Home / From Bob Dylan to Shania Twain to Alice Cooper: The One Big Secret to Popular Music Success

From Bob Dylan to Shania Twain to Alice Cooper: The One Big Secret to Popular Music Success

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“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 Elvis.

Poor Mick Jagger.

Give or take a letter and they might have made it, too.

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About Jim O'Donnell

  • Vern Halen

    Jim O’Donnell… didn’t you write a book called The Rock Book way back when? It was essential reading in my younger days. Thanks for that!

  • GREAT stuff, Jim…really enjoyed reading this!! You definitely pulled some references out of the hat…didn’t think anyone else remembered Randy California!!!

  • Hi, Vern-
    Yes, I wrote The Rock Book back in the 70’s. It was published by Pinnacle. Thanks for your comments about it. I’m amazed that you remember it. You must be one of those 7 people who bought it–and that’s counting my immediate family and cousins!

  • Hi, tink-
    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article . . . Strange that you brought up Randy California, of all the names in there. When I was typing up the piece, I actually stopped for quite a while after I typed his name. I mean, the guy–at age 14–plays in a band with Hendrix, puts out 11 charting albums, and dies rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip current in Hawaii . . . I think you might agree with me, tink, that one could do worse than sample some Randy California material, especially his work with Spirit. Thanks for underscoring his name.

  • Vern Halen

    I still had that book – past tense – can’t seem to find it – up til recently. Maybe I still do if I look hard enough. Really, though, it was a quick overview of the rock scene as it existed back then, just a long enough read for a young, impressionable lad. It introduced me to some artists I’d never heard of before, and made me rethink some I liked – I’ll never forget the chapter on Grand Funk! – although I still like them on some primitve, nostalgic level.

    Nice to see you’re still in the game anyways – best to you.

  • Vern-
    Best to you, too. Yeah, I’m still in the game, although it’s a little crazier, now, to type while my kids are running in circles around me. I really appreciate your comments on my first book. I wasn’t much more than a “lad” when I wrote it, actually. It was badly edited, so I was always glad when I heard it still worked on some level. Lately, I’ve been trying to put the souls back into some of those chapters. Many thanks for taking the time to write.

  • vixis

    loved the article 🙂 – glad to know that there are still people out there that go back more than the last boy band!

  • Hi, vixis-
    Thanks so much for taking the time to write. I’m very pleased that you enjoyed the piece. And I know what you mean about finding people who have some bit of musical history to them that goes “back more than the last boy band!” I like how you put that. Thanks again for your note.

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  • Baronius

    Jim, come on! Warren Zevon!

    I know, I know, a list like this one could go on forever. And you did some great research here. But he was the first person I thought of for the “gone too soon” category, even before I counted the letters.

  • Baronius-
    Thanks for your comment on the research. I absolutely agree with you that Warren Zevon should be in there as “gone too soon”–with or without 11 letters. Great artist and great man, sorely missed. Thanks for writing, Baronius.

  • Hi, Snarkattack-
    Thanks for writing. I’m glad the piece entertained you. I had fun writing it. Be well. Jim

  • dani

    what is all this stuff?