Evelyn “Tan” Cooper, 66, enjoys the exhibit’s studio set that features Bo Diddley’s mixing board, spray paint art and other music equipment taken from his home in Archer, Florida. (Jillian Chabot/WUFT News)
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Bo Diddley’s Spirit Reflected In Personal Exhibit At Santa Fe College Art Gallery

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Much like his signature beat, Bo Diddley’s musical influence and innovative nature reverberate in a newly opened exhibit at the Santa Fe College Art Gallery.

The Life and Times of Ellas McDaniel reflects how Diddley’s artistry expanded beyond music to include his personally welded guitars and hand-crafted board games that he created for his six kids and 22 grandchildren.

Marian Nesbitt, co-curator of the exhibit, said Diddley often repurposed household items to use in his home studio. She said he would envision a common glass door as a new studio window. He even found multiple purposes for his bedroom desk, using it as a tabletop to support his mixing board.

“This is a very different and unique show,” Nesbitt said. “People have no clue how much he was into drawing and design.”

While the exhibit showcases his distinctive homburg hat and rectangular guitar, Nesbitt said there are memorabilia that visitors won’t see anywhere else, such as his hand-drawn designs for original costumes.  The gallery features a variety of collectibles and personally crafted items, provided by family members and his guitarist Scott Smith.

“He called himself a tinkerer,” said Smith. “He taught himself quite a few things just by experimentation and trial and error.”

Diddley’s constant curiosity led him to apply his findings into both his everyday life and musical endeavors, said Smith. He recalled Diddley’s innovation for building his own car trailer and using clock parts to produce a tremolo, a musical effect that causes the instrument’s sound to tremble.

The Bo Diddley exhibit at Santa Fe College Art Gallery features a horse race board game created by Diddley for his children and grandchildren. His oldest daughter, Evelyn “Tan” Cooper, started playing when she was 14 years old, and she said it has always been her favorite. (Jillian Chabot/WUFT News)

He taught himself how to build his first guitar while attending Foster Vocational High School in Chicago. Eventually he quit school to support his family during the Depression, leaving him unable to read and write.  

“He could write songs,” Smith said. “He did his best to phonetically spell out songs.”

A poorly written will and Diddley’s trusting character ended up negatively impacting his family’s rights to many pieces of memorabilia, according to Smith. Diddley’s 68 highest-earning songs were sold without the family’s consent. 

“This (the exhibit) is the family basically taking back possession of the legacy,” Smith said.

But that was only part of the reason to create the exhibit. Diddley’s oldest child, Evelyn “Tan” Cooper, said the family, Smith and Nesbitt wanted to find a way to honor who Diddley was as a musician, inventor, friend and father. 

Bo Diddley’s oldest child, Evelyn “Tan” Cooper, says her father’s distinctive rectangular guitars are featured in the exhibit. (Jillian Chabot/WUFT News)

Cooper said it was difficult sorting through her father’s personal belongings, but she knew he would have loved the exhibit.

“I’m too big of a crybaby,” she said.  “But I can’t help it — I miss my dad.”

She said she could feel his strong presence with her as she walked through the exhibit. Even while she cooks, she recalls him saying which pot to place on a certain stove burner, as if he never left. 

Diddley’s talents still live on in his musically inclined family members like Cooper who is a vocalist and his great-grandson Noah Mitchell who sings and plays drums.

Cooper said the family always gathered for light-hearted jam sessions where they would “clown” around and they often ended up creating melodies that Diddley could use in his songs.

As an influencer of well-known music icons like The Beatles, Elvis Presley and many others today, Cooper said Diddley always wanted the youth to know him.

“The world of music is him in the foundation,” Cooper said. “He wanted to keep going on, and I think that we are doing a pretty good job at that.”

The exhibit is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will run until Nov. 16.

This story emerged from an audience question. Submit your curiosities for Untold Florida, and we’ll find the answer. Preference is given to those who include their first name and city.

About Jillian Chabot

Jillian is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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