I recently saw the documentary Searching for Sugar Man about a little-known American musician named Rodríguez. He made two albums in the early ‘70s which failed to summit the national stage, despite revealing a brilliant songwriter and talented musician. Somehow his music made the transatlantic journey to South Africa where, unbeknownst to Rodríguez, it became the soundtrack of the anti-Apartheid movement. His songs should have been Billboard hits in America, that much is clear. After the movie, my friends and I debated what we thought was the factor that kept him out of the spotlight. One suggested that a name like “Rodríguez” would have little chance of overcoming the widespread bigotry of many Americans in the early ‘70s. “What about Santana?” I quipped. Did I think a name-change would really have helped Rodríguez?
Had he stuck with his given name, would Robert Zimmerman be as successful as Bob Dylan? Would we still read a “Samuel Clemens” novel (better known as Mark Twain)? Would we care about a “winning,” tiger-blooded “Carlos Estéves”? (Hint, he made out with Ferris Bueller’s sister, Jeanie. He was in there for drugs.)
Many name changes are done for cosmetic effects, hoping to duck prejudice or simply to spice things up. Richie Valens, who gave us “La Bamba,” was encouraged to circumcise his family name, Valenzuela, for obvious reasons.
Joanne Rowling was told by publishers that many young boys would not read her first book if they knew it was written by a woman. She was encouraged to drop Joanne for two initials. Rowling had no middle name, so she used the “K” from her paternal grandmother, Kathleen Ada Bulgen Rowling.
If you happen to be in Oxfordshire, England, you might stumble across the grave of Eric Arthur Blair. The tombstone would give you no indication that the man under your feet also went by George Orwell.
Ringo Starr was Richard Starkey. Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay. “Tiger” is only a nickname that stuck for golfer Eldrick Tont Woods. Art Vandelay is George Costanza. Tom Riddle is Lord Voldemort.
Sometimes, things just sound better. “Robert Parker and Harry Longabaugh” doesn’t work like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu just isn’t as catchy as Mother Teresa.
The three names we still remember from the Russian Revolution—Trotsky, Stalin, Lenin—are all pseudonyms. Lev Bronshtein doesn’t have the same ring as Leon Trotsky.
Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr. is known better to you as Snoop Dogg, Snoop Doggy Dogg, or Snoop Lion. Even Mitt Romney goes by his middle name. His first name is Willard.
But, whenever anyone suggests that so-and-so could never have made it to fame with their “real name,” I just think of the guy in the big house on Pennsylvania Ave. Here’s a list of the residents before him: Theodore, William, Woodrow, Warren, Calvin, Herbert, Franklin, Harry, Dwight, John, Lyndon, Richard, Gerald, Jimmy, Ronald, George Sr., Bill, and George Jr. Now it’s Barack (soon, Hillary?). The fact that Barack Hussein Obama does not go by Barry H. O’Bama is testament that it doesn’t matter much what you’re called, it matters more what you make of your name.
As Mr. Dylan said, “Some people—you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
Image by Quinn Dombrowski from http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/4464205726/