The lyrics were based on the American folk song "Mockingbird." It has virtually the same lyrics as the "Mockingbird
" adaptation by Charlie and Inez Foxx in 1963, which was later recorded by James Taylor and Carly Simon.
Bo Diddley was born Ellas Bates. He had his name changed to Ellas McDaniels when he was adopted. He took his stage name from a one-stringed Deep South instrument, the Diddley Bow.
Originally titled "Uncle John," the song was rejected by the owners of Chess Records because the original lyrics were "too dirty" for the white American record-buying public. In response, Diddley re-wrote the lyrics and named the song after himself. From this point forward, Diddley often put his name in his songs.
Diddley was trained on the violin as a child, but switched to guitar (to emulate John Lee Hooker) when his sister gave him one for a Christmas present.
Diddley took his longtime partner Jerome Green to play the maracas on the recording. Green's efforts were fed through an echo chamber to get the desired effect.
The Bo Diddley riff was incorporated into many rock'n'roll songs. Examples include "Not Fade Away
" (Buddy Holly), "Willie and the Hand Jive" (Johnny Otis Show), "Cannonball" (Duane Eddy), "Hey Little Girl" (Dee Clark), "I Want Candy
" (Strangeloves), "Bad Blood
" (Neil Sedaka), and "Faith
" (George Michael).
Although the riff used in this is ascribed to Bo Diddley (the "Bo Diddley Beat), it didn't originate with him. It goes back to West Africa -- American slaves patted the rhythms on their bodies as they were denied access to their traditional drums (many pre-Civil War slaveholders were afraid of them being used for communication). "Hambone" became part of the African-American musical tradition. Chicago youngster Sammy McGrier did a hambone on a radio talent show in the early '50s; bandleader Red Saunders recorded McGrier, Dee Clark, and Ronny Strong as the Hambone Kids and called the song "Hambone." "Hambone" became a novelty hit despite covers by Tennessee Ernie Ford and the duo of Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford. It was the only chart record for Red Saunders.
Contrary to popular belief, this did not make the Billboard Top Singles chart, but it did hit #1 on the Rhythm and Blues chart.
Diddley's sole Top 40 his was recorded four years later - "Say Man" - a tape of Diddley and Green swapping insults in a bar. Instruments were added in the studio, and a #20 hit was born.
Bo Diddley performed this on his Ed Sullivan Show
appearance November 20, 1955. Sullivan wanted Diddley to sing "Sixteen Tons
," but Diddley played this song anyway, which didn't go over well with the host. Diddley was never asked back.