This project began with modest ambitions: a casual examination of some band names that have inspired us over the years and their origins or creation myths. As we dove into this treasure trove of nomenclature, however, the scope escalated into an deep investigation of over a hundred years’ worth of band name etymologies. The first dozen or so entries are not band names per se, but stage names, nicknames, and pseudonyms of seminal artists that have shaped the course of music and the manner in which bands and musicians are branded.
Our goal here is not to be exhaustive and include every famous band you’ve ever heard of, but rather to be definitive without being overly obvious, and keep the emphasis on interesting and intriguing band names, or bands with name origin stories that illuminate different aspects of the naming process. See the bottom of the article for a postscript identifying some of the trends in band naming over the years, along with a list of links to sources we consulted during this project.
So let us introduce to you, the acts you’ve never known for all these years…
1900s — Blind Lemon Jefferson: The stage name for bluesman Lemon Henry Jefferson.
1900 — Jelly Roll Morton: Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton, was an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer. His composition “Jelly Roll Blues” was the first published jazz composition, in 1915. At the age of fourteen, Morton began working as a piano player in a brothel (or, as it was referred to then, a “sporting house”). While working there, he was living with his religious, church-going great-grandmother; he had her convinced that he worked as a night watchman in a barrel factory. In that atmosphere, he often sang smutty lyrics; and took the nickname “Jelly Roll,” which was slang for female genitalia.
1903 — Lead Belly: Born Huddie William Ledbetter, there are several conflicting stories about how Ledbetter acquired the nickname “Lead Belly,” though it was probably while in prison. Some claim his fellow inmates called him “Lead Belly” as a play on his family name and his physical toughness. Others say he earned the name after being wounded in the stomach with buckshot. Another theory is that the name refers to his ability to drink moonshine. Or it may be simply a corruption of his last name pronounced with a southern accent. Whatever its origin, he adopted the nickname as a pseudonym while performing.
1918 — Fats Waller: Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, and singer. Andy Razaf described his partner as “the soul of melody…a man who made the piano sing…both big in body and in mind…known for his generosity…a bubbling bundle of joy.”
1920s — Son House: Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. was a blues singer and guitarist.
1920s — Roosevelt Sykes: An American blues musician, also known as “The Honeydripper.”
1920s — Tampa Red: Born Hudson Woodbridge, he moved to Chicago and adopted the stage name from his childhood home and light colored skin.
1924 — Bix Beiderbecke: Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke was an American jazz cornetist, jazz pianist, and composer. His father was nicknamed “Bix,” as, for a time, was his older brother, Charles Burnette “Burnie” Beiderbecke. Burnie Beiderbecke claimed that the boy was named Leon Bix and subsequent biographers have reproduced birth certificates to that effect. However, more recent research—which takes into account church and school records in addition to the will of a relative—has suggested that he was originally named Leon Bismark. Regardless, his parents called him Bix, which seems to have been his preference.
1928 — Count Basie: The stage name for William James “Count” Basie.
1928 — Mississippi John Hurt: The great blues singer and guitarist was born John Smith Hurt in Teoc, Missisippi, and raised in Avalon, Mississippi. He learned to play guitar at age nine.
1928 — T-Bone Walker: Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker was a critically acclaimed American blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Walker made his recording debut with Columbia Records billed as Oak Cliff T-Bone, releasing the single “Wichita Falls Blues” / “Trinity River Blues.” Oak Cliff was the community he lived in at the time and T-Bone a corruption of his middle name.
1929 — Memphis Minnie: Lizzie Douglas, known as Memphis Minnie, was a blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. In 1929 she and Kansas Joe McCoy, her second husband, began to perform together. They were discovered by a talent scout of Columbia Records in front of a barber shop where they were playing for dimes. When she and McCoy went to record in New York, they were given the names Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie by a Columbia A&R man.
1930s — Lightnin’ Hopkins: The stage name country blues singer Sam John Hopkins.
1931 — Skip James: Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was an American Delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter.
1935 — Dizzy Gillespie: John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was a jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer and occasional singer. Dizzy was christened John Gillespie, earning his nickname later in life when he was known for his sense of humor and practical jokes.
1937 — Sonny Boy Williamson I & Sonny Boy Williamson II: The recordings made by John Lee Williamson between 1937 and his death in 1948, and those made later by “Rice” Miller, were all originally issued under the name Sonny Boy Williamson. It is believed that Miller adopted the name to suggest to audiences, and his first record label, that he was the “original” Sonny Boy. In order to differentiate between the two musicians, many later scholars and biographers now refer to Williamson (1914-1948) as “Sonny Boy Williamson I,” and Miller (c.1912-1965) as “Sonny Boy Williamson II”
1939 — The Squadronaires: A British Royal Air Force band which began and performed in during World War II.
1940s — Howlin’ Wolf: Chester Arthur Burnett was a great Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player, from Mississippi. He explained the origin of the name Howlin’ Wolf: “I got that from my grandfather,” who would often tell him stories about the wolves in that part of the country and warn him that if he misbehaved, the “howling wolves” would get him. Paul Oliver wrote that Burnett once claimed to have been given his nickname by his idol Jimmie Rodgers.
Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy by Muddy Waters (1960, Chess)
1940s — Muddy Waters: The stage name of Chicago bluesman McKinley Morganfield. Waters’ grandmother, Della Grant, raised him after his mother died shortly following his birth. Della gave the boy the nickname “Muddy” at an early age because he loved to play in the muddy water of nearby Deer Creek. Waters later changed it to “Muddy Water” and finally “Muddy Waters.”