While driving from Arkansas to Texas, country singer Harold Lloyd Jenkins (1933-93) had a light-bulb moment. He had just pulled out of the town of Conway, Arkansas and was on his way to Twitty, Texas. Bingo! His new stage name would be Conway Twitty. The new name turned his career around and the singer went on to fame and fortune, especially his singing duets with country songbird Loretta Lynn such as “After the Fire is Gone.” The same thing happened to British pop singer Arnold George Dorsey, later known as Englebert Humperdink (the name of the 19th century composer who created the opera form of “Hansel and Gretel”). After changing his stage name to Humperdink, Dorsey made it big in 1967 with his smash hit “Release Me (and Let Me Love Again).” Many other hits followed.
How many people know that the 1970s pop duo called Steely Dan was actually named after a dildo that was mentioned in a 1959 novel by American writer William S. Burroughs called The Naked Lunch? What about the name of the rock group Jefferson Airplane, later updated to Jefferson Starship? Here, Jefferson is an homage to Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), an early blues pioneer from Texas. Mississippi Delta blues legend McKinley Morganfield (1913-83), otherwise known as Muddy Waters, got his nickname from his mother who used to chide her young son for playing in mud puddles. The name stuck to him, like the Mississippi mud from those puddles.
Sometimes stage names or nom de plumes can have a more practical function as well. “In the age when media such as television was not yet strong and the internet was non-existent, the use of a catchy nickname that could be easily remembered and therefore spread easily was the ultimate promotional tool,” writes Cynthia Betubuza in Musicmaker.org. “This was a method used by artists such as Guitar Gabriel and Muddy Waters. Also, piggy-backing off of and tweaking the nicknames of already known performers allowed for newer artists to use some of that buzz for themselves.”
Before musicians had illegal downloads to complain about, the pioneering blues artists faced even more daunting problems. Imagine recording a million-selling single and only getting paid $100 for it, while your contract forbids you from recording for anybody else. “That in a nutshell is why a handful of blues greats did so much recording under assumed names. When it was harder to get a fair shake from your label, it was at least easier to get around your contract with a series of blues nicknames,” explains Brett Milano in a 2019 article “The Blues by Any Other Name: The Secrets Behind Blues Nicknames” in udiscovermusic.com.
Mississippi Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker was the king of that tactic. He was one of the most prolific artists in blues history, which is probably why he managed to be paid well in his early heyday. “It wasn’t unusual then for bluesmen to get a flat fee, so if the record wound up selling a million – as Hooker did with ‘Boogie Chillen’ in 1949 and ‘I’m In The Mood’ two years later – it wasn’t the artist who profited. The slight upside was that there were no big-time legal departments to come after him when he used pseudonyms as transparent as John Lee Booker and John Lee Cooker, two of the many that he adopted after that success,” continues Milano. “Sometimes he simply took another bluesman’s name; a couple singles on King were issued as by Johnny Williams. Recording for at least a half-dozen labels, he was also Poor John, Texas Slim, Boogie Man, Little Pork Chops and Lord knows who else.”
One of the most well-known nicknames in blues history belonged to Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-82). His recording career began in 1946 when a music producer, Lola Ann Cullum, took him and a piano player, Wilson “Thunder” Smith, to Los Angeles to record for the Aladdin label, owned by the Mesner brothers. Hopkins had wanted to bring Alger “Texas” Alexander, whom he always referred to as his cousin. However, Cullum, who was described as a stylish, sophisticated African-American woman married to a prominent dentist, rejected this idea because the rough-hewn Alexander had served time in prison. Hopkins insisted on bringing Smith, however, and apparently that’s how he got his nickname. An Aladdin producer exclaimed, “If you’re ‘Thunder,’ you must be ‘Lightnin’!”
The name stuck. Hopkins, of course, told other versions of the story, especially tales about him being struck by lightning, for which there is no record or proof. But like any great storyteller, the bluesman from Houston (he was born in Centerville) never let the facts get in the way of telling a good story.
Lightnin’ Hopkins sings “Woke Up This Morning”