Born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi, in 1928, the man better known as Bo Diddley introduced himself and his namesake beat to the world on this day in 1955 with his television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Bo Diddley opened his appearance on Ed Sullivan with the eponymously titled song “Bo Diddley,”. This now-famous number set portions of the children’s rhyme “Mockingbird” to what is now known as “the Bo Diddley beat”—a syncopated rhythm in 4/4 time that is the foundation of such rock-and-roll classics as Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Stangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” among countless others. Five months before Elvis Presley would make his famous Ed Sullivan debut, Diddley’s performance gave many Americans their first exposure to rock and roll, though that term was not yet familiar to mainstream audiences. Neither was the Bo Diddley beat, yet within just a few seconds of the drum-and-maraca opening of “Bo Diddley,” the live Ed Sullivan audience can be heard spontaneously clapping along to the distinctive rhythm in the surviving kinescope recording of the performance.
As Diddley would later tell the story, Ed Sullivan had expected him to perform only a cover version of “Tennessee” Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” and was furious enough with him for opening with “Bo Diddley” that Sullivan banned him from future appearances on his show. Be that as it may, Diddley’s appearance on this day in 1955 introduced a sound that would influence generations of followers. As blues-rock artist George Thorogood—who performed and recorded many Bo Diddley covers during his own career—once told Rolling Stone: “[Chuck Berry's] ‘Maybellene’ is a country song sped up… ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is blues sped up. But you listen to ‘Bo Diddley,’ and you say, ‘What in the Jesus is that?'”