I got a name, I got a name

They called it “The Name Game,” a silly, fun participation song that was all the rage in 1965, when R&B singer Shirley Ellis made it a #3 hit on the US charts.

You simply take anybody’s name, slip it into the basic format, and off you go.  Party on, Garth!  “Garth, Garth, bo-Barth, banana-fana-fo-Farth, fee-fi-mo-Marth, GARTH!”

So, as Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?”  In the world of popular music, there are dozens of examples of performing artists who conjured up new names for themselves.  They did this on their own, if their ego was big enough…or an agent or record company insisted on a catchier stage name than the clunky or boring given name they’d been carrying around.

Some of the examples I’m offering up to you will be well known.  Others, you might be surprised about.  In either case, I’m here to expose these stars’ real names as part of my own Name Game.

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Farrokh Bulsara

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Farrokh was born in 1946 to parents from the Gujarat region of British-owned India.  He was born in the African country of Zanzibar, then a British colony, and attended a boarding school in Bombay, India, where he learned piano and focused more on music than academics.  After returning to Zanzibar at age 17, he and his family had to flee the 1964 revolution there, settling in Middlesex, England.  He earned a degree in art and graphic design, but music was his passion, and he became a member of several bands between 1968 and 1970.  Then he met guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor from the band Smile.  In time, they changed their name to Queen, and Farrokh Bulsara became Freddie Mercury, whose astonishing four-octave vocal range and flamboyant stage presence were key to Queen’s international success.

Marvin Aday

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Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, by a schoolteacher and policeman, Marvin showed an early interest in music and theater arts, appearing in several high school musicals.  He was very close to his mother (who sang in a gospel quartet) and, following her death, he dropped out of North Texas State College and relocated to Los Angeles in 1969 to pursue a career in the arts, as was his mother’s wish.  When Marvin formed a band (that had some notoriety warming up for the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Who), he named it after his mother’s favorite Saturday night dish, Meat Loaf Soul.  Tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, Marvin soon took on that name for himself, appearing in films and on stage as Meat Loaf.  By 1977, his “Bat Out of Hell” LP made him an international star.

Ellen Cohen

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Ellen was born during WWII in Baltimore to Jewish parents who were children of Russian immigrants, and the family struggled there and in Alexandria, Virginia.  Blessed with a versatile voice and a knack for stage performance, Ellen appeared in several musicals in New York before becoming part of a successful singing trio called The Big 3, appearing on “Ed Sullivan” and elsewhere.  They became The Mugwumps, and eventually she lobbied hard to join a group she admired called The New Journeymen, featuring John Phillips, Michele Phillips and Denny Doherty.  By then, Ellen had begun referring to herself as Cass (short for “Cassandra”), and her incredible pipes ended up winning her a spot in the group despite Phillips’ misgiving about her obesity.  The public didn’t care about that when The Mamas and The Papas exploded on the scene with huge hits like “California Dreamin’” and “Monday Monday,” among others, carried by Mama Cass Elliott‘s soaring alto.

Richard Starkey

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Little Ritchie had a rough childhood, spending most of his time in bed in hospitals.  He took to picking up pencils, pens, whatever was handy, and banging out rhythms on any horizontal surface he could find.  Eventually, his parents bought him a set of drums, and he became very proficient, at least in the circle of bands and clubs in and around Liverpool, England.  He took to wearing rings — many rings, big showy rings — on his fingers, and soon found himself with a nickname:  Ringo.  His last name could be shortened by a syllable, and Ringo would then be a Star…or, more precisely, Starr.  In any event, after a stint with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, he was tapped by the younger lads who made up another local group, The Beatles, to replace their mate Pete Best on drums, and well, there you have it.  What a great gig for Ringo Starr.

Paul Hewson

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Paul was born and raised in a north suburb of Dublin, Ireland, and was a rather rebellious kid in school, becoming more so after his mother’s death when he was 14.  He didn’t get along with his father and instead hung out with his surrealist street gang, Lypton Village.  As is the case with many gangs, everyone was given nicknames, and Paul went through several:  First came the unwieldy Steinhegvanhuysenolegbangbangbang, which was shortened to Huyseman, then Houseman.  Next he was Bon Murray, then “Bonavox of O’Connell Street,” named for a neighborhood hearing-aid shop.  That was abbreviated to “Bono Vox,” which happened to be Latin for “good voice,” which Paul liked, so it stuck…after it was shortened to just Bono.  Within a couple years, he and his mates David Evans (“The Edge”), Adam Clayton and Larry Mullens Jr. formed a band called Feedback…then The Hype…and finally, U2, who became one of the most popular bands on the planet.

Stevland Judkins

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Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950 and raised in Detroit, Stevland suffered from premature retinopathy, which causes the retinas to detach from the corneal wall, resulting in blindness.  He made up for this deficiency by pouring himself into all the music he heard and felt all around him — gospel, rhythm and blues, country, rock ‘n roll.  He mastered harmonica, piano and drums by age 10, and was signed to a recording contract as a child prodigy.  Stevland made his debut on the Top Ten at age 12, and maintained an enviable chart track record throughout the 1960s with a dozen Top Ten hits, more than a dozen albums and many TV appearances.  By the 1970s, his talents mushroomed, and Stevie Wonder became producer, songwriter, instrumentalist and singer, and one of the leading musical artists of all time, winning multiple Grammys and multiple Number One albums and singles.

Reginald Dwight

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Raised by a free-spirited, music-loving mother, Reggie proved to be something of a child prodigy on piano, playing difficult classical pieces after hearing them only once.  Although his classical training continued, he was also drawn to the rock and roll of Jerry Lee Lewis, and soon landed a weekend gig as pianist in a neighborhood pub.  Reggie also played in a band called Bluesology, who opened for American soul bands like the Isley Brothers, and became the support group for Long John Baldry, one of the pioneers of the British blues movement.  Reg began writing songs for a music publisher, who teamed him up with a lyric writer named Bernie Taupin.  Around that time, he decided he needed a better stage name, so he combined the names of two musicians he admired — Bluesology sax player Elton Dean, and Long John Baldry — to create a new moniker: Elton John.  You may have heard of him.

Henry Deutschendorf

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Henry was the son of a decorated military man, John Deutschendorf, Sr., who earned a spot in the Air Force Hall of Fame, but the father had little time for his son.  It was his mother’s mother who instilled in him the love of music and bought him his first guitar.  He lived in Roswell, NM, and Montgomery, AL, and Tucson, AZ, and Fort Worth TX, never fitting in anywhere.  Henry’s uncle, Dave Deutschendorf, was a member of the New Christy Minstrels, who encourage him to write songs and work on his guitar techniques.  New Christy member Randy Sparks told Henry to lose his last name, so Henry (whose middle name was John), adopted the capital of his favorite state, Colorado.  By the time he was 22, Henry was John Denver, replacing Chad Mitchell in The Mitchell Trio, writing his own songs and dreaming of a solo career.  His song, “Babe I Hate to Go,” was picked up by Peter Paul and Mary, retitled “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and became the #1 song in the country in late 1969, the first step in a hugely successful solo career.

Declan McManus

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Declan’s father, Ross MacManus, was a London-based jazz trumpeter and singer with The Joe Loss Orchestra, a popular British Big Band act from the 1940s through the ’60s.  He instilled a love of all types of music in his son, even after a divorce which sent Declan and his mother to live in Liverpool.  Declan formed a folk duo there when he was just 16, then returned to London in the mid-’70s and fronted a pub rock band called Flip City.  His father had performed under the name Day Costello and, in tribute to him, he adopted the name D.P. Costello around that time.  He continued writing songs and pursuing a solo recording career, and was eventually signed to the new upstart independent label, Stiff Records, who focused on punk and New Wave acts.  His manager, Jake Riviera, suggested Declan make the bold move of adopting Elvis Presley’s sacred first name, and Elvis Costello went on to become one of the most celebrated and respected musicians to emerge from the British New Wave movement.

Vincent Furnier

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Vincent was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, the Motown City, but the R&B bug didn’t really bite, and at age 14, Vincent and his family moved to Phoenix, Arizona.  He and his fellow cross-country teammates won the school talent contest miming Beatles songs, which inspired them to buy and learn how to play guitar, bass, drums and so on.  Vincent liked being the lead singer, but he recognized he and the band needed to find a way to stand out from all the other bands out there.  Hey, how about controversial, shocking, perverse?  It’ll attract lots of press coverage, even though it was just an act.  OK, cool, but what shall we call ourselves?  Something completely opposite of the outrageous image they envisioned…  Hmmm…  How about we pick a character from the wholesome family sitcom “Mayberry RFD,” a neighborly woman named Alice Cooper?  Perfect.  The band, formerly The Spiders, became Alice Cooper, and Vincent himself pretty much became the perverse persona soon known worldwide as Alice Cooper, with snakes, bats, guillotines and other gruesome props as part of his shtick.  In fact, once the band broke up in 1974, Furnier successfully sued to adopt the Alice Cooper name as his own.  Not sure what his IRS tax returns say…

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There’s a rather long list of name-changing recording artists who make my “honorable mention” list, and some of their stories are interesting enough to inspire me to do another blog post someday.

Steven Georgiou evolved into Cat Stevens (and then Yusaf Islam);  Walden Cassotto was renamed Bobby “Mack the Knife” Darin;  The Police and solo star Sting was born Gordon Sumner;  Malcolm Rebbenack became known as Dr. John the Night Tripper;  Ernest Evans morphed into Chubby Checker;  country star Crystal Gayle started out as Brenda Webb;  even as a teenager, McKinley Morganfield was known as Muddy Waters;  a youngster named Perry Miller ended up better known as Jesse Colin Young;  we know a girl named Judith Cohen as Juice Newton;  British boy Paul Gadd was eventually Gary Glitter; and Ray Sawyer was “on the cover of Rolling Stone” as Dr. Hook.

Some stars changed only their last names:  Francis Castellucio (Frankie Valli);  Edward Mahoney (Eddie Money);  Dominic Ierace (Donnie Iris);  Carol Klein (Carole King);  LaDonna Gaines (Donna Summer);  Cherilyn Sarkisian (Cher);  Georgios Panayiotou (George Michael);  John Ramistella (Johnny Rivers);  Hugh Cregg III (Huey Lewis);  Richard Penniman (Little Richard);  Peter Blankfield (Peter Wolf);  David Jones (David Bowie);  Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan);  Ray Robinson (Ray Charles);  Patricia Holt (Patti LaBelle);  Martyn Buchwald (Marty Balin);  Patricia Andrzejewski (Pat Benatar);  Priscilla White (Cilla Black).

And this tradition goes on well past the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Just about every hip-hop artist of the last 30 years has a made-up name…  And we really need look no further than Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, the young lady born in 1986 in New York’s Upper East Side.  In 2006, when the aspiring singer arrived at the studio, her first producer used to greet her with a few lines from his favorite Queen song “Radio Ga Ga.”  In a text message he sent to her one day, “radio” auto-corrected to “lady,” and Lady Gaga was born.

Too good to be true, I wanna spend my life with you

There may not be a more frequently explored topic in popular music lyrics than love.  Good or bad, brief or long lasting, love and romance have been mainstays as subject matter for decades:  “Love Reign O’er Me.”  “Love is the Drug.”  “Love Will Keep Us Together.”  “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”  “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”  “Love in an Elevator.”  “Love is Like Oxygen.”  “Love You Inside Out.”  “Love Stinks.”

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Songs about weddings and marriage, though, are less plentiful, perhaps because the music industry isn’t exactly overflowing with examples of life-long relationships.  Still, year in and year out, music lovers everywhere continue to give the institution of marriage a go, and who doesn’t enjoy the warm, festive nature of a great wedding ceremony and reception?

This weekend, my daughter Rachel and her fiancé Johnny are getting married, and, as with other important milestones in life, I love to comb through popular music to find enough songs to build a decent set list to commemorate the day, which I hope she’ll be tickled about.  I’ve selected a baker’s dozen tunes to examine below, via Spotify, along with another 15 “honorable mentions” that also focus on weddings.  For all the the brides and grooms out there, and all those who celebrate their union, this blog’s for you!

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“Wedding Song (There is Love),” Paul Stookey, 1971

In the fall of 1969, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary was planning his wedding and asked compatriot Paul Stookey to write and sing a song for the ceremony.  Stookey, a recently converted Christian, went off to pray for guidance, and both the music and lyrics for “Wedding Song (There is Love)” came forth within the hour:  “He is now to be among you at the calling of your heart, rest assured this troubadour is acting on his part, the union of your spirits here has caused Him to remain, for whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is love…”  Said Stookey, “In the lyrics, I paraphrased a few lines of scripture, specifically Matthew 18:20 and Genesis 2:23, so I felt uncomfortable accepting songwriting credit.”  Instead, he set up the Public Domain Foundation, which has since received songwriting and publishing royalties for charitable distribution.  PP&M broke up in 1970, but Stookey recorded the song in 1971 as a solo artist, and it reached #24 on the US charts.

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“Chapel of Love,” The Dixie Cups, 1964

Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, part of the powerhouse of songwriters that came out of the Brill Building in New York in the early ’60s, wrote a dozen Top Ten hits, including “Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Be My Baby,” “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Hanky Panky.”  Following the first wave of Beatles hits in 1964, a vocal trio called The Dixie Cups had the #1 song in the country with this Barry-Greenwich tribute to wedding ceremonies:  “Today’s the day we’ll say ‘I do,’ and we’ll never be lonely anymore, because we’re going to the chapel, and we’re gonna get married…”

“Wedding Song,” Tracy Chapman, 2000

Emerging from the poverty of a depressed upbringing in Cleveland, Chapman went to #1 with her impressive debut in 1988 and has developed a devoted following over the past 20 years and eight albums.  Although she never married and has been ambiguous about her sexual orientation, on her 2000 album “Telling Stories,” she composed “Wedding Song,” a tender examination of the hopes and dreams behind the institution of marriage:  “For you, I don the veil, by your light, others pale by comparison, I place my faith in love, my fate in this communion…”

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“We Got Married,” Paul McCartney, 1989

Sir Paul had been happily married to Linda for 20 years when he was writing the songs that would become the material for “Flowers in the Dirt,” which was sort of a comeback album for him after a few duds in his repertoire.  It did modestly well here, peaking at #17, and his US tour that year helped boost sales of the album, which included “We Got Married,” an ambitious song about the ups and downs of married life from a man who knew all about that:  “I love the things that happen when we start to discover who we are and what we’re living for, just because love was all we ever wanted, it was all we ever had, it’s not just a loving machine, it doesn’t work out if you don’t work at it…”  David Gilmour of Pink Floyd made a guest appearance as lead guitarist on this track.

“I Wanna Marry You” and “The River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980

For his1980 double album “The River,” Springsteen wrote two hard-luck songs that focus on tying the knot. The title song tells the heartbreaking story of a couple who married young because the girl got pregnant, which felt to the boy like a dead end that forever limited their life choices:  “Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote…we went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest, no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress…”  On the other hand, “I Wanna Marry You” is more hopeful, with lyrics about a man who meets a single mom, and likes and admires her so much that he offers to marry her to ease her burden:  “To say I’ll make your dreams come true would be wrong, but maybe, darlin’, I could help them along, little girl, I wanna marry you…”

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“For My Wedding,” Don Henley, 2000

Larry John McNally, a respected songwriter whose work has been recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and Henley, sang this song at an in-the-round show at the famed Bluebird Cafe in Nashville in 1998.  Henley heard a tape of the performance and so loved the song that he recorded it for his “Inside Job” LP two years later.  McNally talked about the song’s lyrics for the Songfacts website:  “What does it really mean, marriage?  I believe there are misconceptions about what you are entering into, fantasies and delusions sold through movies, songs and advertising.  Nonetheless, there is no denying that faithfulness, loyalty, the depth of human bonding and support for one another through life’s trials and tribulations, these are good things.  That’s what I wanted to write about in this song.”  A sampling:   “To want what we have, to take what we’re given with grace, for these things I pray, on my wedding day…” 

“Kiss The Bride,” Elton John, 1983

In 1983, Elton reunited with Bernie Taupin, his celebrated lyricist from his hugely popular ’70s albums and singles, and the result was the LP “Too Low For Zero,” which spawned “I’m Still Standing” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” both big hits.  Also on the album was the rollicking “Kiss the Bride,” in which the narrator bemoaned the fact that his love was marrying someone else:  “And when the preacher said, ‘Is there anyone here got a reason why they shouldn’t wed?’, I should’ve stuck up my hand, and this is what I should’ve said, ‘I wanna kiss the bride, yeah, I wanna kiss the bride, yeah, long before she met him, she was mine, mine mine’…” 

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“Take My Hand (The Wedding Song),” Emily Hackett & Will Anderson, 2013

In 2013, Emily’s friends Bobby & Katie asked her to sing at their wedding, anything she wanted.  “I was set on writing something,” she said, “so I sat down with my friend Christian, and we decided to focus on the simplicity of it, the honesty of it, the butterflies, in both the excitement and fear that surface at the idea of becoming one with someone.  It took us a long time to feel like we got that right.  How could it not?  When someone asks you to define love and feelings you have on your wedding day, it’s a very difficult thing to do.  We wanted it to relate to the bride and groom we wrote it for, but we’ve been beside ourselves about how much it relates to so many brides and grooms.  It’s our idea of a perfect snapshot of how you feel on your wedding day.”  Indeed it is:  “So give me your word, and I’ll give you all that I’ve got, no we don’t have much, but it sure feels like a lot, so take my heart and take my hand again and again, right where we stand, /Too good to be true, I wanna spend my life with you…”

“Love and Marriage,” Frank Sinatra, 1955 

In the 1940s and ’50s, lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jimmy Van Heusen teamed up on more than a dozen songs that earned Oscar nominations and wins, and another couple dozen that rode high on the pop charts.  One of those was Sinatra’s rendition of “Love and Marriage,” a #5 hit in 1955 after its introduction on a TV production of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.”  Cahn’s lyrics make the case (despite plenty of more recent evidence to the contrary) that marriage and love are inseparable:  “Love and marriage, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, this I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other…”  The song enjoyed new life as the tongue-in-cheek theme song for the popular TV show “Married…With Children” in the ’80s and ’90s.

“The Wedding,” David Bowie, 1993

Bowie had married in the early ’70s and divorced in 1980, but in 1990, he was introduced to supermodel Iman and as he put it, “I was naming the children the night we met.  It was immediate.”  They married in 1992, and “The Wedding” was the centerpiece of the hugely underrated 1993 LP “Black Tie White Noise,” which opened with an instrumental version and closed with the full version with lyrics:  “Heaven is smiling down, heaven’s girl in a wedding gown, I’m gonna be so good, just like a good boy should, I’m gonna change my ways, angel for life…”

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“Wedding Bell Blues,” The 5th Dimension, 1969

This classic was written in 1966 by songwriter Laura Nyro and recorded by her for her “More Than a New Discovery” debut LP that year.  Three years later, The 5th Dimension — who had already had success with two other Nyro compositions (“Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Sweet Blindness”) — chose to record “Wedding Bell Blues,” which focuses on a woman who badly wants her lover to propose:  “Bill, I love you so, I always will, and in your voice, I hear a choir of carrousels, but am I ever gonna hear my wedding bells?…”  Perhaps not so coincidentally, group members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. were engaged at the time but had yet to set a wedding date.  The song rocketed to #1 in the fall of 1969, and in concerts, McCoo would sing directly to Davis.  They married before the year was out, and recently celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

“Marry Me,” Train, 2009

Since forming in San Francisco in the late ’90s, Train has evolved into one of the most popular roots-rock bands of the new millenium, with six Top Ten albums and numerous hit singles (“Drops of Jupiter,” “Calling All Angels,” “Hey Soul Sister”).  Patrick Monahan, the band’s singer and chief songwriter, said “Marry Me” tells the story of a guy who has a “love at first sight” moment when he spies a waitress in a diner, and the music video for the song depicts that fleeting encounter:  “Promise me you’ll always be happy by my side, I promise to sing to you when all the music dies, marry me, today and every day, if I ever get the nerve to say ‘hello’ in this cafe…”

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“White Wedding,” Billy Idol, 1983

Although he had much bigger hits later in his career (“Eyes Without a Face,” “To Be a Lover”), Billy Idol may be best known for this 1982 song he wrote, which stalled at #36 in the US but made #6 in his native England.  The narrator speaks to a girl who he once loved who had married, apparently unsuccessfully, and now he has returned and hopes she’ll be willing to try again by marrying him:  “Come on, it’s a nice day for a white wedding, it’s a nice day to start again…”  The song’s music video, played heavily at the time on the relatively new MTV channel, was somewhat controversial for its dark gothic images and barbed-wire wedding ring.  The Spotify list includes the longer version (Parts 1 and 2).

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Here are a few “honorable mention” tracks having to do with weddings and marriage:

Let’s Get Married,” Al Green, 1974;  “Marry You,” Bruno Mars, 2010;  “We’ve Only Just Begun,” The Carpenters, 1970;  “I Do,” Colbie Caillat, 2011;  “Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song),” Patti LaBelle & The Blue Belles, 1963;  “Be My Wife,” David Bowie, 1977;  “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” Carly Simon, 1971;  “Legalize Our Love,” Timbuk 3, 1995;  “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” The Beach Boys, 1966;  “I Do,” Jewel, 2008; “Down the Aisle of Love,” The Quin-Tones, 1958;  “From This Moment On,” Shania Twain, 1997.