In June I interviewed one of my musical heroes, keyboardist, singer and songwriter Robert Lamm of the band Chicago in advance of its upcoming performance at Heinz Hall. I learned only about two decades ago that, although perhaps not unusual for pop acts during its 1970s heyday, most band members at one point regularly used drugs.
In a memoir published two years ago about his time in the band, original drummer Danny Seraphine wrote that during the recording of "Chicago 16," released in 1982, Mr. Lamm, then known to intimates as Bobby, entered a rehabilitation facility. Mr. Seraphine mentioned that Mr. Lamm emerged from rehab "a changed man" and asked everyone to refer to him by his given name from that point on.
"In my opinion, he earned that right," Mr. Seraphine wrote. "The old Bobby was gone and the new Robert was here to stay."
I understood what Mr. Seraphine meant, because I went through my own "identity change" in 1974.
That spring, due to ongoing conflicts with the seventh-grade teacher at the school I was attending, which didn't have a varsity sports program at the time, I transferred to a different school where I was already being "recruited" to play basketball the next year. As the situation with the teacher was partially my fault, I recognized that I needed to turn over a new leaf.
My legal first name is Derrick, in honor of Derrick Bell, the late law professor and author who was a childhood friend of my father and his sisters. I'm sure that, in giving me his name, my parents were hoping that I would turn into someone as accomplished as he eventually would become.
Yet by then, for reasons I don't entirely understand except that I often heard the proverbial different drummer, the two names together -- Derrick Nowlin -- instead identified someone of questionable reputation, especially in the immediate neighborhood where I lived and had no close friends.
Just before hoops season started in the fall, a cheerleader asked me for a one-syllable name for her squad to use during games. Two years earlier I had considered using just the last four letters of my first name as a nickname, so I threw that out to her and the squad went with it.
Without my realizing it at the time, the new name would symbolize the fresh start I was hoping for.
For the first time ever I started receiving positive attention from girls my age, although owing primarily to my status as an athlete. That season I started every game at power forward, leading the team in rebounding and being second in scoring; we won the first two tournaments in school history en route to its best-ever record. I also took up the saxophone, which I always wanted to do and still play today. (The previous school didn't sponsor an instrumental music program, either.) Not only that, but I also graduated near the top of the class of 1975.
I've been using Rick ever since, originally just personally but now professionally as well, in part due to the convenience of having a first name I don't always have to spell out for everyone. In fact, colleagues and close friends today don't even learn until later just what my birth name is.
Of course, identity changes have always been the stuff of legend. Consider urban-jazz saxophonist James Oppenheim. What -- you never heard of him? Well, that's the point, because fans know him as Boney James. Or Norma Jean Baker, which wouldn't have the raw sex appeal of, say, Marilyn Monroe.
In many cases a new moniker is intended to be prophetic. I recently heard a story -- I don't know if it's true -- that a baseball manager once gave the nickname "Bulldog" to a talented but timid pitcher in the hopes that he would develop the tenacity necessary to achieve greatness.
His name? Orel Hershiser, who in 1988 set the still-standing major-league record for consecutive scoreless innings while hurling for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In the Bible, numerous name changes took place because folks did change who they were. In the Old Testament, Jacob, the grandson of patriarch Abraham and the meaning of whose name is best understood as "Slick" because of his conniving ways, became Israel -- "strives with God." Simon, one of Jesus' disciples, received the nickname Peter ("stone" or "chip," a takeoff on "rock"), perhaps because he among them would become "a chip off the old block."
I do still use Derrick, although generally with my middle name or initial and usually only in legal matters. The only public exception has been, incidentally, writing letters to the editor; between 1983 and 1993 I was a regular contributor to the PG letters section and in the mid-'80s participated in the weekly Roundtable on the op-ed page.
I also allow those who knew me before the fall of 1974 to call me Derrick; fortunately, most have made the transition. But more importantly, they "get" me today.
Sadly, I never did make peace with that teacher, who died 10 years ago, though we did have contact in the late 1990s. In retrospect I'm not sure that the door was ever open, which is a shame, and not just because I answer to a different name after nearly 40 years.
I'm a different guy.
Rick Nowlin is a Post-Gazette news assistant (412-263-3871, email@example.com).