When I think of the name Billie Jean, I think of the Michael Jackson song. Next, I think of the tennis player.
But the name Billiejean first appeared in the U.S. baby name data way back in 1962, decades before the song, and years before the tennis player was at the height of her fame.
1962: 5 baby girls named Billie Jean
My guess on this one? Country singer Billie Jean Horton.
Today she’s best remembered for her relationships with various country singers: Faron Young, Hank Williams (married 1952-1953), Johnny Horton (married 1953-1960), and Johnny Cash.
But she was a recording artist in her own right, and her most successful single, “Ocean Of Tears,” peaked at #29 on the country chart in August of 1961. The next year, for one year only, Billiejean popped up in the data.
The name didn’t return until 1973, when tennis player Billie Jean King defeated male player Bobby Riggs in tennis’s most famous “Battle of the Sexes” match. This time it stuck around until the late ’70s.
It emerged a third time with the help of Michael Jackson, whose song “Billie Jean” was the #1 song in the nation for seven weeks straight in March and April of 1983.
What are your thoughts on the name Billie Jean? What’s your strongest association with the name?
We’ve talked about Faron, so now let’s talk about Ferlin — a similar name that debuted for a similar reason during the very same decade.
1959: 22 baby boys named Ferlin
1958: 26 baby boys named Ferlin (peak)
1957: 15 baby boys named Ferlin
1956: 17 baby boys named Ferlin
1955: 9 baby boys named Ferlin
1954: 7 baby boys named Ferlin [debut]
The name Ferlin was inspired by American country singer Ferlin Husky. His 1953 singles “A Dear John Letter” and “Forgive Me, John” — both duets with Jean Shepard — are what put him, and his name, on the map.
He went on to have hits like “Gone” in 1957 and “Wings of a Dove” in 1960, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
But the name Ferlin would never have come to anyone’s attention if Ferlin Husky had stuck with the stage name Terry Preston, which he began using in the late ’40s. Some sources say he used a stage name because he felt his real name “sounded too rural.” He was convinced by record producer Ken Nelson to revert to his birth name in the early ’50s:
[Nelson] pushed Terry Preston to drop his stage name and use his given name, Ferlin Husky. “I thought, ‘Oh, my god, Terry Preston, my goodness’ sake’ — it sounded too sweet for a country singer. So I said, ‘Ferlin, why don’t you use your right name? It’s a good masculine name, and it’s an unusual name.’ And he didn’t want to do it. One day, he and his father and I were riding in the car, and I mentioned it to his father, and his father said, ‘Ferlin, you’re never gonna be a success until you use your right name.'”
Ironically, Ferlin’s “right name” was invented by a wrong spelling. His father had intended to name him Ferland after a friend, but the name was misspelled “Ferlin” on the birth certificate.
Do you like the name Ferlin? Do you like it more or less than Faron?
While looking for facts on Faron, I unearthed a Werly:
I think the song “It’s a Cold Weary World” should have been titled “It’s a Cold Werly World” instead. I bet Werly himself would have appreciated the wordplay — after all, another song he wrote was called “Love Spelled Backwards Is Evol,” and a label he later launched was called Whirlybird.
Werly Fairburn was a rockabilly musician born in Louisiana in 1924. His birth name was Lewi Werly Fairburn, but evidently he preferred his middle name.
Speaking of preferences…if you were having a son, and you had to name him either Werly or Faron, which would it be?
It entered the top 1,000 the next year, and stayed there until the late 1960s.
What popularized it? A Louisiana-born honky-tonk singer named Faron Young. His first single came out in 1951, and his earliest hit on the country and western music charts was “Goin’ Steady” (1952) which reached the top 10 on Billboard‘s Country & Western Best Seller list for two weeks in March of 1953.
The name itself peaked on the baby name charts in 1956, when Faron started to appear in Hollywood movies. The image above comes from a mid-1956 advertisement in Billboard magazine for both his latest song, “Sweet Dreams,” and his first movie, Hidden Guns.
Where does the name Faron come from? I don’t know how Faron’s parents came up with his name, but Faron happens to be a French surname that can be traced back to an ancient Germanic word (fara) meaning “journey, fare.”
A similar name, Farren — along with a slew of variants (Farrin, Ferren, Ferrin, etc.) — saw a spike in usage for baby girls in the mid-1980s thanks to a character named Farren Connor on the soap operaThe Young and the Restless.
Do you like Faron, Farren, and similar names? If so, do you think they sound better as male names or as female names?
Here’s the format: “Girl name(s), number of baby girls; Boy name(s), number of baby boys.” Keep in mind that the raw numbers aren’t too trustworthy for about the first six decades, though. (More on that in a minute.)
I’ve already written about some of the names above, and I plan to write about all the others as well…eventually. In the meanwhile, if you want to beat me to it and leave a comment about why Maverick hit in 1957, or why Moesha hit in 1996, feel free!