“The beginning of wisdom,” according to an old Chinese proverb, “is to call things by their right names.”
Bob Dylan, on the other hand, once said that “My name it means nothing.”
Which line do you think R.A. (Bob Dylan) Zimmerman would go along with?
A popular entertainer is more likely to change a flat-sounding or hard-to-pronounce name than to live with it. Apply that Chinese proverb to entertainment and it comes out: “The beginning of success is to have the right kind of name.”
The handle a performer goes by usually has two choices: one – roll easily off the tongue and down the ear’s cavity; or two – be so gargly as to be that person’s — and that person’s only.
In the music business, for example, R.A. Zimmerman didn’t have a monopoly on moniker maneuvers. A guy with the innocent name of Vincent Furnier slithered into Alice Cooper. A screechy Eileen Edwards mythed into Shania Twain.
McKinley Morganfield rolled into Muddy Waters. Gary Anderson cashed in as Gary U.S. Bonds. Delores Williams opened shop as Lavern Baker. Steven Tallarico tied his wagon to a star as Steven Tyler.
You see, the thinking in this part of town is that a tag of Jascha Heifetz or Yehudi Menuhin gets you a good orchestra seat as a concert violinist, but you might have a hard time making it in a popular field with those names.
Now, it’s not that I’m trying to do what the West Virginia town of Mole Hill did in 1949 when it renamed the town “Mountain,” but consider: since both Heifetz and Menuhin have 13 letters in their names, this has given rise to a superstition among violinists that you can’t become a virtuoso unless you have 13 letters in your name.
Jascha Heifetz. Yehudi Menuhin. David Oistrakh. Fritz Kreisler. All have 13 letters. This is actually why an American violinist named Eric Friedman, a Heifetz protégé, changed his name to Erick.
R.A. Zimmerman has 11 letters in his name. So do Alice Cooper, Shania Twain, Muddy Waters, Gary U.S. Bonds, Lavern Baker and Steven Tyler.
This could start a superstition among pop music stars — and may already have: Eric Clapton, Mariah Carey, Brian Wilson, Roger Waters, Jerry Garcia, Bette Midler, Van Morrison, Eddie Vedder, Paul Stanley, David Crosy, Ian Anderson, Jim O’Donnell (oops!), Ginger Baker, Arlo Guthrie, Phil Collins.
With names like that in its realm, this 11-letter pop music force could prove to be as magical as Harry Potter—a name which, of course, has 11 letters.
Unlike Billy Shears, not one of the former Beatles has 11 letters in his name. Together, however, the four average 11.75 — still within the charmed ring, but slightly higher than anybody could reach alone.
All three performers in Peter, Paul and Mary have 11 letters each. But there must be some Monkey business going on because Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork average exactly 11. And the group title, Led Zeppelin, has 11 letters — though Robert Plant is the only 11 Zepper.
If there’s an 11-letter power over popular music lives, then maybe there’s also one over premature deaths: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Ron McKernan, Randy Rhoads, Harry Chapin, Gram Parsons.
Back to live action, only Sweet Baby James in the warbling Taylor troupe was ever destined for a really satisfying career. No, Alex. Sorry, Kate. Not quite, Livingston. Tito makes it in the Jackson Five — you blew it way back when, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon, and Michael.
Joe of the Chambers Brothers has what it takes, but his brothers, George, Willie and Lester have to just struggle along. Two of the Osmond Brothers, Donny and Wayne, have it all over Alan, Jay, and Merrill.
And if you turn “Sly and the Family Stone” around to take Sly out of commission, “Stone Family” ticks off 11 on the nose.
Van Dyke Parks, as you’d expect, is just a little too much. Bruce Springsteen would be a truly massive success if he didn’t have a first name. So would Buffy Sainte-Marie. Pat Benatar would have slain the world if she’d performed as her last name only: Andrejewski.
Same with Suzi Quatro. She should have just taken the stage with her given name: Quatrocchio. And Sonny and Cher—well, they don’t cut it any old way you slice it.
That really brings me down, seeing careers not completely fulfilled just because of a quirk of alphabetical nature. So let’s see what we can do down here at O’Donnell’s Word Factory — Words Shortened, Lengthened, Misspelled, Formalized, Parenthesized. All, of course, in that most admirable of interests: 11-letter success.
First, some shortenings: Fred Mercury, Mike Jackson, Steve Wonder, Roge McGuinn, Nick Hopkins, Curt Mayfield, John L. Hooker, Buzz Linhart. Now a little lengthening: Timmy Hardin, Martin Balin, Paul D. Hewson (more popularly known as Bono), David R. Jones (more sharply known as David Bowie), Marvin J. Aday (more hilariously known as Meat Loaf).
A couple of rich misspells: Richy Havens, Richy Valens. And some formalization: Riley B.B. King, Samuel Cooke, Joseph Perry and William Joel.
Finally, with a little help from your friendly parenthesis: J. (John) B. Sebastian, R. (Randy) California, M. (Mike) Bloomfield, Alvin (Lee) Barnes, Mother (Frank) Zappa, Jerry (Jeff) Walker.
With this sure-fire proof of 11-letter success, it’s a wonder that performers never signed pacts to exchange first and last names. Like, can you imagine the stupendous success of can’t-miss, 11-letter names like Slim Checker and Chubby Harpo, Ray Bromberg and David Davies, Neil Richard and Little Young, Conway Holly and Buddy Twitty, Donovan Moon and Keith Leitch, and, of course, Joey Guthrie and Woody Cocker?
Who knows, maybe if Marie Lawrie hadn’t become Lulu, Chubby Checker had stayed Ernest Evans, Brian Warner hadn’t morphed into Marilyn Manson, Jackson Browne had remained Clyde Browne and Fabian Forte hadn’t lost his last name in action, they would have made it in music like Steve Miller, Edgar Winter, Richie Furay, Zal Yanovsky, Kenny Rogers, Garth Hudson, Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, Gene Vincent, Cyndi Lauper, Mike Shrieve, Steve Stills, Bobby Vinton, Maurice Gibb and Randy Newman did.
Poor Mick Jagger.
Give or take a letter and they might have made it, too.