A Salute to Bo Diddley

08 Jun 2008|Lee Shupp

This blog is a tribute to Bo Diddley, who was a musician, cultural icon, and astute innovator. I salute the man, his life, and his music. I also salute his ability to innovate, and his marketing genius. Now, you may ask, what does Bo Diddley have to do with innovation and marketing?

Born in McComb Mississippi in 1928, he grew up in the Chicago blues scene that gave us a long list of guitar legends: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and many others. He went on to a long and storied career, and a place in the Rock ‘n’Roll Hall of Fame. He won many other awards as well, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.

Chicago was a hotbed of innovation in the blues in the 1940s, as musicians adopted electric instruments to amplify the acoustic sounds of Delta blues. Bo Diddley managed to out-innovate almost everyone, showing marketing acumen way ahead of the times. His most famous innovation was the Bo Diddley beat, used in much of his music, including “Hey Bo Diddley,” and “Who Do You Love.” This rumba meets rock’n’roll beat has been copied by many others since, including me. (See the Cover Versions and Tributes section of his Wikipedia entry for an exhaustive, and impressive, list.) He largely abandoned the traditional I-IV-V blues structure, and chord changes altogether, focusing on his unique groove and improvisation. He invented an iconic guitar, the boxy red guitar then made for him by Gretch, that made him instantly identifiable visually, even if you couldn’t hear his music.

He was famously banned from the Ed Sullivan show, because they wanted him to play Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” instead of one of his original songs, because his music was deemed too wild and sexual. He agreed to their demands, only to go on stage and play “Bo Diddley” instead, taking his shot at national exposure to build his brand rather than reinforce someone else’s. Ed Sullivan was so furious that he banned Bo Diddley from his show for life. I love Bo Diddley for that.

This is innovation and branding genius, implemented long before people wrote textbooks on the subjects. He figured out a sound that made him instantly identifiable, and differentiated him from all of the other great blues guitar players. He focused on his innovation- a great groove- and ignored what everyone else did, like traditional chord changes. He adopted a strong visual brand identity with the his red Gretch and later his black hat. We can learn lots by examining Bo Diddley as a case study.

Rappers work hard on coming up with unique grooves, ironically lifting bits and pieces from great grooves past. We have brands like Madonna and U2. We have iconography from The Artist Formerly and Once Again Known as Prince. We have custom guitars developed and endorsed by many of our current guitar heroes. We have strong visual branding by bands like the White Stripes, who only use the colors black and red. But to all of these great modern musicians, I ask: Who’s your daddy? In many respects, it’s Bo Diddley.

For a great slide show of his life and music, see the New York Times obit..
For a great glimpse of Bo Diddley in his prime, see the postings on YouTube, including my favorite, which shows the man raising the roof on a one chord Bo Diddley groove.

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