WHAT CONSTITUTES a great name? Hard to say exactly. While I may have no clue about phonetics or the underlying linguistics principles that greatness requires, much like your grandfather in an art gallery, I just know what I like when I see it.
None of the selections below have been made based on the quality of the music itself. The mouth-feel of the name is everything. For instance, I almost certainly would have included the clownish David Lee Roth in my top ten (the best use of a “Lee” in music history, one that somehow transformed hedge fund manager David Roth into scissor-kick Diamond Dave) if that bastard Greg Olear hadn’t purloined him first. Speaking of which, Mr. Olear (who actually made a fine and respectable list) also took Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk, Sid Vicious, Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, and Merle Haggard, all of whom would have made my list. Hey, as with everything else in this short, unpleasant life, the spoils go to the man who gets there first.
I went with more obscure names whenever possible, all things being equal. I mean, I love Nat King Cole, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Chick Webb, Bootsie Collins, Maceo Parker and Cab Calloway, but why not go with Miff Mole, Mezz Mezzrow, Bubber Miley, Fate Marable, or Cow Cow Davenport instead? It also seemed important to limit “nickname” names. David “Fathead” Newman, Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, Willis “Gatortail” Jackson, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vincent, Meade “Lux” Lewis, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Houston “The Chocomotive” Pearson, Arthur “Killer” Kane, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis are all fantastic, but in the end they failed to make the cut for being a bit too manufactured.
By strict editorial policy, the Dwarves get no consideration here. So Blag Dahlia and HeWhoCannotBeNamed are out.
Finally, in much the same way that “Marion Morrison” is a vastly more interesting name than John Wayne, it bears noting that “Declan McManus” beats Elvis Costello silly, “Fiona Apple Maggart” is superior to Fiona Apple, “Baldemar G. Huerta” kills Freddie Fender, and “Chaim Klien Witz” is pure rock genius compared to the blood-spitting predictability of Gene Simmons. Hell, even Hermann “Sonny” Blount rivals the massive Sun Ra. Therefore, extra weight was given to genuine *birth names.
And so, the list:
50. Bix Beiderbeck
Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbeck was the pride of Iowa, a towering figure in early jazz, technically brilliant and a full decade ahead of his time. Using alternate fingerings to create a strikingly original tone, he was possibly the greatest cornet player ever. He also boozed hard, swung hard, drugged hard, and died early, setting the template for the “Young Man With a Horn” dissipated-martyr persona before the age of 28, not to mention the end of the Depression.
49. Diamanda Galás*
The high-priestess of vocal insanity, who boasts a three and one-half octave range, Galás is capable of summoning evil from the ocean floor, birthing new life forms from thin air, or inspiring the working class to rise up and machete the leisure class into ribbons with her voice alone.
48. Boogaloo Joe Jones
Ivan Joseph Jones was a blistering soul-jazz guitar slinger for a variety of Prestige outfits in the late sixties and early seventies whose name, through ideal alliteration and just the right number of vowels, perfectly approximates his jangle-funk finger style.
47. Yma Sumac
An otherworldy Peruvian songbird, Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo decided to change her name to Yma Sumac probably somewhere around the time she started making 50s Mambo records, becoming a lounge diva, and claiming to be a descendant of Incan Emperors who could channel the spirits of the Xtabay.
46. (all) The Ramones
John Cummings. Thomas Erdelyi. Douglas Colvin. Jeffrey Hyman. Mark Bell. Richard Reinhardt. Clem Burke. Christopher Joseph Ward.
45. Grachan Moncur III*
The great free-jazz trombonist.
44. Roswell Rudd*
The other great free-jazz trombonist.
43. Helios Creed*
The only Creed that matters, Helios was one of the geniuses of late 70s and early 80s multi-track psych/sludge collages. Essentially LSD-fueled audio canvases, his brilliantly unhinged mix of dirty tricks, Alien Soundtracks, may be the most influential album that only 16,000 people have listened to in music history. Single-handedly got me through all of 1992.
42. Captain Beefheart
Don Van Vliet was the Shiny Beast, the Bat Chain Puller, the mask behind the Trout Mask, the Clear Spot, and the Ice Cream Crow.
41. Sky Saxon
Sky “Sunlight” Saxon began his failed white doo-wop career as “Little Richie Marsh.” When that went nowhere, he re-branded and stepped in as the lead singer of the Seeds, a clumsy psychedelic garage-blues act seemingly constituted to grate as many raw nerve endings as is aurally possible crammed into one piece of vinyl.
40. Pinetop Perkins
Born in Belzoni, Mississippi, king of the King Biscuit Flour Hour, not to mention King Biscuit Time, Perkins played all the black keys behind Sonny Boy Williamson and Earl Hooker.
39. Stiv Bators
Steven John Bator must have been hounded mercilessly, not to mention regularly stomped, out on the playground for carrying around the cruel weight of his last name. But isn’t abuse at the hands of the pubescent mob exactly the sort of thing that drives a budding Stiv to eventually become a Dead Boy, let alone a Lord of the New Church, regardless of his actual propensity for self-pleasure? You bet your ass it does. Stiv, whose shtick included hanging himself onstage, was once pronounced clinically dead for three minutes after not being cut down soon enough.
38. Senior Eddie Donkor*
The great Ghanian highlife guitar player and King of Rhythm Power once said, “If you got no contribution, you got no chop.” He was definitely onto something.
37. Roosevelt “The Honeydripper” Sykes
Yeah, it’s a nickname, but does anything get more bluesy, let alone more hardcore, than “The Honeydripper”? Sure, Led Zeppelin stole his action for “The Lemon Song,” where Sykes’ juice dripped down Robert Plant’s metaphorical leg, but Roosevelt was the one that really brought it, with all 88 keys.
36. Howlin’ Wolf
An intimidating blues howler with a voice that sounded like it was emanating from deep within a kerosene-soaked crypt, Chester Burnett was so raw and heavy that his songs go beyond the gutbucket and straight to the primal, mastodon-stalking part of the brain.
35. Son House
Preacher, Pastor Eddie House Jr. channels all of the 1930s, from joints to jukes to Parchman, and comes out on the secular end with the greatest slide/emotional vocals this side of Charlie Patton. Some of the best music ever recorded, and a name that haunts the bayou.
34. Baby Face Willette
You better be able to shoot a mean-ass game of pool if your name is Baby Face, or at least play the hell out of the Hammond B-3, which Roosevelt Willette certainly did in both respects.
33. Coleman Hawkins*
If the name Coleman Hawkins evokes visions of the hippest, coolest, most soulful tenor sax licks possible emanating from a short, powerful man prone to wearing a Fedora and a soul patch while a shitty, smoky 52nd St. audience sucks his every velvet note through their whiskey-and-heroin veil, then you’d be dead right.
32. Sylvain Sylvain
Egyptian-born Sylvain Mizrahi chopped a mean rhythm guitar for the New York Dolls from 1971 until they fell apart like a wet, heavily-lipsticked napkin in 1977.
31. Acker Bilk*
I dunno, he plays clarinet or some shit. Dude is huge on the childhood sweetheart scene and his name makes him sound like Himmler’s right hand man, but it’s a fantastically terse and alliterative moniker.
30. Mike James Kirkland*
What better possible mailman-like name could there be for the greatest unknown soul/love balladeer this side of Barry White?
29. Muddy Waters
In my estimation McKinley Morganfield is a much cooler name, but it’s hard to blame Muddy for adopting a handle calculated to charm the smokin’ juke babes and sweatered bobby soxers out of their panties with. About as ubiquitously hip as it gets.
28. Sheb Wooley
Shelby F. was Travis Cobb in The Outlaw Josie Wales. Need to know more? Well, he also charted with “That’s My Pa,” one of the greatest songs about Sheb Wooley’s pa ever recorded.
27. Pink Anderson and Floyd Council
Depending on your classic rock/strident-prog tastes, not to mention a willingness to sit through “Comfortably Numb” even once again for the rest of your life, these two journeyman blues players are the unwitting sources of the name Pink Floyd.
26. Kid Ory
Edouard Ory, along with the mythical and never-recorded Buddy Bolden, owned New Orleans in 1910, through the spit-valve of a trombone as well as the jelly roll of Jackson Avenue. It’s the balance, three letters on the left, three on the right. Kid. Ory.
25. Exene Cervenka
The distaff half of the greatest thrash-pop vocal duet in punk history, Christine Lee has belted out some of the best X poetry to come off the hungover and half-in-love streets of Los Angeles since Jim Morrison channeled his non-existent native past and melded it to Bertolt Brecht on acid. Bonus John Doe points here.
24. James Honeyman-Scott*
I don’t know why, but this name sums up the 80s for me. The Spinal Tap-ish Britishness, plus a certain degree of Pooh innocence, Honeyman-Scott, despite overdosing during the rise of the Pretender’s greatest success, was an original and interesting guitar player amongst the glut of keyboards and effects that otherwise doomed the decade.
23. Pony Poindexter
Norwood started with Billy Eckstein and worked his way through Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, and Count Basie. His two solo albums are highly collectible, one of which features him in a cowboy hat, sitting on a pony.
What’s not to like about Esker Reeder Jr., the flamboyant and extravagant piano player with the massive pre-Kid N’ Play pompadour who took Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman) under his wing and taught him every trick in the book. Including most of the whoops, hollers, yelps, oh lordy’s, oh mama’s, and ah Rudy’s you’d ever want to hear in a trash can full of “Tutti Frutti.” I dare anyone to listen to the clip below and deny that most of Lil’ Richard lies right there, waiting to be appropriated (stolen).
21. Iggy Pop
Deep down just another James Newell Osterberg, somehow Iggy transformed from an uncontrollable Detroit youth/delinquent into the most famous self-cutting screamer, junkie, and David Bowie rehab project in music history. Leader of The Stooges, another perfectly simplistic but encompassing name, Pop has lately distinguished himself by appearing in Cadillac commercials with the extremely punk John Varvatos.
20. Screaming Lord Sutch
The 3rd Earl of Harrow stole his action from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and wasn’t much of a vocalist, but it’s still a great name. Fronting The Savages, he busted out all the usual pre-Alice Cooper props; daggers, coffins, bats, etc. before giving in and running for a seat in parliament. It was too boring to research if he actually ever won.
19. Fee Waybill
The Tubes are one of those bands–you totally know them, but you don’t know you know them. Remember “White Punks on Dope?” No? Then how about “She’s a Beauty”? John Waldo Waybill, the king of Omaha, fronted the outfit through the late seventies and treacherous 80s, before producing a few crappy albums for the thoroughly uninteresting appellation/singer/Canadian Bryan Adams.
18. Siouxsie Sioux
Susan Janet Ballion cut a wide swath through closeted boy and sensitive Goth-girl bedrooms of the mid-80s. The Banshees essentially invented New Wave, or at least laid the groundwork for the sort of world in which Boy George could pirouette his way through an entire “Karma Chameleon” video without an angry mob of Foghat fans stringing him up by his dreadlocks.
17. Pigmeat Markham
Okay, sure, he was really more of a comedian than singer, but he did sing regularly and was part of Bessie Smith’s traveling revue, which is a notch deserving of serious recognition on any resume. Plus, every Greatest Musician Names list needs at least one blatant, sloppy, porcine entry from way left field.
16. C.C. DeVille
The (arguably) dumbest member of the dumbest glam band to infect the 80s hair-metal scene like a bad strain of string-warts, DeVille nevertheless has a cool name. The initials/Cadillac combo are an unbeatable one, even if “Every Rose Has its Thorn” might be the worst song ever recorded that’s not named “I Can’t Drive Fifty-Five.” The thing is, Sammy Hagar could easily have driven fifty-four if it was such a problem, and C.C. could have chosen carnations if he was so worried about getting pricked. Which, given his stage sashay and peroxided coif, might have been the point.
15. Tenpole Tudor
Edward Tudor-Pole more or less stole The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle out from under the Sex Pistols, then went on to release a number of just the sort of barely accessible nerd-punk albums that would guarantee him a hallowed place in later impoverished obscurity.
14. Fats Navarro
An overweight junkie with tuberculosis cruelly nicknamed “Fat Girl” for his male D-cups, Theodore Navarro was still one of the greatest hard bop trumpeters ever, despite dying at the age of 26 and leaving precious few recordings behind. Despite my contention that the word “tragic” (along with genius and epic) is irreparably overused, I find it genuinely tragic that there is not more Fats Navarro in the world to listen to.
Louis Thomas Hardin was a blind, homeless street musician who hung out on 6th avenue wearing a viking helmet in the 50s. But he wasn’t a sideshow, he was an incredibly accomplished musician and composer who actually invented several instruments. It is said that Charlie Parker used to stand on the sidewalk and watch him play. His recordings are full of tiny ideas, delicate polyrhythmic nesting eggs that he often chants over. Haunting and truly excellent.
12. Lester Bangs*
Except for some clumsy backstage harmonica after downing a few bottles of Romilar, Lester actually wasn’t a musician. But he might as well have been. He was the best music writer at both Creem and Rolling Stone back when both rags mattered, as well as an early proponent of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, and especially the Clash when it was still hugely unpopular to be so.
11. Handsome Dick Manitoba
Born Richard Blum, but not willing to let that hold him back, Manitoba fronted the Dictators, a proto-punk garage grunge outfit from the early 70s that pioneered a certain style of NYC sludge rock combining the strident thrash of MC5 with the umlautted bombast of Blue Öyster Cult. (Donald Brian “Buck Dharma” Roeser received a smattering of votes for inclusion here.)
10. Arlester “Dyke” Christian
Leader of Dyke and The Blazers, possibly the first funk band, whose searing soul vocals tore open the mid-sixties alongside James Brown and Wilson Pickett. Pickett, who had a hit covering The Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” also deserves an honorable mention on the name list. Dyke was shot in the face over a heroin debt at the age of 27, which only partially explains the obscurity of such a fantastic band. His murderer, Clarence “One-Eyed Clancy” Daniels, walked. Check out the vocals, let alone the absolutely nasty bass line on “Black Boy,” from 1969.
9. Darby Crash
Jan Paul Beahm, lead singer of the Germs, and the man doomed to be forever remembered as being utterly unremembered, mainly because he was genius enough to overdose on the very same day John Lennon was shot. Worth noting that Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s was the Germs’ original drummer. Also worth noting that the Germs’ original name,”Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens,” had to be changed because they couldn’t afford to put that many letters on a T-shirt.
8. Lizzy Mercier Descloux
Co-founder of ZE Records, author of Desiderata, and queen of No Wave, Descloux was a serious badass, minimalist hero, and unsung genius of 70s New York.
7. Jelly Roll Morton
If you’ve lived under a log your entire life, or never happened to have read Bessie Smith’s biography, a “Jelly Roll” is creole parlance for vagina. Ferdinand Joseph LeMothe (nearly as good) was a turn-of-the-century player/arranger, who cut his teeth playing in Storyville brothels, and more or less invented jazz. Stabbed by a “friend”, which lead to his early death, Morton was a relentless self-promoter widely disliked by fellow musicians who felt, perhaps, that there were one or two others involved in the invention of jazz.
6. Lux Interior
Erick Lee Purkhiser is almost certainly a better name, but perhaps not strong enough for the lead singer of the rockabilly/gore outfit the Cramps, let alone for the man who made the “microphone blowjob” famous. His wife and bass player, Poison Ivy Rorschach (Kristy Marlana Wallace), also deserves mention. In perhaps his crowning moment, Interior later appeared on Spongebob Squarepants.
5. Wingy Manone
Having lost an arm in a streetcar accident and nicknamed “Wingy” by a host of P.C. buddies and fellow musicians in the 30s, Manone still killed it on the trumpet in any number of dance bands. Hot leads, plenty of stomps, a burning swamp-heavy voice.
4. Professor Longhair
Henry Roland “Roy” Byrd, also better know as “Fess,” is the heart of New Orleans, and arguably its greatest piano player–too original to sell big, too weird to be popular, too excellent to be appreciated as such except by a handful of bayou cognoscenti.
3. Lemmy Kilmister
The head in Motörhead, Ian Fraser Kilmister attended Ysgon Syr Thomas Jones school in Amlwch before joining prog-hippie outfit Hawkwind. After hilariously being kicked out of Hawkwind for doing too much acid, Kilmister founded the seminal metal outfit that bears his umlaut. Famous for his iron stomach and inexhaustible need for drugs, sex, and drink, it’s astonishing that The Lem is still around. Is there really No Sleep til’ Hammersmith? Apparently not.
2. Cheetah Chrome
When you play guitar in the Dead Boys, you better bring it with a seriously badass name, cause Eugene O’Conner just ain’t cuttin’ it. Does Chrome suffice? This list says it’s a definitive yes.
1. Joe Strummer
A name that perfectly epitomizes the man, the economy, the leather jacket, the lyricist, the class warrior, the chops, the grin, the sideburns, and the Brixton pompadour.
Plus all of rock and roll.