Bo Diddley came out with his first single, eponymously and confusingly titled “Bo Diddley,” in March of 1955. The song found immediate commercial success, spending 18 weeks on the R&B charts, including 2 weeks at the #1 spot. Ed had seen Bo perform at the Apollo Theater and booked him, along with some other Apollo acts. On the night of Diddley’s performance before Sulllivan introduced anyone he spoke about Harlem in these words, “As everybody knows, whenever any new musical trend has advanced itself in the popular field whether it’s Charleston or the Black Bottom or any of the rhythm songs, the first area to find out about it is, Harlem.” Sullivan continued the introduction, “Here is Dr.Jive, I want you to meet this disc jockey from WWRL.” Following his entrance, Dr. Jive introduced Diddley by calling him a “wonderful, folk, blues singer.”
Apparently before rehearsal Sullivan heard Bo Diddley performing Tennessee Ernie Ford’s huge hit “Sixteen Tons” backstage, and asked him to perform that song on the show. However, halfway through the episode of the show Diddley approached musical director, Ray Bloch, to let him know that he had changed his mind and would be performing “Bo Diddley” instead. Diddley’s reason for the sudden song switch was because people across the country were expecting him to perform the number and it had become a favorite amongst juke box listeners. The decision to not follow the premade setlist upset Ed Sullivan, but generated cheers from the studio audience.
From the moment Bo played the first note, it was apparent that his act would be different from anything that had ever been played on The Ed Sullivan Show. In what is now widely regarded by Rock & Roll historians as the first Rock & Roll performance on National TV, Bo Diddley picked, plucked and strummed his way into music history. With his legendary “Bo Diddley beat,” he captivated viewers who were listening to Rock & Roll for the first time. However, Sullivan wasn’t too thrilled. He felt that he had been misled by Diddley, and permanently banned him from appearing again.
Nevertheless, the historic appearance cemented Diddley as a pioneer of Rock & Roll, and made him a megastar of the emerging genre. The revolutionary sound he brought to the stage has provided the foundation for many hit songs and has proved to be one of the most influential styles in Rock & Roll history. He was truly a groundbreaking artist, putting out music that no one at the time was creating. As blues contemporary George Thorogood put it, “You listen to ‘Bo Diddley’, and you say, ‘What in the Jesus is that?’”
The Bo Diddley beat can be heard in songs by Buddy Holly, The Who, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones. Ultimately, Diddley’s Ed Sullivan appearance was a landmark performance that catapulted him to legendary rock status.