There are plenty of stories about talented people who leave their small-town upbringing behind for the lure of the big city, only to lose their way in the glare of the bright lights. For singer Nellie Tiger Travis, that tale played out in her career until she traded one metropolis for another one, where her efforts have resulted in international recognition and and a spot on late-night television.
Last year, the Tonight show host, Jimmy Fallon, did one of his Do Not Play segments. One track he featured was “Slap Yo’ Weave Off,” from the Travis’s 2008 release I’m A Woman on CDS Records. In January, Travis made an appearance on the show, singing several verses of the song backed by the Roots, Fallon’s studio band. “I didn’t send it in. It just popped up. Fallon said he liked the song and that I sounded like Gladys Knight. Oh my God, that was a big compliment! When it happened, my whole persona changed. I was running around the house, didn’t know what to do. It made a statement.”
Raised in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Travis was raised by her grandmother, who was a woman of the church. Travis started singing gospel at an early age. “I had no choice. My grandmother was an Evangelist and most of her brothers, my uncles, were gospel singers or ministers. Up until my adult life, church was an every day thing. Those experiences taught to to be free, not be shy or timid about what I do. I was raised very poorly but it was the best part of my life. Many days my breakfast was eggs and gravy, sometimes with biscuits or cornbread.”
“I knew we were poor but there was lots of love. My grandmother raised me from six months of age. She was by herself, my grandfather died at an early age had to pick and chop cotton for school clothes. When I was younger, I would help her fill her 100 pound sack, which earned $5 for a full, heavy sack. I asked her if I could get in the sack when they weighed it, so she wouldn’t have to pick so hard! Sometimes the kids at school would laugh at me. I wasn’t dirty – I thought I was cute. Those kind of experiences made me more determined to be somebody. One of my goals was to be Miss Universe or Miss USA. When I was fourteen, I was a finalist for the Mississippi State pageant. When I went to the orientation meeting, I was the only black girl there. The other girls wanted nothing to do with me. It was so discouraging that I left and never went back.”
“I wore gym shoes that my grandmother bought to school and got teased about it. So I joined the basketball team so that I could get a pair on Converse shoes to wear. I played pretty good ball. The first year on varsity I was Rookie of the Year and the next season I was the top free throw shooter. So I deserved those Chuck Taylor shoes. I wasn’t a bad, bad girl. But when you are younger, you think boys. My grandmother had me believing that if I kissed a boy, I’d get pregnant. She was smart about lying to us. I had a beautiful upbringing.” Living in a community where neighbors cared for each other, Travis was an all-around girl who ran track in addition to basketball. She also participated in numerous talent competitions and was named Queen of JFK High School in 1979.
Eventually Travis moved out on her own, joining a band doing secular music locally. Ed Townsend, producer of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, came to Mound Bayou to recruit new talent.
“Out of more than 100 people, it got narrowed down to a group we called SSIPP, I named the band after our home state. We did some recording and did some performances, including opening for Dionne Warwick. For another show, we were supposed to open for Ray Charles at Delta State College. But Ray’s manager felt there wasn’t enough people there to perform, so Ray didn’t do the show. That was a crushing situation in my life. Being with the group helped to advance my career and move to the next level.”
Looking to get a recording contract, Travis tried to get a spot with Joe “Poonanny” Burns, a Malaco Records artist popular on the southern soul blues scene. Burns already had a woman singer in his show. Eager to move forward, Travis began to plan a move to Los Angeles. The day before she decided to make the move, Poonanny called to say his singer was pregnant and he needed someone. But Travis decided to stick to her plan.
“I didn’t realize how hard it was going be. I was going to sit on Quincy Jones’s doorstep to make him hear me. It was not that easy to be a star. I was hearing all these people singing so great in the clubs, wondering why they don’t have contracts. Coming from Mississippi, you are green, don’t know anything. I could never even tell you what direction Quincy lived in! There was so much you could get caught up in. Shortly after moving out there, I experienced my first 7.5 earthquake. I was living with my sister. I took my two boys and jumped in the bathtub. But that is what you do for tornadoes. She told me to get in the doorway but I said no, the bottom might drop out!”
“I spent six years in Los Angeles – learned that it is no place for a country girl. Everybody I met was with a record company or this or that. It was all a myth, a lie. I did not meet anyone who was able to get me somewhere. What I can say is I started singing in a club in Compton. That is where I met Peggy Scott-Adams (who had a major hit with the song “Bill” on Miss Butch Records). That lady can sing – and we are still friends today. So I did club stuff and worked a temp situation at Northrup Aircraft. It was so much more competitive in the clubs. The men hated to see you coming if you had a decent voice – and the women were even worse! It was a battle every day. I’d go to jams and not get called up. The song that carried me was “Neither One Of Us” by Gladys Knight. I got with a band and they refused to play my music right because they did not want me to outshine them.”
One experience still remains a vivid memory. Travis went to an audition for the remake of the Motown Marvelettes group. She saw an ad in the newspaper and headed out to the Beverley hills address. “The producer was from Memphis. I did the audition. He told me to turn around – and I’m wondering where this is going. Then he left and disappeared in the studio. I waited for a bit but my girlfriend and her husband were waiting for me. They gave me a ride as I didn’t have a car at the time. Finally I start going through the studio calling his name. He suddenly comes out of this room and I see three young ladies lined up against the wall naked. He tells me I made the audition, that I have a great voice and the right size. Then he says,” You know, in this business, you have to suck ****s to make it”.
“When I left Mississippi, my grandmother said that if I didn’t make it out there, you can always come back to church and sing free. She warned me not to stoop below my morals. That sticks to me to this day. It got shaky at times, so thank God I had two sisters out there who were well off.” In 1992, Travis sent her sons to live with their dad in Chicago when times got tough. Later she came to visit her ailing mother and, despite trepidation about Chicago, she relocated once again.
There was quite a disparity in the music scene in the two cities. In Mississippi and Los Angeles, Travis had been singing Top 40 and R&B tunes. Up to that point, she had limited exposure to blues music. She felt confident in her abilities and singing. She heard about many of the city’s blues clubs, but made a point to stay out of them because “Down Home Blues” was the only blues song she knew well enough to sing. Finally, she went with her brother to Lee’s Unleaded Blues. She got called up to sing with Scotty & the Rib-Tips, doing her signature Gladys Knight song. Afterward, Walter Scott told her to get over to the Kingston Mines, where she would be able to get a job.
“I started listening to blues artists – Koko Taylor, “Wang Dang Doodle,” Jimmy Reed, “Sweet Home Chicago,” and even “Proud Mary,” because that always got a reaction from the people. I would listen to the guys singing songs at Lee’s Unleaded and would write down the lyrics. Half the time the lyrics were wrong. People sang it wrong and I didn’t know any better. I didn’t bother to try to look up the lyrics somewhere. When I finally went to Kingston Mines, I sat in with Howard Scott & the World Band. As soon as I opened my mouth, the place went crazy, which is exactly what I envisioned happening. After I did two songs, the manager called me in the back and told me they wanted me to start next Tuesday”.
So Travis started hitting the clubs in earnest, trying to learn songs. She has always believed that the show is about her, not long guitar or drum solos. It is her name on the billboard, so she is committed to keeping the focus of her shows on her singing. She spent six years singing at the club, developing a reputation for being a tough, sassy blues vocalist. Through her friendship with Artie “Blues Boy” White, Travis got to meet Koko Taylor, the reigning Queen of Chicago blues. She was part of a big show in 1998 at Koko’s banquet hall with White and Ruby Andrews, with her mother there to videotape her performance. Tragedy struck when Travis’s mother was struck down by a massive aneurysm and heart attack.
Travis recalls, “After that, Koko took me on as a blues daughter. I learned so much from that lady, about the industry, musicians, and jealousy. Everything I experienced since, she had already warned me about what to expect, so it didn’t hit as hard as it would somebody who didn’t know”. She got her “Tiger” nickname from a friend who thought it fit the singer’s tough vocal style.
In 2009, after Koko had passed away, I was doing a gig when Pervis Spann, a well-known broadcaster and music promoter, came in with some friends.Stopping the show, Spann announced that he had given Koko her crown, and now he was crowning me the new Queen of the blues. No one ever really acknowledged that. I realize that it is not about a title. I am a queen either way. So I wrote the song “There’s Queen In Me” – “I have been around the world many times before, and there are great role models that opened many doors. But there is one thing you need to see – and that is there’s a Queen in me.” I’ve had some slick situations with the queen thing. Not once did I step up ask for it, except when I ran for it in high school. But it did cause me to write a nice song a ballad. I’m not a great dancer, so I really like ballads. That’s where the gospelness comes out in me. I sing from my soul with all my music, but there is something about a ballad that cause me to weep, the tears coming from my thanks for me getting as far as I have.”
While she has been a fixture on Chicago blues scene, Travis has also found great success in the southern soul blues genre, where most of the music is programmed instead of utilizing real, live musicians. Her eight albums veer back and forth between the two genres. She has done track shows in the southern states, where she is singing to an audience along with a recorded disc. But when it comes to the blues, Travis is adamant about what she wants. “Titles don’t make me no difference whatsoever. I can be classified like Prince – I am just an artist. I am totally an icon in the southern states, especially with my latest hit, “Mr. Sexy Man”. And I am old-school. My blues recordings use real musicians. There is nothing in this world like live musicians on an album. But I have an opportunity to show my versatility and I enjoy that.”
Visit Nellie’s website at: https://nellietigertravis.com/
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!