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One of the fathers of rock 'n' roll has died. With his homemade guitar, Bo Diddley created a sound that left an indelible impression on rock 'n' roll. Bo Diddley passed away this morning in Florida of heart failure. He was 79. He was born Ellis Bates in Mississippi, and he once played that homemade guitar on street corners in Chicago until he was discovered in the mid-1950s.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this appreciation of Bo Diddley.

NEDA ULABY: It's among the most distinctive beats in rock 'n' roll.

Mr. BO DIDDLEY (Guitarist, Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

ULABY: Scholars trace this pattern to church tambourines, West African drumming, and a hand-patting rhythm called hambone that goes back to slavery. But Bo Diddley told the Public Radio show AMERICAN ROOTS he found it someplace else.

Mr. DIDDLEY: I was trying to play "I've Got Spurs that Jingle, Jangle, Jingle" by Gene Autry…

(Soundbite of song, "I've Got Spurs that Jingle, Jangle, Jingle")

Mr. GENE AUTRY (Actor, Singer): I've got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle.

Mr. DIDDLEY: …and stumbled up on that beat. And here it is.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: But in a later interview with MORNING EDITION, Bo Diddley went from cowboys to Indians.

Mr. DIDDLEY: That was basically an Indian chant. Just picture dancing around a doggone(ph) big fire in the middle of them. They're dancing around with their spears. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

(Soundbite of song, "Bo Diddley")

Mr. DIDDLEY: (Singing) Bo Diddley buy baby diamond ring.

ULABY: Wherever that beat came from, music historian Peter Guralnick says that Diddley made it big enough for everyone.

Mr. PETER GURALNICK (Music Historian): That was just an invitation for people to step into. You know, lots of people imitated it. Lots of people carried it on.

ULABY: Including Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen.

Mr. GURALNICK: It's almost as if he foreshadowed James Brown in the sense in which rhythm predominated over melody and over the usual conventions of pop songwriting. And I think it's a tribute to Bo Diddley that it has lasted as long as it has.

ULABY: But Diddley said that while rhythm was important, the secret to good songwriting lay in something else.

Mr. DIDDLEY: A story with some funny lyrics or some serious lyrics or some love-type lyrics. But you got to think in terms of what people's lives is based on.

(Soundbite of song, "The Story of Bo Diddley")

Mr. DIDDLEY: (Singing) I was born one night about 12 o'clock.

ULABY: Many of Bo Diddley's most famous songs were about Bo Diddley. Diddley was sent to Chicago as a child and adopted by his mother's sister. Deeply religious, she tried to steer the young man from the devil's music with violin lessons. He built violins and guitars at a vocational high school and later met Gene Barge, a staffer at Chess Records.

Mr. GENE BARGE (Former Staff Producer, Chess Records): If you know Bo Diddley, you'll know that he was a gimmickry guy. He was gifted with his hands. He loved to work on things: cars, record players, amplifiers. He made all of his guitars.

(Soundbite of song, "Mona")

Mr. DIDDLEY: (Singing) Hey, Mona.

Mr. BARGE: He crafted this whole sound.

ULABY: Some of Diddley's guitars were custom-built to his specifications by the Gretsch Company, shaped like stars or covered in fur. Barge said long before Diddley worked audiences, he worked odd jobs in construction.

Mr. BARGE: He told me that he was working one of the air hammers in the middle of the street that makes all this terrible noise.

(Soundbite of song, "Hey, Bo Diddley")

ULABY: Bo Diddley drew from the sounds of the Chicago streets where he first performed.

(Soundbite of song, "Hey, Bo Diddley")

Mr. DIDDLEY: (Singing) Bo Diddley done had a farm.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Diddle, Diddley.

Mr. DIDDLEY: (Singing) On that farm he had some women.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Diddle, Diddley.

Mr. DIDDLEY: (Singing) Women here, women there.

ULABY: Bo Diddley's stage name came from street corner slang.

Mr. BARGE: Bo Diddley means that a guy was something extra special, you know, a real pistol.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Gene Barge says that in addition to playing rock, blues inspired by John Lee Hooker, calypso and Latin-tinged tunes, Bo Diddley was something of a comedian. He joined up with a female sideman - the Duchess - and Jerome Greene on maracas. Bo Diddley is also credited with inventing that signature beat. Here's Greene and Diddley playing in a vernacular called the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of song, "Say, Man")

Mr. DIDDLEY: Say, man.

Mr. JEROME GREENE (Maracas Player): What's that, boss?

Mr. DIDDLEY: I want to tell you about your girlfriend.

Mr. GREENE: What about my girl?

Mr. DIDDLEY: Well, you don't look strong enough to take the message.

Mr. GREENE: I'm strong enough.

Mr. DIDDLEY: I might hurt your feelings.

Mr. GREENE: My feelings are already hurt by being here with you.

ULABY: "Say, Man" was Diddley's last Top 20 single. His style of rock eventually fell out of fashion and Diddley became bitter over how others had profited from his sound. He'd written numerous hits, but sold the rights to pay his bills. His living came from constant touring. Towards the end of Bo Diddley's career, he toyed with rap and even returned - more or less - to his early classical training.

Mr. DIDDLEY: I wrote a concerto that I do on the guitar now. It's called "Bo's Concerto."

(Soundbite of humming)

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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