I was churning through my music collection recently, trying to bring order to the chaos that results from a haphazard mix of digital music files, CDs, and even a few cassettes and vinyl records. In case you’re wondering (and I know you are) I got rid of my eight-track tapes a long time ago — and in spite of what you may have heard, I’ve never used wax cylinders.
Anyhow, while going through the whole mess it occurred to me that there seems to have always been a lot of unusually-named musicians around. I’m not talking about the ordinary and well-known ones, such as the Duke or the Count or even Bird. And I’m also not counting nicknames that are sort of stuck in the middle, such as that of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.
Nope, I’m referring to the unusual and expressive names that seemed to get attached to certain musicians. It might be a moniker like that of Alvino Rey, whose real name was Alvin before he “Latinized” it. Or possibly Zoot Sims, who was a pretty good saxophonist but who should not be confused with Toots Thielemans, a harmonica virtuoso who helped legitimize the instrument in jazz.
On the other hand, Zoot was perfectly at home with bebop music, which might lead us to one of the architects of that genre, a guy with a horn and a vertiginous nickname — Dizzy Gillispie. Also at home with bop was outstanding saxman Cannonball Adderley, who actually has the distinction of having two fun nicknames. His original was “Cannibal”, allegedly given to him as a child because of his voracious appetite.
Speaking of musicians with appetites, Fats Waller was one of the pioneers of early jazz, a pianist who is still an inspiration to many. Fats Navarro was a brilliant trumpeter who briefly made his mark in jazz, but flamed out and died young. And Fats Domino is an R&B legend who helped form the roots of rock and roll — and of course, was the inspiration for Chubby Checker.
Distinctive nicknames aren’t restricted to jazz or pop music. Country music has some of the best, including those of early singers Cowboy Copas and Mayf Nutter, and a little later, Stonewall Jackson. And don’t forget Boxcar Willie, who had a long career with his faux hobo act and at the same time put a little of the traditional sound back into country music.
In addition to someone named after part of a freight train, we also have a few named after states. Tennessee Ernie Ford was a huge star for years, and there were also a lot of “Tex’s” around. The biggest star among them was probably Tex Ritter, who made his mark in both music and the movies — and also fathered late actor John Ritter.
Another “Tex” in country music was part of a husband and wife team, and both had expressive nicknames. Curly Fox and Texas Ruby were pretty big for a while during the post-war years, Curly sawing on his fiddle while Ruby sang.
And finally, in at least one case a performer has even used his genre as part of his name. Early in his career, Stanley Dural, Jr. billed himself as the lead man for Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers, but as his career progressed he took the name of his specialty and became Buckwheat Zydeco.
Buckwheat Zydeco – “Zydeco Boogaloo”