Before musicians had illegal downloads to complain about, the pioneering blues artists faced even more daunting problems. Imagine recording a million-selling single and only getting paid $100 for it, while your contract forbids you from recording for anybody else. That in a nutshell is why a handful of blues greats did so much recording under assumed names. When it was harder to get a fair shake from your label, it was at least easier to get around your contract with a series of blues nicknames.
King of nicknames
John Lee Hooker has to be the king of that tactic, across a decades-long career celebrated in the 5CD box set King Of The Boogie. He was one of the most prolific artists in blues history, which is probably the only thing that got him paid in his early heyday. It wasn’t unusual then for bluesmen to get a flat fee, so if the record wound up selling a million – as Hooker did with “Boogie Chillen” in 1949 and “I’m In The Mood” two years later – it wasn’t the artist who profited. The slight upside was that there were no big-time legal departments to come after him when he used pseudonyms as transparent as John Lee Booker and John Lee Cooker, two of the many that he adopted after that success.
Sometimes he simply took another bluesman’s name; a couple singles on King were issued as by Johnny Williams. Recording for at least a half-dozen labels, he was also Poor John, Texas Slim, Boogie Man, Little Pork Chops, and Lord knows who else. In an era where every major artist’s catalog has been tracked down and repackaged, nobody’s been able to definitively log the hundreds of sides that Hooker recorded before (and possibly after) he signed a 1955 contract with Vee Jay. We do know that the aliases recorded some of his landmark sides. The perfectly primal “Mad Man Blues” and the spooky “Graveyard Blues” were both “John Lee Booker” singles, respectively, for Chess and Gone.
Fooling the labels
Junior Wells’ 1965 Hoodoo Man Blues is a landmark for a few reasons. As one of the first Chicago blues albums, it was an inspiration for rockers to come and the start of an illustrious partnership. It also sports one of the sillier blues nicknames on record, with Buddy Guy – then signed to Chess while Wells was on Delmark – appearing as Friendly Chap. Their labels may have been fooled but nobody else was, and the album, featuring just Wells, Guy, and a rhythm section, has seminal moments in the title track, with Guy riffing through a Leslie while Wells wails on harmonica, and “Hey Lawdy Mama,” which was covered soon after by Cream. A Guy disciple himself, Eric Clapton was also no stranger to pseudonyms, appearing on his strangest-ever album – TDF’s Retail Therapy, a techno sidetrack with the producer/programmer Simon Climie – under the name “x-sample.”
Not everybody used pseudonyms for contractual reasons. Some did it for certain styles of recordings. The pioneering Texas guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson covered both the sacred and the profane, the latter quite memorably on his trademark song “Black Snake Moan.” Yet the first two songs he recorded in late 1925 were both gospel songs, and for these he took on the alternate persona Deacon LJ Bates (much as Hank Williams later did, recording spoken spiritual pieces as Luke The Drifter). Another of Jefferson’s standards, the Dylan-covered “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” was also done under the Bates name.
The early bluesman and civil-rights activist Josh White took his pseudonym for the same reason. His secular material could be as raunchy (Allman Brothers fans will know “Jelly Jelly”) as his sacred songs were devout, so on his 20s recordings he was Joshua White, The Singing Christian, and for the former, he took the name Pinewood Tom. By the mid-50s, when speaking out against social injustice got him blacklisted, he was proudly using his own name full time.
Some bluesmen’s names – Muddy Waters, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins – are so revered by now that they barely qualify as pseudonyms. These were the names the artists took at the start of their recording careers and the ones that passed into legend. But at least one blues master needed time to make his mind up. Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker released numerous sides as Oak Cliff T-Bone, which just happened to be the name he performed under when he signed to Columbia in 1929. Oak Cliff was his address at the time, and the oft-emulated “T-Bone” came from his real middle name, Thibeaud. He’d apparently moved from Oak Cliff before cutting the classic “Stormy Monday” under his better-known alias in 1947.
A strange twist
In each of these cases, it’s been one artist taking two or more names. In one celebrated case, it was just the opposite. Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Curtis Williamson) was originally a Chicago pioneer of the blues harp, but a pretender born Aleck Ford stole his identity and tried to pass himself off as the original. The strange twist here is that both Sonny Boys left an equally substantial legacy. Sonny Boy I left a permanent mark on Chicago blues and wrote the oft-covered “Good Morning, School Girl,” while Sonny Boy Williamson II helped create blues-rock; he was the one who recorded live with the young Yardbirds and The Animals.
Lost to history
Then there were the artists whose full stories are lost to history. By all accounts, Kansas Joe McCoy was a guitar heavyweight, born in the Mississippi Delta, and a prominent session man after coming to Chicago. The guitarist credited on numerous early blues and jug band sessions – with colorful blues nicknames like Hillbilly Plowboy, Mud Dauber Joe, Hamfoot Ham, The Georgia Pine Boy, and Hallelujah Joe – are all him. And they were largely done for one label, Decca, where he was part of the house band, so the name changes may have only been a matter of whimsy.
Most of his legacy, however, hinges on the work he did with then-wife Memphis Minnie starting in 1930, notably their original version of “When The Levee Breaks.” After their divorce, McCoy formed The Harlem Hamfats, who serenaded the hipsters with a song called “The Weed-Smoker’s Dream.” MCoy then rewrote this in a more commercial form as “Why Don’t You Do Right,” which became Peggy Lee’s first hit with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
Finally, we only wish we knew more about Catherine “Kitty” Brown, whose 1924 track “I Wanna Jazz Some More” is a blues song about a lust for jazz (online histories mistakenly claim that “jazz” here was a sexual euphemism, but she’s clearly singing, “Your music I sure adore, I wanna jazz some more”). Whoever she was, she recorded under a few blues nicknames, one of which was Bessie Williams, a moniker claimed by at least one other blueswoman. And she left only a few tracks behind, without enough backstory to explain all the names. Sometimes you just need to be glad for what you’ve got.
The blues giant John Lee Hooker is celebrated on the new release, John Lee Hooker Live at Montreux, which was captured at Switzerland’s famous annual jazz festival. The set will be available on 2LP, digital video, and audio formats on November 6.
Pre-order John Lee Hooker Live at Montreux here.