Bo Diddley
Credit: F. Scott Schafer

I was lucky enough to see Bo Diddley in concert about 14 years ago, performing for maybe a thousand people of all ages at a free show on the plaza outside Boston’s City Hall. Diddley, who died this morning at 79, was well into his 60s then, but he could still rock as hard as anyone, generating wicked, unearthly sounds from that famous cigar-box-shaped guitar, with that signature chunky rhythm reverberating throughout the drab canyon of cobblestone and concrete that is Scollay Square. He ran through his familiar repertoire of hits, ripped through a dozen song styles, and staked a claim (in case anyone cared), that there was a lot more to him than just the famous “shave and a haircut, six bits” Bo Diddley beat. Though that turned out to be more than enough to build a 60-year career on.

There’s always been a lot of argument among the architects of rock ‘n’ roll as to who deserved the most credit for inventing the genre. Was it Little Richard? Chuck Berry? Elvis? Sam Phillips? Ike Turner? I’d say Diddley’s claim is as good as any of theirs. There was that indelible rhythm, of course, copied by countless others; the fearsome, brutal guitar work which (along with Berry’s fluid, melodic playing) helped make the electric guitar rock’s central instrument, and there was that Delta bluesman’s mojo which he (more than any of the other early rockers) possessed and explored, making him the most direct link between the elemental mysticism of country and electric blues on one side and the protean psychedelia of ’60s rock on the other side. Diddley even had an early claim as a hip-hop progenitor, citing his 1959 “Say Man” (on which he and maracas player Jerome Green play the dozens, trading spoken insults) as the first rap song. In any case, his influence on musicians who followed — from Buddy Holly to the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and countless others — is too vast to calculate.

Like many of rock’s founders, Diddley had few hits after his British acolytes supplanted him on the charts, but he continued to get by on sheer presence, even when he wasn’t playing a note (as in his memorable 1980s cameos in those “Bo Knows” Nike ads, or in Trading Places). He was an innovator and eccentric, but first and last, he was a showman, as he proved to me that night in Boston. Until a stroke robbed him of his voice last year, he was still singing and playing live shows. A gunslinger (as Diddley famously called himself in an album title) tends to have a short lifespan, but Diddley managed to keep shooting longer than most, and his aim was always direct, piercing, and true.

addCredit(“Bo Diddley: F. Scott Schafer”)