Retro Dee writes about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s on this site. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.
Welcome to 50’s study hall. In this section, I will be publishing a series of lists that will allow readers to use them as a reference for the given topic. Please feel free to message me if any of the info needs correcting, or if you have anything to add. I hope this section will help readers to find lots of Fifties Facts in one single place!
For this session, we’ll be studying the stage names as well as the birth names of the Stars of the day.
Back in the 50’s, it was common for a celebrity to have his or her name changed to a stage name. Some of the reasons for this include: low public tolerance for ethnic sounding names (unfortunately a reality at the time), simplicity’s sake and/or marketing’s sake, and perhaps the fact that many people in the 50’s era had a nick name to begin with anyhow.
So let’s have a look at both the real and the stage names of the biggest stars of that era… Take out your notebooks, it’s Study Hall time.
(Stars will be listed alphabetically by first name)
50’s Study Hall: 50’s Stars’ Real Names
The Big Bopper: Jiles Perry “J.P.” Richardson, Jr. (1930-1959)
The Big Bopper got his stage name -which was inspired by the dance “The Bop”- when he began his career as a D.J. at KTRM in Beaumont, TX. However, his friends simply called him “J.P.”
Bobby Darin: Walden Robert Cosotto (1936-1973)
With a name like Walden, it’s not hard to understand why Bobby went by his middle name. He also had to get rid of the Italian last name and come up with something American-sounding. One evening while pondering this, Bobby came upon a Chinese restaurant sign in downtown NY that was half burned out. Instead of reading “Mandarin”, it read “Darin”. And so he chose his stage name.
Bobby Rydell: Robert Lewis Ridarelli
Ah, here we go again. Bobby Rydell is actually of Italian heritage with the original surname of Ridarelli. This was changed to something more appealing to the American public at the time: Rydell.
Buddy Holly: Charles Hardin Holley (1936-1959)
Buddy’s first and middle names came from his two grandfathers. His maternal grandfather was Charles Wesley Drake and his paternal grandfather was John Hardin Holley. Buddy was called “Buddy” from a young age by family and friends. The spelling of his surname was altered when the “e” was accidentally omitted by the record company when they signed him. However, he was sometimes credited as a songwriter as “Charles Hardin”. At his final resting place in Lubbock, Buddy’s headstone reads “Buddy Holley”: the nick-name that he had while growing up, and the original, correct spelling of the family surname.
Chubby Checker: Ernest Evans
Chubby Checker is technically a 1960’s star with his hit “The Twist” in 1960 and “Pony Time” in 1961. But he began seeking out a career in music in the late 50’s. His boss at the produce market where he worked, gave him the nick-name “Chubby”. When Dick Clark’s wife asked him his name and he replied “They call me Chubby” and she asked “As in Checker?” which was how he got his stage name.
Chuck Berry: Charles Edward Anderson Berry (1926-2017)
Chuck Berry’s name is pretty straightforward. Chuck is a nick-name for Charles and his real last name was, indeed, Berry.
Connie Francis: Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero
Italian people in the entertainment industry were made to change their names in those days, and Connie Francis was no exception. While Connie is an obvious nick name for Concetta, Franconero was made into an English version of the name, which happens to be Francis.
Conway Twitty: Harold Lloyd Jenkins (1933-1993)
Country singer Conway Twitty began his singing career in the late 1950’s with hits like “It’s Only Make Believe”, but he began his life as Harold Lloyd Jenkins. His stage name comes from combining the two towns of Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas.
Debbie Reynolds: Mary Francis Reynolds (1932-2016)
When pretty Debbie Reynolds was discovered by Warner Brothers, she received the nickname “Debbie” from Jack L. Warner. This cute sounding name was more appropriate than plain Mary, and so the name Debbie Reynolds has become synonymous with the tantalizing girl-next door who graced the silver screen long ago.
Don Everly: Isaac Donald Everly (1937-2021)
Don Everly’s first name was technically Isaac, after his father, Ike. With Donald as his middle name, he simply went by “Don”.
Fabian: Fabiano Forte
Fabian was one of the few stars back in the 50’s and 60’s era who only had one name. Fabian was a teen with Italian heritage from Philly, who needed to “Americanize” his name in order to become a teenage idol. So Fabian dropped the “o” in Fabiano and completely dropped his last name, Forte, which means “strong” in Italian.
Fats Domino: Antonie Dominique Domino, Jr. (1928-2017)
Fats Domino came from the French-influenced town of New Orleans. His first name is the French version of Anton, while his middle name is the French version of Dominic. His nick-name, “Fats”, was inspired by the famous pianists Fats Weller and Fats Pichon.
Frankie Ford: Vincent Francis Guzzo, Jr.
Like most Italian entertainers of the day, Frankie Ford had to change his name to something American. His middle name inspired “Frankie”, and “Ford” replaced Guzzo. Ecco qui!
Freddy Cannon: Frederick Anthony Picariello, Jr.
Another Italian name changed. This time we went from Picariello to Cannon. That’s quite the change! However, this allowed Freddy to acquire his showbiz nickname: Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon.
Gene Vincent: Vincent Eugene Craddock (1935-1971)
Gene Vincent’s stage name was a clever switch around of his real first and middle names. “Gene” being short for his middle name, Eugene, and his first name used as his last.
Guy Mitchell: Albert George Cernik (1927-1999)
As the story goes, Mitch Miller was in charge of the talent at Columbia Records, and he gave Guy Mitchell his new name. He said, “You seem like a nice guy… and my first name is Mitchell. So you’re Guy Mitchell”. Can’t argue with those talent managers.
Harriet Nelson: Peggy Lou Snyder (1909-1994)
Harriet Nelson (aka Harriet Hilliard) started her career on the comedy circuit. She changed her name from Peggy Lou to Harriet and used her father’s middle name, “Hilliard”, as her surname until she married Ozzie Nelson in 1935.
Kim Novak: Marilyn Pauline Novak
While Marilyn Monroe chose Marilyn as her new name, Miss Novak ditched it and used “Kim”, while keeping her surname the same.
LaVern Baker: Delores Evans
Little Richard: Richard Wayne Penniman (1932-2020)
As a kid, Little Richard was little for his age. So, he got the nickname “Little Richard”. It later became his stage name for his 60+ year career.
Marilyn Monroe: Norma Jeane Mortenson (1926-1962)
Most people think Marilyn’s original name was Norma Jean Baker, which at one point she did, indeed use, however, her birth name was Norma Jeane Mortenson.
Pat Boone: Charles Eugene Boone
Another Charles that does not go by Charles, Pat Boone ditched his formal first name for “Pat” and kept his last name the same.
Ricky Nelson: Eric Hilliard Nelson (1940-1985)
While most Rickys are Richards, Ricky Nelson was actually an Eric. His middle name, Hilliard, was his maternal grandfather Roy’s middle name, and also the first stage name that his mother Harriet used.
Ritchie Valens: Richard Steven Valenzuela (1941-1959)
Ritchie’s manager Bob Keane supposedly chose the “t” spelling for “Ritchie”. Ritchie’s last name required Americanization (as did all ethnic-sounding names in those days) so it was shortened to “Valens”, with an “s” replacing the “z” to make it look less exotic.
Troy Donahue: Merle Johnson, Jr. (1936-2001)
If I may interject my own comments here, Troy Donahue was far too good-looking to keep the name “Merle”! So Merle Johnson Jr. became Troy Donahue, a Hollywood-sounding name to go with a Hollywood star.
Waylon Jennings: Wayland Albert Jennings (1937-2002)
Technically, Waylon Jennings had his heyday in the 1970’s as one of the most successful Country Music stars of all time. But in the late 1950’s, he made his professional debut under the mentorship of his best friend, Buddy Holly. Waylon’s original name was Wayland.
Stay tuned to Fifties Study Hall, more information is always being added!
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