Former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch can't help laughing about the first time he tried playing The Beat.
Petty had come into their Gainesville rehearsal space with a new tune called American Girl. And there was only one rhythm he wanted powering the song.
The Bo Diddley Beat.
"The first hit record I ever played on was my sorry attempt to sound like him," said Lynch, who has a poster signed by the seminal rocker sitting in his St. Augustine home office. "It was kind of sweet — it gave it a pulse. Just shows, you can try to be like Bo Diddley, and even when you suck, it sounds great."
Mr. Diddley, 79, died Monday (June 2, 2008) at his home in Archer, near Gainesville, of heart failure after a long stretch of health problems. In May 2007, he suffered a stroke in the Omaha airport; three months later, he had a heart attack at a Gainesville hospital.
Still, despite his ongoing illnesses — diabetes took two toes on his left foot years ago — some friends seemed shocked by news of his passing, convinced somehow that the rock and blues showman would remain immortal, just as the music he helped invent.
"Talking to him was like being around a living history book," said Dunnellon blues guitarist Keith Caton, 52, a 30-year friend of Mr. Diddley's who calls him "my musical father."
"He invented rock 'n' roll music (but) he didn't realize he was changing history," added the musician, who first called Mr. Diddley after finding his given name in the phone book. "He once said, 'I opened the door for a lot of people, and they ran on through and left me holding the knob.' "
Born Ellas Otha Bates in 1920s-era Mississippi, Mr. Diddley was a classically trained violinist who migrated to drums and later guitar, developing a percolating style built around one of the most recognizable rhythmic figures in rock history.
Mr. Diddley voiced it to the St. Petersburg Times in 2002 this way: "BOOM, t-boom, t-boom, TIKA-boom, boom" — a two-bar beat somewhere between a rumba and the old "shave and haircut" beat.
By the time he signed with Chicago's Chess Records in 1955, Mr. Diddley had evolved a gutsy, brash sound that led straight from the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta to the rock 'n' roll charts.
His signature beat — reportedly developed trying to copy a Gene Autry tune — formed the backbone of his own classic hits Who Do You Love? and Bo Diddley, while inspiring everything from Buddy Holly's 1957 success Not Fade Away to George Michael's 1987 smash Faith.
Still, the lack of compensation and credit for his achievements was often a sore point (to wind him up, ask about the credit Holly or Elvis Presley got as rock innovators). He was among the second group of legends inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and once claimed $50-million in losses from those who ripped off his songs or recordings.
"Ain't no way in hell I'll get past the anger feeling until I see some checks," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2002. Caton said Mr. Diddley felt artists such as Presley and Pat Boone "took their music, black music … and sanitized it for young white kids."
Critics have suggested that Mr. Diddley wasn't better known, in part, because he was blackballed from television when he angered legendary talent show host Ed Sullivan by unexpectedly playing his own song on live TV.
"He was his own worst enemy in some ways," said Caton, struggling to hold back tears. "The lyrics to his original version of Bo Diddley were so vulgar, (record company owner) Leonard Chess said, 'We can't release that.' "
But rock critic and Sirius Satellite Radio DJ Dave Marsh had another explanation for why Mr. Diddley never seemed quite as well known as contemporaries such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
"It was too black, it was too angry, it was too primitive and it was too sexual," said Marsh, founding editor of the rock magazine Creem. "Bo has always been the most underrated of the '50s (rock innovators). There's no Buddy Holly without Bo Diddley, which means there's no Beatles without Bo Diddley."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report and Times files were used. Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.