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Top 11 Songs by Bands/Artists With the Best, Most Iconic Nicknames
What’s in a (nick)name? Some of the biggest artists music history also had the best, most unforgettable nicknames.
“Alexander the Great, who said on his wedding night, ‘It’s only a nickname’ . . . never got a dinner!”
- “Station to Station” by David Bowie (The Thin White Duke)
Like Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack before, The Thin White Duke was a persona adopted by David Bowie during 1975 and 1976. The character is mentioned by name in the title track of 1976’s Station to Station. The album was recorded during a chaotic time in Bowie’s life when he was living in Los Angeles and taking copious amounts of drugs, particularly cocaine. To create the Duke, Bowie abandoned his mullet and glam image for blonde hair and white scarves and shirts. The Thin White Duke character was retired after blowback from alleged pro-fascist comments Bowie had made.
“Golden Years” was a Top 10 hit from the album. The funk and dance track was unlike the rest of the prog-rock album. In The Complete David Bowie, co-producer Harry Maslin says the song “was cut and finished very fast. We knew it was absolutely right within ten days. But the rest of the album took forever.”
- “You’re a Friend of Mine” by Clarence Clemons (The Big Man)
At 6 feet 4 inches tall, it’s easy to understand why Bruce Springsteen named E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons The Big Man. In his eulogy for Clemons in 2011, Springsteen said, “Clarence was big, and he made me feel, and think, and love, and dream big. How big was the Big Man? Too fucking big to die. And that’s just the facts. You can put it on his gravestone, you can tattoo it over your heart.”
“You’re a Friend of Mine” was a duet with Jackson Browne, a Top 20 hit from Clemons’ 1985 solo album Hero. “Doing ‘You’re a Friend of Mine’ was such a thrill for me to be asked,” Browne told Rolling Stone. “It probably wasn’t a song that was appropriate to have Bruce on. Maybe that would’ve been too obvious. But I was happy to be on that record.”
- “Only Women Bleed” by Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper is called The Godfather of Shock Rock. But before Vincent Furnier adopted the name Alice Cooper, he was in a band called The Nazz. When he learned that Todd Rundgren fronted a band of the same name, he knew the name had to be changed. “We sat down and had a band meeting,” the shock rocker wrote in Alice Cooper, Golf Monster. “Over the past months, we had become more theatrical, and admittedly, we had a strange look. So why not call ourselves something spooky? Or instead of being outright spooky, we could go completely in the other direction, which along with our appearance might be even more spooky.
“Somebody threw out Husky Baby Sandwich. The first name out of my mouth was a girl’s name. Alice Cooper. Alice. Cooper. By the end of the night the name kind of stuck. There was something about it. I conjured up an image of a little girl with a lollipop in one hand and a butcher knife in the other.” Furnier legally changed his name to Alice Cooper in 1975.
One of Cooper’s biggest solo hits was 1975’s “Only Women Bleed,” a ballad about a woman in an abusive relationship. “I always liked the idea of writing a title first,” Cooper told Songwriter Universe. “If I came up with a title like ‘Only Women Bleed,’ which was a very controversial-sounding title, except that I was trying to say that women bleed emotionally. You know, men are a little bit more . . . face value. But women are a lot tougher emotionally than men are. And so when I wrote this song, you always try to marry that lyric to the chords.”
- “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by James Brown (The Hardest Working Man in Show Business)
Soul Brother No. 1. The Godfather of Soul. Mr. Dynamite. James Brown earned all of those names over a career that spanned more than five decades. One of Brown’s best-known titles, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, derived from his reputation as a hard-driving performer who appeared in more than 300 shows a year. Brown reportedly lost two to three pounds during each performance.
Brown blended soul, rock, funk and R&B and his music continues to influence rap and hip hop artists. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was Brown’s first Top 10 single on the Billboard chart and was an early example of funk. “I just thought he was a little bit more raw or a little bit more urban or a little bit more street,” saxophonist Maceo Parker, who soloed on the original recording, told NPR. “It was a little bit more simple. And the simpler the music is, the rhythms are the changes; the more people can hear it, the more people can understand it and the more people can like it, because it’s not difficult. It’s not intricate.”
- “Misirlou” by Dick Dale (King of the Surf Guitar)
Unlike many of California’s rockers in the 1960s, Dick Dale really was a surfer. He pioneered surf rock with his thunderous guitar sound. When asked what he called his music, Dick Dale told Guitar Nine, “It’s just Dick Dale music. Some people called me ‘King of the Surf Guitar,’ historians named me ‘the father of heavy metal,’ but I don’t care much about stuff like that. It’s just Dick Dale music.”
Dale’s signature tune was 1962’s “Misirlou,” an Eastern Mediterranean folk song that Dale transformed into an instrumental rock guitar track. “Misirlou” enjoyed renewed popularity when it was used as the theme music for 1994’s Pulp Fiction. “Having Misirlou’ as your opening credit, it’s just so intense,’ director Quentin Tarantino said in Rolling Stone. “It just says you’re watching an epic, you’re watching a big, ol’ movie … It just throws down a gauntlet that the movie now has to live up to.”
- “Change the World” by Eric Clapton (Slowhand)
In his autobiography, Eric Clapton explained that Yardbirds’ manager Giorgio Gomelsky gave him the nickname Slowhand in 1964. “On my guitar I used light-gauge guitar strings, with a very thin first string, which made it easier to bend the notes, and it was not uncommon during the most frenetic bits of playing for me to break at least one string. During the pause while I was changing my string, the frenzied audience would often break into a slow handclap, inspiring Giorgio to dream up the nickname of ‘Slowhand’ Clapton.”
“Change the World” was a No. 1 hit for Clapton in 1996. Written by Tommy Sims, Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick, it was recorded by Clapton for the film Phenomenon. “When I heard the Tommy Sims demo, I could hear Paul McCartney doing that, so I needed to, with greatest respect to Paul, take that and put it somewhere black,” Clapton told Mojo. “So I asked Babyface who, even though he may not be aware of it, gave it the blues thing.
“The first two lines I play on that song on the acoustic guitar are lines I quote wherever I can, and they come from the beginning of ‘Mannish Boy’ by Muddy Waters. On every record I make where I think, this has got a chance of doing well, I make sure I pay my dues on this. So I think I’ve found a way to do it. Still, it has to have one foot in the blues, even if it’s subtly disguised.”
- “Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Ray Charles (The Genius)
Frank Sinatra called Ray Charles “the only true genius in the business,” a nod to his pioneering soul, gospel, pop and country recordings. “I’m not a genius,” Charles told Rolling Stone. “Art Tatum—that man was a genius. Charlie Parker was a genius. Where I’m coming from is, I do a lot of things well. That’s the key to my survival.”
Charles’ take on “Let’s Go Get Stoned” is notable in that he recorded it in 1966 shortly after his release from rehab for heroin addiction. The song had been released by the Coasters and country artist Ronnie Milsap in 1965. Milsap has said that Charles liked his version so much that he recorded it himself. The song reached No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1966. Joe Cocker performed the song at Woodstock in 1969.
“Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Ray Charles
“Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Joe Cocker
- “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin with John Bonham (Bonzo)
Led Zeppelin‘s John Bonham was famous for his hard-hitting drum style. Bonham used the longest and heaviest drumsticks available, which he called “trees.” Bonham’s nickname, Bonzo, came from the British comic strip dog Bonzo. Created by artist George Studdy, Bonzo became popular in the 1920s.
“Immigrant Song,” from Led Zeppelin III, features Bonham’s speed and power drumming. In Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused, Robert Plant explained that the song originated on a trip to Iceland. “We were invited to play a concert in Reykjavik. We weren’t being pompous. We did come from the land of the ice and snow. We were guests of the Icelandic Government on a cultural mission. We were invited to play a concert in Reykjavik and the day before we arrived all the civil servants went on strike and the gig was going to be cancelled.
“The university prepared a concert hall for us and it was phenomenal. The response from the kids was remarkable and we had a great time. ‘Immigrant Song’ was about that trip and it was the opening track on the album that was intended to be incredibly different.”
- “Breathless” by Jerry Lee Lewis (The Killer)
Jerry Lee Lewis‘ career was on the upswing when he released “Breathless” in 1958. “Breathless” was the follow-up to 1957’s “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” “Breathless” was a Top 10 hit for Lewis but his career was derailed when it was discovered that he had married his 13-year-old cousin. Lewis was banned from many radio stations and he struggled until 1968, when he transitioned to country music.
Lewis explained in The Guardian how he came by the nickname The Killer. “I didn’t mean nothing bad by that. I was leaving high school one afternoon with my friend, and he or me said, ‘I’m going home now, I’ll meet you at the pool hall.’ And he or me said, ‘OK, I’ll see you there, killer.’ And that’s how it got started.”
Reminded that his authorized memoir read that he got the name after trying to strangle a teacher, Lewis responded, “Yes, I was strangling him by his necktie. I was swinging on it. He was weakening, losing his breath.”
- “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard
Little Richard has been called The Innovator, The Originator and The Architect of Rock and Roll, but Little Richard itself is a nickname. Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Richard Wayne Penniman was nicknamed Lil’ Richard by his family due to his small and skinny stature.
“Long Tall Sally” was one of Richard’s most popular tunes, a Top 10 hit on the Billboard chart in 1956. “Long Tall Sally” was written by Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Enotris Johnson and Little Richard. In Richard’s authorized biography, Blackwell recalls that the lyrics “Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally / They saw Aunt Mary comin’ / So they ducked back in the alley” were brought to him by a little girl for Richard to record. “We kept adding words and music to it, to put it right,” said Blackwell. “Richard started to sing it — and all of a sudden there was, ‘Have some fun tonight.’ That was the hook. Richard loved it ‘cos the hottest thing then was the shuffle.
“Richard was reciting that thing. He got on the piano and got the music going and it just started growing and growing.”
- “Blinded by the Light” by Bruce Springsteen (The Boss)
Bruce Springsteen acquired the nickname The Boss in the early 1970s as he formed the band that would record Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. “In the early days when he and the E Street Band played gigs in small venues, it was Bruce’s job to collect the money and pay the rest of the band,” Andrew Delahunty, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Nicknames, told the BBC. “This led them to start calling him The Boss, a nickname which has stuck.”
“Blinded by the Light” was the first single released from the LP. Springsteen hurriedly wrote and recorded the song after Columbia Records president Clive Davis said the album lacked a potential hit single. Springsteen told VH1 Storytellers how he came to write lyrics like “fleshpot mascot” and “go-cart Mozart”: “By now the rhyming dictionary is in flames! It’s hot in my hand!”
Springsteen’s track was not successful but Manfred Mann’s Earth Band would have a No. 1 hit with the song in 1976.
“Blinded by the Light” by Bruce Springsteen
“Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
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