While soul, technique and the ability to coin a phrase are among the traits of a legendary blues performer, a good stage name is the clincher.
To many, the golden age of the blues nickname was the first half of the 20th century. Most modern bluesmen—with the exception of a dwindling few originals—have been relegated to mere recyclers.
So for this list of hallowed handles, we went way back, judging on prevalence, pronounce and weirdness. Admittedly, some favorites were left off the list due to musical semantics. Was Don “Captain Beefheart” Van Vliet too rocking’? David “Fathead” Newman too jazzy? Was “Crap Eye” merely a one-off prank pulled by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax?
Who knows? As far as we’re concerned, these are the Top 10 blues names of all time.
What instrument do Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, David “Guitar Shorty” Kearny, Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones and Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson play? For some reason, guitar virtuosos do better with their chosen instrument as a pseudonym than, say, piano players, drummers and kazoo blowers.
Sam Hopkins was a fine practitioner of Texas boogie, but his intimidating name didn’t come from how fast his fingers moved. He got it from a talent scout who paired him with pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith. So one nickname begat another.
Prison changes a man. Huddie Ledbetter went in with his given name and came out with one bestowed upon him as a reference to his hard personality. And though no one knows for certain if this king of the 12-string could actually take a gunshot to the stomach, he was certainly way ahead of the “Abs of Steel” craze.
7. “Peg Leg Sam”
After losing a leg while trying to hop a train, Arthur Jackson turned a tragedy into one of the catchiest names in blues by carving a peg leg from a fence post and strapping it to his stub. Sam developed his harmonica chops—which included playing two at once—at old-time medicine shows. (See also “Peg Leg” Howell.)
6. “Hound Dog”
Theodore Roosevelt Taylor wasn’t nothin’ but one of these. Whether he got his handle from his hard-partying lifestyle or from his raucous, barking slide work, it was—as ad agency types like to say—“good branding.”
5. “Super Chikan”
James Louis Johnson gigs are probably besieged by well wishers mistaking him for either a team mascot or the guy who got kicked out of the Fantastic Four. He actually got this name from his childhood obsession of trying to figure out the language of his parents’ chickens. As a guitarist, he gives new meaning to the term “chicken pickin’.”
A high-school teacher once told a young Clarence Brown he had a voice as big as a gate. Rather than let it discourage him, he went on to become one of America’s most versatile and cherished roots musicians. His only rival namesake was 1950s gospel singer “Gatemouth” Moore.
Since the Delta is recognized as the birthplace of the blues, identifying with it affords one instant credibility‚ hence this John Hurt handle. In fact, Muddy Waters, McKinley Morganfield’s stage name, is actually another name for the Mississippi River. It got out of hand, however, when slide-guitar bad-ass Fred McDowell appended it to his name—even though he’s from Tennessee.
How did Aaron Thibeaux Walker compensate for people who couldn’t pronounce his French middle name? An approximate homophone! And it sounded so cool. Not to mention, Walker was such a six-string hotshot that even nerdy white guys starting adopting his nickname.
Back in the Twenties and Thirties, not being able to see was a badge of honor. There even seemed to be a correlation between blindness and being a kick-ass steel-stringer. Just listen to Willie Johnson, Willie McTell, Lemon Jefferson (pictured right), Arthur Blake, and Boy Fuller. Nowadays, the tag is mandatory in blues parodies, as evinced by Cheech and Chong’s “Blind Melon” Chitlin’ and the Rutles’ “Blind Lemon” Pye.
“Slim” (Slim Harpo, Guitar Slim, Lightnin’ Slim, Tarheel Slim, Driftin’ Slim, Memphis Slim), “Lazy” Lester, “Sleep” John Estes, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnette (pictured left), “Screamin’” Jay Hawkins, Walter “Furry” Lewis, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, David “Honeyboy’ Edwards and Ted “Popa Chubby” Horowitz.