While you may know the beloved musicians below by names like Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and Etta James, these musicians were actually born under entirely different names. These and other blues musicians with pseudonyms took on new monikers for a wide variety of reasons. From simply going by a nickname to adopting a name to solidify a particular persona, below you'll find a definitive list of the real names of all major blues artists (including some who crossed over into soul, R&B, and rock).
Blues musicians with nicknames from childhood often opted to use these on the stage. Etta James, born Jamesetta Hawkins, used a shortened version of her birth name and Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, was nicknamed Muddy as a kid due to his tendency to play in the mud. However, other famous blues musicians opted for a stage name for artistic reasons. Billie Holiday, born Eleanor Fagan, wanted to honor actress Billie Dove. Ray Charles dropped his last name, Robinson, both out of respect to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and to carve out his own unique identity.
If you're curious about the original name of other blues guitarists and singers, browse the list below! If you're interested in stage names in general, you can also check out this list of the real names of country stars.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 to her mother Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday, who is believed to be her father. She took the stage name "Billie" - after the actress Billie Dove – around 1930 when she was singing at clubs in New York.
Age: Dec. at 44 (1915-1959)
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of Americasee more on Billie Holiday
Ray Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930. He decided to drop his surname around 1950 in part out of respect for the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and in part to create a persona that people would easily remember.
Age: Dec. at 74 (1930-2004)
Birthplace: Albany, Georgia, United States of Americasee more on Ray Charles
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938. She adopted the name Etta James - a play on her first name – in 1954 and began her solo career soon after.
Age: Dec. at 74 (1938-2012)
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, United States of Americasee more on Etta James
B.B. King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925. While working as a disc jockey in Memphis, Tennessee, he was given the nickname "the Beale Street Blues Boy." He shortened that to B.B. and the rest is history.
Age: Dec. at 89 (1925-2015)
Birthplace: Berclair, Mississippi, United States of Americasee more on B.B. King