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Ellas McDaniel Jr. was just a year old when his father went from relative obscurity, driving an asphalt truck and playing rhythm and blues on the street corners of Chicago, to worldwide fame.
“He was trying to put diapers on me and my sister. That’s what led him to play on street corners,” McDaniel said last week from the home of Chiefland friend Duane Schwingel. “My mother (Ethel) worked for the Polo Meat Co., cuttin’ up chickens.”
Life was hand-to-mouth when his father, influential R&B stylist Bo Diddley, hit it big with the release of “I’m a Man” in 1954 and walked through a door of opportunity that few blacks in America at that time had experienced.
It was troubled times for America.
McDaniel said he remembers seeing blacks being beaten and dragged down the street by police dogs. At his father’s shows, blacks and whites were forced to stand apart on opposite sides of the room. Still, the fans kept coming, proving the power the music had to break down racial barriers.
“We started to idolize this man,” McDaniel said. “ He was God to us.”
There was only one book ever written about Diddley, a biography put together by George R. White in the 1990s called “Bo Diddley: Living Legend,” but McDaniel said it leaves out a lot of important parts.
“The book describes everything he went through, the injustices. But it never mentions his family life, the man behind the music. So, there’s just half a story out there.”
McDaniel wants the world to have a more complete picture of the man named Bo Diddley. He’s trying to publish a book called “I knew Diddley,” co–authored with his long-time friend Schwingel. McDaniel and Schwingel are hoping to self-publish the book once they’ve acquired the $85,000 they say is necessary to get it in print.
Last week, they launched a campaign on kickstarter.com, a site devoted to “crowd funding” endeavors measured as worthy by the general public. Schwingel said he and McDaniel have been approached by a few publishing companies about the book, but he said the goal is to keep it out of the hands of as many middlemen as possible.
Diddley, also known as the “Originator,” has had influence on some of the most famous musicians of the 20th Century. He’s credited with helping bridge the gap between the Blues and Rock and Roll, paving the way for such artists as the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a Grammy and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born in Mississippi as Ellas Othas Bates, Diddley was famous for his shuffling beat, known as the “Bo Diddley Beat,” and his trademark rectangular guitar. He continued to produce hits throughout the 50s and 60s and even played shows a few months before his death at his home in Archer, where he lived for the last 13 years of his life.
McDaniel describes his father as a musical genius, deserving of the accolades, but admits there was another side to the man that few ever witnessed. He wasn’t abusive, McDaniel said. He just wasn’t around much, gone because of the “nature of the business.”
“When he turned to Bo Diddley, from Ellas McDaniel … it transformed him into someone we didn’t know anymore.
“I almost wish he had been a brick mason … or a sanitation worker, because I did a lot of growing up alone.”
Diddley divorced McDaniel’s mother after a few years and had been in several other relationships, often putting the success of later children ahead of McDaniel and his sister, Evelyn, he said.“ ‘Mommy Dearest’ would be nothing. ‘Flowers in the Attic’ would be nothing.”
It wasn’t until McDaniel was in his late 20s that father and son would begin to come to terms with the wall that had been thrown up between them.
“My story’s gonna’ be bizarre,” he said. “It’s gonna’ be a shocker,” adding that, overall, the book would be positive, emphasizing the importance of family.
To learn more, go to www.facebook.com/I.Knew.Diddley.