9 Artists Who Changed Their Names During Their Music Careers

Artists Who Changed Their Names

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Have you ever heard of the Blackjacks, the Rainbows (not the hard rock band Rainbow) or Johnny & the Moondogs? If we were to throw in “the Quarrymen,” many people would probably be able to identify this as a list of names that at one point were used by the group which would eventually become The Beatles. Probably any working rock band will tell you that they went through a dozen names before they even got out of the garage, much less signed a record deal or had hits. However, there’ve been a handful of acts over the years who – by choice or necessity – changed their names after they had already launched a commercially successful career, years or even decades into it. This usually involved shortening the original name, often for legal reasons. However, there’ve been a variety of stories behind such changes, and here are nine of them.

#9 – YAZOO to YAZ

There’s been quite a few instances in which a British band was forced to go by a slight variation on their name in the US for legal reasons (often because the name was already being used in this country). This was the case with Yazoo, a synth duo comprised on keyboardist Vince Clarke and vocalist Alison Moyet (also known as Alf) who released their debut album Upstairs at Eric’s in 1982. Accounts seem to differ on whether the American entity which laid claim to the name “Yazoo” was an obscure band or the New Jersey-based roots music record label (which, was, in fact, where the synth group took the name from). Either way, Clarke and Alison Moyet shortened their moniker to Yaz for the US market before disbanding after two successful albums.

#8 – THE NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND to The DIRT BAND

Debuting in the late Sixties, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is a country rock band from Long Beach, California, who’re arguably best known for their 1970 Top Ten cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” They fared reasonably well through the seventies but, in 1978, chose to go in a more pop direction, a strategy that included shortening the name to just the Dirt Band. However, after four studio releases, they reverted back to the original name, which longtime members Jeff Hanna (guitar/lead vocals) and Jimmie Fadden (drums) still play under today.

#7 – The Rascals to The Young Rascals to The Rascals

The Garfield, New Jersey rock band which formed in 1965 and became known for their hits “Good Lovin’,” “How Can I Be Sure” and “Groovin’” (among other) had initially intended to call themselves simply the Rascals. However, their manager supposedly added the adjective, making them the Young Rascals. “[That] was done without our knowledge,” lead singer and keyboardist Felix Cavaliere told The Chicago Tribune in 2019. “We disliked the [longer] name.” The idea was to differentiate them from the Harmonica Rascals, a group that had been around since before Cavaliere and his bandmates were even born (even though it didn’t seem like anyone would confuse the two). The rock band dropped the “Young” from the name as soon as they could, in 1968.

#6 – The Jackson Five to The Jacksons

Even though the Jackson Five (or Jackson 5  if you prefer) achieved major chart success at the beginning of the Seventies, by the middle of the decade their once-lucrative relationship with Motown Records had soured, prompting them to leave for another label, Epic. Even though there would still be five in the group (Jermaine Jackson left to pursue a solo career but was replaced by youngest brother Randy), Motown owned the rights to the name Jackson Five and refused to allow them to take it elsewhere. Thus, the group re-named themselves The Jacksons (this turned out to be a change for the better, as it reflected their maturing and moving away from their original teen idol image). The Jacksons continued to have hits in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and the surviving brothers still occasionally tour under the name.

#5 – Tyrannosaurus Rex to T.Rex

It fits that they would name themselves after the Jurassic Age’s most notorious carnivore since, as a band moniker, Tyrannosaurus Rex is a mouthful. Although they had achieved some success in the UK after their 1968 debut, lead singer Marc Bolan wisely chose to re-invent their sound and image for the Seventies, which included abbreviating the band’s name. All of it worked since T. Rex – as they were now called – became one of the key figures in the early Seventies glam rock movement and remain one of the all-time most influential bands in the UK (plus, had they stuck with “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” they probably wouldn’t have ended up being name-dropped in classic songs by Mott the Hoople and The Who).

#4 – Cat Stevens to Yusuf Islam to Yusuf to Yusuf / Cat Stevens

In December 1977, Stevens embraced Islam, changing his name to Yusuf Islam the next year. By 1979, he had chosen to step away from his music career, focusing instead on philanthropic and educational initiatives within the Muslim community, even going so far as to auction his guitars for charitable causes.  After a lengthy hiatus, he made a comeback to the pop scene in 2006 with “An Other Cup,” marking his first collection of new pop songs in nearly three decades.

Following this, he chose to go by the name Yusuf, omitting “Islam” from his albums. His musical journey continued with the release of “Roadsinger” in 2009, “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone” in 2014, which coincided with his first US tour in over three decades, and a second North American tour in 2016. In 2017, he unveiled “The Laughing Apple,” reintroducing the Cat Stevens moniker after 39 years, now billed as Yusuf / Cat Stevens. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Tea for the Tillerman,” he released a reinterpreted version in September 2020, followed by “King of a Land” in June 2023, marking his latest studio album.

#3 – Jefferson Airplane to Jefferson Starship to Starship

The Jefferson Starship was first sighted in 1974, a spin-off from the quintessential late Sixties Bay Area band the Jefferson Airplane, which featured several members of the original group, including lead singer Grace Slick. The new group was successful but underwent numerous line-ups during their first ten years. In 1984, founding guitarist (and former Airplane member) Paul Kantner not only departed but, on his way out, took legal action to prevent the band from using “Jefferson” as part of their name in his absence. His effort was successful, and the remaining members (including, at the time, Slick), continued as simply Starship (the whole debacle clearly wouldn’t hurt the band’s commercial potential, as they would have three number one singles under the shortened name by 1987).

#2 – Prince to just “a symbol” or “the artist formerly known as Prince.”

If, in 1991, anyone heard that Prince was planning to change his name, they might have assumed that he would begin using his full name, Prince Rogers Nelson. It turned out to be anything but that, or anything anyone would have expected: Prince changed his name to just a symbol, for which there was no actual pronunciation. The move wasn’t an attempt to be clever, innovative, or avant-garde, but rather an effort to cheese off his record label (Warner Brothers), with whom he always had a very difficult relationship. Still, the public had to refer to him as something, which is why he suggested “the artist formerly known as Prince” and later simply “the Artist” (we can imagine the people at his label were calling him a few other things at the time). Fortunately, he returned to being just Prince in 2000, and this name game of his has become a footnote in his musical legacy.

#1 – John Cougar to John Mellencamp

“Mellencamp” seems like a nice enough name, indeed not one that would ever dissuade anyone from buying a record. Still, when John Mellencamp signed his first record contract in the late Seventies, the label elected to re-christen him “Johnny Cougar.” He didn’t have much success under that name or even the marginally more dignified-sounding John Cougar (which he began using in 1979). Luckily, John Mellencamp would earn a bit more say in his own career thanks to his 1982 multi-platinum number-one album American Fool. But John Mellencamp was no fool, and rather than simply attempting to switch his name back all at once, he split the difference with the moniker John Cougar Mellencamp before phasing the stage name out entirely with the 1991 release.

Updated February 18, 2024

9 Artists Who Changed Their Names During Their Music Careers article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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