While its rhythm has been attributed to everything from Afro-Cuban clave music to “shave and a haircut, two bits,” the Bo Diddley Beat — three strokes/rest/two strokes — remains a rock and roll original, created by Ellas McDaniel: the great Bo Diddley. Bo, who died in 2008, had said that the beat’s inspiration came from the gospel music he’d heard as a child in a Pentecostal church in Mississippi. Bo’s original and the songs it inspired make up our Top 11 examples of the Bo Diddley Beat.
1. BO DIDDLEY – BO DIDDLEY (1955)
Today’s rappers have nothing on Bo, who name-checked himself back in 1955 on Bo Diddley. The song introduced the world to the infectious Diddley Beat and Bo’s distorted guitar tremolo; it quickly became an R&B hit. Predictably, cover versions by white singers appeared within weeks of its release, which established a pattern: the Bo Diddley Beat has been borrowed, adapted, modified and ripped off by rockers ever since. Diddley long complained about artists who would add new lyrics to his song without credit or compensation: “Bo Diddley is not just a beat; it’s a melody and a rhythm pattern.”
2. WILLIE AND THE HAND JIVE – THE JOHNNY OTIS SHOW (1958)
Dubbed the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” bandleader Johnny Otis was born to Greek-American parents; his love of the black community’s culture and music led him to live his life as a black man. Otis apparently loved Bo Diddley’s sound as well. In producing Hand Jive, Otis combined the Diddley beat with hambone, the clapping and patting rhythms that were popular in the 1950s among the mildly deranged. The result would be a Top 10 hit and dance craze in 1958, later covered in 1974 by Eric Clapton.
3. (MARIE’S THE NAME) HIS LATEST FLAME – ELVIS PRESLEY (1961)
The meme that “Elvis ripped off black music” is popular but wrong. Elvis borrowed from white country, rockabilly and pop artists as well as blues singers like Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, whom he often credited as a major influence. His Latest Flame was written by the prolific Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman who, incidentally, were white. Pomus and Shuman based Flame on the Diddley Beat, which was lit up by session regulars Scotty Moore on guitar, Bob Moore on bass and drummer D.J. Fontana. Del Shannon released Flame two months before Elvis, but The King’s version became the Top 10 hit.
4. NOT FADE AWAY – THE ROLLING STONES (1964)
If you believe music history began in 1964, you’ll be surprised that the Stones’ first U.S. single, Not Fade Away, was written by Buddy Holly and recorded by the Crickets in 1957. Holly’s rockabilly original is almost genial in comparison to the Stones’ take; Crickets drummer Jerry Allison keeps the Diddley Beat by thumping on a cardboard box. It’s Keith’s rhythm guitar that propels the Bo Beat in the Stones’ version. The Grateful Dead would revive the country-fried flavor of the original but Mick’s snarling vocals and Brian Jones’ harmonica make the Stones’ cover the gold standard.
5. MAGIC BUS – THE WHO (1968)
Bo Diddley influenced The Who early on; the Brits covered Bo’s I’m A Man on their debut LP, 1965’s My Generation. That year Pete Townshend also wrote Magic Bus; recorded three years later, Pete’s energetic guitar riffs on Bus reference the Bo Beat throughout. Though some believe the title is a veiled reference to psychedelics, Townshend insists that the song’s bus is indeed of the Ralph Kramden variety. Though Magic Bus was used in the blockbuster films Goodfellas and Jerry Maguire, Bo didn’t receive so much as a free transfer.
6. SHAME, SHAME, SHAME – SHIRLEY & COMPANY (1974)
The Diddley Beat easily translated to disco in 1974 with Shirley & Company’s Shame, Shame, Shame. Lead singer Shirley Goodman is known to R&B fans as half of Shirley & Lee, who scored with Let the Good Times Roll (“Company” is singer Jesus Alvarez). Shame was written by another rock pioneer, Sylvia Robinson; her duo, Mickey & Sylvia, recorded Love Is Strange in 1956. Fast-forward to 1974; Robinson, now head of All Platinum Records, asked her friend Shirley record Shame. The result was a #1 hit on the soul and dance/disco charts.
7. SHE’S THE ONE – BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (1975)
A concert staple that first appeared on the Born to Run LP, She’s the One begins quietly with Bruce’s vocal over piano and guitar then explodes into the Diddley Beat. In an acknowledgement of Bo’s influence on She’s the One, Springsteen often leads into the tune by playing Bo Diddley. The Boss has introduced She’s the One by telling the crowd, “Good girls get bad when they hear this beat and bad girls get worse.”
8. I WANT CANDY – BOW WOW WOW (1982)
New wave popsters Bow Wow Wow claimed their sound echoed the tom-tom drums of Burundi (sure), but their 1982 hit I Want Candy was pure Bo Diddley, a cover of the 1965 original by the Strangeloves. Strange was right; to cash in on the British Invasion, the Strangeloves — three shameless New York producers — promoted themselves as musical Australian sheepherders with a sweet tooth. Friendly advice: One minute you want candy, the next you’re ordering a reinforced toilet seat from the Living XL catalog.
9. MR. BROWNSTONE – GUNS N’ ROSES (1987)
Guns N’ Roses’ Mr. Brownstone opens with drummer Steven Adler pounding out the Diddley Beat, which drives the song like a freight train to the end. The G N’ R concert favorite was dreamed up by guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, drug addicts who describe their days lazing around and “dancin’ with Mr. Brownstone,” slang for heroin. They hardly seem primed for rehab with Dr. Drew: “I don’t worry about nothin’ no / ‘Cause worryin’s a waste of my time.” The track appeared on Appetite for Destruction, which has sold more than 30 million copies. Meanwhile you, Mr. Clean and Sober, are delivering pizza.
10. FAITH – GEORGE MICHAEL (1987)
Despite a string of court appearances for drug possession, impaired driving and some public bathroom business that almost made the Ty-D-Bowl Man fall out of his boat, George Michael became a superstar after disbanding Wham! and going solo. The title track of his debut album, Faith, would become the best-selling single of 1988; its rockabilly rhythm was a clear lift of the Diddley Beat.
11. DESIRE – U2 (1988)
The Edge claims that U2 had been listening to the Stooges’ slacker anthem, 1969, when the band wrote Desire; both use Bo’s Beat as a foundation. A Top 10 hit off the Rattle and Hum LP, guitarists Bono and The Edge have performed electric and acoustic versions of Desire in concert over the years. Bono has said that rhythm is the sex of American music, which may be why so many so many musicians have copied the Bo Diddley.