensifier." [end of quote] In any event, I don't think that "doddley squat" (which I pronounce & have heard pronounced "DOO-lee squat") or "diddley squat" has anything to do with how Bo Diddley got that stage name.

From the book Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records by Nadine Cohodas [pp 103-105] Warning: This passage contains one example of profanity.

I'm numbering these theories for referencing purposes and am including the complete quote for the information that it provides.

1. "McDaniel told one biography that the name was given to him by a grammar school friend and that he had no idea what it meant.

2. He has told music writers other versions: that the name came from his days as a boxer

3. that it came from his penchant for the strange-looking guitars that he built- “I guess that’s why they call me Bo Diddley ‘cause I always jump out of the bag with some new crap”- and that the nickname was a scat phrase to describe his unusual rhythm.

4. [Chicago harmonica player Billy Boy] Arnold remembers it differently. There was no “Bo Diddley” until the rehearsal sessions at 4750 [Chess record studios in 1955], when Leonard [Chess] wanted a new name for the group and different lyrics for McDaniel’s song “Uncle John”. The original began “Uncle John got corn ain’t never been shucked. Uncle John got daughters ain’t never…been to school.” “Older folks won’t like it” Leonard said. “DJs won’t play it”. Find some new lyrics.”
Arnold said “Bo Diddley” popped into his head when he recalled seeing a clown on the street who used that name. He joked with the band about its funny sound. “How about Bo Diddley?” he suggested in the studio.

Leonard wasn’t sure. He didn’t know what that phrase meant, and he worried that it might be something derogatory towards blacks. Assured that that was not the case, he let the band go ahead and play with the song, keeping the same rhythm- “Bo Diddley” fit the cadence of “Uncle John”, but changing the words. Now it started “Bo Diddley bought his baby a diamond ring”."
[end of quote]

The passage above begins with the sentences "“How the name “Bo Diddley” came into being has been the subject of much conjecture. There has been at least two other performers named “Bo Diddley”, one, according to a British magazine, performed in China in 1929, and another who performed in Chicago in July 1935, according to an announcement in the Chicago Defender." [end of quote>
I'm uncertain about the race of the first performer who was mentioned. However, given that the Chicago Defender is a "Chicago-based weekly newspaper founded in 1905 by an African American for primarily African-American readers" its most likely that the person who performed under the name "Bo Diddley" in Chicago in 1935 was Black. (

With regard to Ellas McDaniel's song "Uncle John" which became the song "Bo Diddley", I wonder if "Uncle John" is the name of an old fictitious African American character similar to the highly risque African American folk character "Uncle Bud". "Uncle John" shows up in Little Richard's song "Long Tall Sally" which contain lyrics that obliquely refer to sex: "Well, long tall Sally, she's built for speed/ She got everything that Uncle John need"

Notice that according to the quote from Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records the name "Bo Diddley" was selected as the name of the band and not as Ellas McDaniel's stage name.

The theory presented as #3 mentioned Ellas McDaniel's "penchant for the strange-looking guitars that he built" may have referred to "Bo Diddley's rectangular shaped guitar. It may have also been an oblique reference to "diddley bows". Here's more information about diddley bows:

"The diddley bow is a single-stringed American instrument which influenced the development of the Blues sound. It consists of a single string of baling wire tensioned between two nails on a board over a glass bottle, which is used both as a bridge and as a means to magnify the instrument's sound....

The diddley bow derives from instruments used in West Africa. There, they were often played by children, one beating the string with sticks and the other changing the pitch by moving a slide up and down. The instrument was then developed as a children's toy by slaves in the United States. They were first documented in the rural South by researchers in the 1930s.[2][3]...

One notable performer of the instrument was the Mississippi blues musician Lonnie Pitchford, who used to demonstrate the instrument by stretching a wire between two nails hammered into the wood of a vertical beam making up part of the front porch of his home. Pitchford's headstone, placed on his grave in 2000 by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, is actually designed with a playable diddley bow on the side as requested by Pitchford's family."

Here's a video of Lonnie Pitchford:

Lonnie Pitchford - Diddley Bow - African Roots of the Blues Part 4

The Dinizulu Archives, March 23, 2009

This is an excerpt of some footage Nana Kimati Dinizulu shot when he was conducting some research in Mississippi. The late Lonnie Pitchford can be seen and heard playing the diddley bow, a one string instrument of African origin. This footage was shot by Cheryl Johnson who introduced me to Lonnie Pitchford a few years before his passing which occurred in 1998.

I'm uncertain which theory is correct, but I lean towards the theory that Bo Diddley got his stage name from the diddley bow musical instrument.

Click for a pancocojams post about diddley bows. That post also includes definitions for the word "diddle" which is probably the source of the word "diddley".


Bo Diddley Ed Sullivan Show1955 mpg

William Stewart, Published on Aug 27, 2015
Bo Diddley Hey! Bo Diddley - 1964

Jorge Michelini, uploaded September 14, 2010

[from an appearance on The Tami Show]

ADDITION 9/26/2016
Here's some information about that beat from
"The "Bo Diddley Beat" (1955) is perhaps the first true fusion of 3-2 clave and R&B/rock 'n' roll.
The Bo Diddley beat is essentially a 3-2 clave rhythm, one of the most common bell patterns found in Afro-Cuban music, and its origin goes back to the sub-Saharan African music traditions.[5] The Latin connection was so strong that Bo Diddley used maracas as a basic component of his sound.[6] Bo Diddley has given different accounts regarding how he began to use this rhythm. In an interview with Rolling Stones magazine, Diddley said he came up with the beat after listening to Gospel music in church when he was 12 years old.[7]

...The Bo Diddley beat is also akin to the age-old rhythmic pattern best known as "shave and a haircut, two bits." And it's been linked to Yoruba drumming from West Africa.[6]
In its simplest form, the Bo Diddley beat can be counted out as either a one-bar, or a two-bar phrase. Here is the count as a one-bar phrase: One e and ah, two e and ah, three e and ah, four e and ah. The bolded counts are the clave rhythm.

Songs using the Bo Diddley Beat.[prior to 1955]

Three years before Bo's "Bo Diddley" (1955), a song similar syncopation "Hambone", was cut by Red Saunders' Orchestra with The Hambone Kids. In 1944, "Rum and Coca Cola", containing the Bo Diddley beat, was recorded by The Andrews Sisters ... This rhythm occurs in 13 rhythm and blues recordings made in the years 1944–55, including two by Johnny Otis from 1948.[13]"...

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment