The glam-pop icon David Bowie was best known for his elaborate stage personas such as ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and the ‘Thin White Duke’. From the vibrant stage suits to the sparkly eyeshadows and dyed hair, Bowie revolutionised stage appearances by fusing a certain theatricality with an unadulterated desire to shock and inspire. Other than the aspect of visual art, what’s noticeable among these characters are their names. Bowie always tried to think of a distinctive name that could catch the attention of people and as we already know, he was massively successful in doing so. That makes one wonder about his permanent stage name; David Bowie.
Born as David Robert Jones, he found the name quite unattractive and entirely forgettable. Then a young London musician, he started to experiment with names. He made a subtle change the first time, going for Davie/Davy Jones. Perhaps the idiom ‘Davy Jones Locker’ was on his mind when he decided on the name, and the ubiquitous nature may have appealed. Unfortunately, there was already another musician of the same name, Davy Jones of The Monkees, who had reached famed and, therefore, locked in the stage name before Bowie could get close to calling it his own.
The second time he opted for changing the first name into Tom while keeping the last name Jones — you may see where this one is going. He probably didn’t realise that this was a prevalent name and about to be a famous one. Coincidentally, it was the name of an emerging Welsh musician whose then hit ‘It’s Not So Usual’ made him one of the more popular singers on the British Isles.
Apparently, Tom Jones, whose real name was Tom Woodward, lashed out at Bowie when he learned about the event and the duo shared a pretty frosty relationship in the years that followed.
One can imagine how downbeat Bowie must have been about the name changes, having already been beaten to the punch by The Monkees man. Dan Schreiber, podcaster and QI researcher, said on Radio One’s Screen Time podcast that, “Before he got to David Bowie, he didn’t want to lose the Jones bit of his name…So he changed his name and started recording as an artist under the name Tom Jones. And as he did that…Tom Jones exploded, and he was like, ‘Come on man, what is this?’”
As for most of his life, Bowie’s final refuge was American culture. He would famously use “American street culture” to inform his ionic persona Ziggy Stardust. Still, it would be American films that would give him the push he needed on this occasion.
Despite often being suggested that the singer took his name from the hunting knife, in his book America in the British Imagination: 1945 to the Present, John Lyons wrote: “In 1965, David Jones adopted the name David Bowie in homage to Jim Bowie.” Jim Bowie was the protagonist of the 1960 historical war film The Alamo, directed by John Wayne. Played by actor Richard Widmark, Bowie was a Texan rebel in the film.
The name proved to be beneficial as it helped David Bowie to connect with the American audience at large and also provided a searing, unusual and unforgettable name.
However, Bowie was never very keen to talk about his changed name. TIME magazine reported a note from Bowie to his fan which read, “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones, and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. ‘‘Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you’ said my manager.” This refusal to conform may well have informed Bowie’s name change but most certainly helped the singer see his name, new or otherwise, up in lights.
Luckily that remains true to this day.