T-Model Ford died a couple weeks ago.
For those who don’t know, James Lewis Carter “T-Model” Ford was a Mississippi blues man best known for having begun his career at the age of 60. Born circa 1920, T-Model didn’t even pick up a guitar until the late 1970s, and didn’t record until the mid 1990s, when Fat Possum Records, an independent record label based here in Oxford, signed him to a five-album deal. Everyone loves a good late-blooming success story, and T-Model Ford’s ended with hundreds of obituaries in publications around the world, including the New York Times.
In the comment section of one of the online obituaries I came across, someone expressed bemusement that a musician should go around calling himself “T-Model Ford.” That particular obituary didn’t explain the origins of his stage name (T-Model worked in a sawmill as a youth, where he a drove a logging-truck), and so the stark headline, T-MODEL FORD DEAD AT 93, accompanied by a brief write-up, understandably came off as slightly confusing to some. To me, it was just business as usual: the blues business bears such strange names, and I grew up with many of them being bandied about the household.
“Don’t forget to send Koko a Christmas card,” my father would remind my mother, glancing over the top of that morning’s Chicago Tribune.
“Is Washboard Sam coming over for dinner tonight?” my mother would ask in reply.
“Barrelhouse is on the phone.”
“Shakey Jake wants to know if he can borrow the vacuum cleaner.”
“Yard Dog was a little too drunk last night, honey.”
“Look at this old picture I just found of Muddy!”
In reading blues histories over the past couple years, I’ve come across quite a few colorful stage names in the spirit of ol’ T-Model Ford, and so today I gather my personal favorite blues monikers together in one place; a collection of blues men and women who were out strumming guitars beneath head-turning marquees before Sting, Ol’ Dirty Bastard or The Edge were so much as twinkles in The Big Bopper’s eye.
Probably the most famous convicted murderer/singer/songwriter in blues history (incidentally, T-Model Ford was convicted of one murder, and claimed to have killed at least one other man on top of that), the origins of Huddie William Ledbetter’s tough-sounding-yet-oddly-adorable nickname was always a point of contention among friends and historians; Lead Belly himself never saw fit to clear up the mystery. Fellow blues great and coeval Big Bill Broonzy told people that Lead Belly’s name came about as a result of Ledbetter’s defiant habit of lying around (as though with a stomach full of lead) during chain gang duty; some said that it was inspired simply by his toughness; others chalked the appellation up to his ability to guzzle moonshine, while one legend had it that Lead Belly had once been hit in the stomach with a shotgun blast. Personally, I believe that his blues name came about due to his Lead Belly-sounding surname, “Ledbetter,” in combination with all of the proposed theories: Lead Belly’s stomach was once pumped full of lead, after which he lounged around in the shade shirking chain gang duty, because after killing a man and being blasted in the stomach with a shot gun, you’ve earned the right to relax, drink moonshine, and be considered one tough son-of-a-bitch.
The first time I came across this name, I thought it was a reference to a fashion accessory. Turned out that he was a blues man though, which I really should have known, being that I saw the name in a book about the blues. Born Willie Richard in 1936, Hip Linkchain was a pretty big figure on the Chicago blues scene up until his death in 1989, back when I was just a wee lad. Willie’s father used to wear logging chains around his neck as a fashion statement, earning himself the nickname “Linkchain.” Then, when Willie was born, the people around Jackson, Mississippi took to calling the little guy “Hipstick,” resulting in what would become Willie Richard’s blues name when he grew up: “Hip Linkchain.” The other day, I asked my father if he ever knew old Hip Linkchain.
“Old Hip! Sure! Where the hell’d you even come across that name? I used to jam with him a lot, along with Lonnie Brooks. He studied under Lonnie. Used to see him all the time at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, played a Gibson.”
My father, along with countless other Chicago blues musicians in the first half of the 20th century, learned to play piano from Sunnyland Slim. He remembers Sunnyland pulling him on-stage in Chicago before and after sets to show him how to hit blue notes and walk a bass line. Sunnyland was born Albert Luandrew—an unfortunate name that would have led to disaster for Luandrew in the blues world. Luckily, Luandrew composed a song called “Sunnyland Blues” while living in Memphis, a number that gained popularity, leading to his rebirth as “Sunnyland Slim.”
Stovepipe No. 1
Yes, not only was there a blues singer named “Stovepipe,” but one who had to differentiate himself from another blues singer named “Stovepipe,” as well. His name was Sam Jones, a one-man jug band musician based out of Cincinnati, who blew into a great big ass stove pipe instead of a jug. At the beginning of his career playing the red light district of Cincinnati’s George Street, Jones went around calling himself “Daddy Stovepipe.” He would have recorded as “Daddy Stovepipe” when he went to Indiana to cut his first record for Gennett in 1924, had the producers at Gennett not informed him that they’d just recorded a blues singer who was also billing himself as “Daddy Stovepipe.” We now know that the other Daddy Stovepipe was Johnny Watson, a blues singer based in Chicago, so-named due to the stovepipe hat he wore while playing Chicago’s Maxwell Street market. Outraged, Sam Jones changed his moniker on the spot, from “Daddy Stovepipe” to the retaliatory “Stovepipe Number 1,” so that there would be no doubt as to who was the first Stovepipe in the game.
The Yas Yas Girl
Merline Johnson stands in the proud tradition of blues greats whose life stories are shrouded in mystery. Little is known of Merline outside of the fact that she was born in Mississippi in 1912, made her way to Chicago where she cut several records for Bluebird, and then proceeded to record over 50 titles for Vocalion and OKeh Records between 1937 and 1941, backed by blues guitar legends such as Big Bill Broonzy, and the pianist Blind John Davis. She billed herself as “The Yas Yas Girl” on all of these classic recordings. Yas Yas was slang for “ass” back then, as best demonstrated by Blind Boy Fuller’s 1930 classic “Get Yer Yas Yas Out” (which would later inspire the title of the 1970 Rolling Stones album). We can only speculate as to why Merline decided to name herself “the booty girl,” but it was probably due to the fact that it caught record buyers’ attention and stuck in their minds, which, as we will see, was the name of the game then, as it still is now.
At birth, Wolf’s name was Chester Arthur. His parents gave him this name in honor of the 21st president of the United States (also named Chester Arthur, although Wolf’s parents could have named him Zachary Taylor or John Tyler or any of the other presidents no one really gives a shit about). That “Chester Arthur” shit wasn’t going to fly out on the blues circuit, and so Chester Arthur began presenting himself to juke joint owners as “The Howlin’ Wolf,” likely inspired by the song “The Howlin’ Wolf” by blues singer Funny Papa Smith (I’ve never come across an explanation of Funny Papa Smith’s moniker, let’s just assume he had jokes). My father, having worked and played with Howlin’ Wolf back in the day, confirms the reports that many people used to superstitiously connect Howlin’ Wolf’s name with some sort of dark secret that The Wolf harbored.
“He had all that energy up there on the stage, and that voice—first time people heard it they weren’t even sure if that voice could even come from a human, and he used to howl at the end of his phrases, on top of it—and so some people used to say joke that he was half man, half wolf.”
Slide guitarist and cousin of Elmore James, John Williams “Homesick James” Henderson was born in Tennessee and moved to Chicago in the 1930s, where he performed on hundreds of albums, including at least one record cut by my uncle Houston Harrington for Atomic H records, back in the early 1950s. Legend has it that when James was out on the road and people asked him his name, he would tell them “Call me homesick,” in what was either an allusion to the first line of Moby Dick, or a crafty, roundabout means by which to re-christen himself as “Homesick,” because if a blues singer knows anything, it’s that urging people to call you a name that one wouldn’t normally associate with a human being will result in that name appearing on a blues album.
Cow Cow Davenport
Charles Edward “Cow Cow” Davenport figures prominently in the history of blues pianists, being one of the more influential boogie-woogie players of the ‘20s and ’30s—his “Cow Cow Blues” was the inspiration for Ray Charles’ 1953 classic “Mess Around.” But the one question unanswered by every blues history book I’ve ever read is: Where the fuck did he get such an amusing stage name? One can only speculate now, but I believe it’s safe to say that it had something to do with a cow on a farm somewhere in the southern United States, if not two cows.
No, just kidding. This blues name is not very interesting at all.
The Devil’s Son-in-Law,
or: The High Sheriff from Hell
Yes, the above is what actually appeared on dozens of old-timey blues albums. Born in 1902, most likely in Arkansas, a case could be made for Peetie Wheatstraw as the most all-around influential performer in blues history: being the first blues singer to cash in on a self-proclaimed tie to the devil, there is a good possibility that Wheatstraw was the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s claim to have obtained his badass guitar skills through a Faustian deal; in literature, Wheatstraw surfaces in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man as a quirky blues-singing character roaming the streets of New York City, and a line can easily be drawn through Wheatstraw down to the over-the-top demonic personas that would one day define musical acts such as Gravediggaz and Marilyn Manson.
Wheatstraw was born William Bunch, but was referring to himself as “Peetie Wheatstraw” by the mid-to-late 1920s. If you read enough books on African-American folklore, you’ll notice the name “Peetie Wheatstraw” popping up from time to time, sometimes having nothing to do with the blues singer. “Peetie Wheatstraw” is sort of like the early-20th century African-American equivalent of the Irish “Danny Boy”: if you come across it in literature, it could be referring to a relatively unknown boy, or it could be referring to the figure from the famous folk song. Most historians believe that William Bunch picked up the name “Peetie Wheatstraw” from local folklore, and then brought it to the masses via the hundreds of popular recordings bearing his name. Some are of the opinion that William Bunch came up with “Peetie Wheatstraw” himself.
Either way, he alternately tacked the titles “The Devil’s Son-in-Law” and “The High Sheriff from Hell” onto the name “Peetie Wheatstraw” on nearly every one of his albums, which I think we can all agree is fucking awesome.
Almost nothing is known about the blues pianist named “Destruction.” His name surfaces mostly in connection with the first band that Howlin’ Wolf formed back in 1948, which featured guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt “Guitar” Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, drummer Willie Steele, and last but not least, “Destruction.” We can only speculate upon how exhilarating it must have been for this man (or woman?) to walk into a Mississippi juke joint for the first time, shake the owner’s hand, and introduce himself as “Destruction.”
Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater
Born Edward Harrington in Macon, Missisippi, Eddy billed himself as “Guitar Eddy” up until 1958, when his manager, Jump Jackson, suggested a name change to “Eddy Clearwater,” a play on “Muddy Waters.” “The Chief” part of his moniker came about during the production of Eddy’s breakthrough 1980 album of the same name. After production wrapped on the album, Eddy told his producer, Jim O’Neal (founder of Living Blues magazine) that it would be great if the album’s artwork could feature him (Eddy) riding a horse, wearing the Native American headdress he’d recently been given as a gift. O’Neal loved the idea, giving birth to both the album, “The Chief,” and the nickname, “The Chief,” an effective gimmick that led to robust album sales and mainstream recognition, because, as we have seen, people in the blues business are quite cunning when it comes to creating names with optimal marketing potential, so much so that Jason Edward Harrington, Clearwater’s son, was rumored to have spent a significant portion of his life talking to people who excitedly claimed to be familiar with his father in a sort of head-nodding-yeah, hey, yeah-of-course-I’ve-heard-of-Eddy-Clearwater way, when really it was Muddy Waters they were thinking of, a suspicion that Jason never pursued in the course of conversations, in the interest of sparing embarrassment for all parties concerned.