Cover photo © 2022 Joseph A. Rosen
Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy are the brightest lights among the blues’ older generation, but Travis “Moonchild” Haddix – an 83-year-old treasure who’s been working in their shadow since the late ‘50s — deserves his own place in the spotlight, too.
A man who’s used to playing in front of standing-room-only audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, Travis is a hit-maker of the first order. While a passionate, energetic entertainer in his own right, his immense contributions as a songwriter include Denise LaSalle’s sexually charged “Lick It Before You Stick It,” dozens of other releases for Chicago stalwarts Artie “Blues Boy” White, Son Seals, Jimmy Dawkins and Lee “Shot” Williams and Michael Burks and Chick Willis, too.
It’s quite an accomplishment for Haddix, the sixth of ten children born to sharecroppers Chalmus “Rooster” and Sylvia Haddix. He came into the world on Nov. 26, 1938, in the family’s log cabin in the middle of a cow pasture in Hatchie Bottom, Miss., and grew up in neighboring Walnut, a hamlet situated on the Tennessee border about 80 miles east of Memphis.
“I might not be kickin’ high, but I’m still kickin’,” Travis joked when Blues Blast caught up with him recently. A deeply religious man despite the salacious nature of some of his biggest hits, he’s always lived by the personal motto: “I am the best that I can be. And since no one else can be me, there’s none better!”
And making important contributions to the music world is a trait that runs in the family. Although he never recorded anything, Rooster Haddix, was a multi-instrumentalist Delta bluesman. Gifted on guitar, fiddle, piano and harmonica, he regularly played Saturday night fish fries along with his brothers after a long week toiling in the fields or at a sawmill when the crops in the fields were rain-soaked or fallow.
According to family legend, it was Rooster who taught country superstar Roy Acuff – a young fiddler himself — how to play guitar after befriending him during Haddix’s frequent trips to Tennessee, where he purchased whiskey and brought it back by the wagon load to bootleg it at home in what was then a dry state.
In Hatchie Bottom, Travis says, his family shared their land with a white family, the Wilbanks, and Travis and the Wilbanks’ daughters were the best of friends, playing together often – something uncommon in the Deep South during segregation and something, he suspects, that might have contributed to Walnut when he was seven or eight.
“We were sharecroppers, and we were nomadic,” he notes. “And when we moved, I thought I was in a big city because Walnut had a bus depot, a bank, a post office, Western Union…and a cotton gin, of course. We grew things to eat – fruit trees, too – but the main crop was cotton, and we had to make do with what we had because the money was always short.
“I was still too young to work in the fields back then, so my job was to take care of the younger siblings, tend the chickens and things like that.”
While Rooster was tending the crops, however, young Travis was making mischief in addition to watching over the kids.
“My dad kept his gitar under the bed,” he says. “While they worked the fields, I’d reach under the bed, grab it and start playin’. The only things that I could play were the big strings…E, A and D. We had a big Zenith radio at that time. In order to pick up the stations, we ran some baling wire out the window so we could tune in WLAC in Nashville and, later, WDIA in Memphis (which started broadcasting in 1947).”
Self-taught, Travis tried his best to play along to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and others whenever their tunes filled the air.
“One day,” he remembers, “I didn’t realize that Rooster was standin’ right behind me. I don’t know for how long, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to have that gitar! I was waiting for my beating – but, surprisingly, Rooster said: ‘Boy, I didn’t know you could play that thing…but you gotta learn how to play all the strings! Let me show you…’”
Taught the G, D and C chords that afternoon, Travis gradually discovered that his new skills enabled him to take a deeper dive into the blues and accompany Jimmy Reed, Joe Hill Louis – and a little country-and-western, too.
While writers through the years have stated that he started out as a piano player, Haddix insists it’s far from the truth. “My older sister was takin’ lessons,” he says. “And when she was through, they’d let me bang around on the piano. About all I could ever do was a one-finger boogie!”
And while Rooster taught him the fundamentals, B.B. King has always been a major influence – something that began in childhood, too. He was only eight or nine when his elder brother Al — who preceded George Benson as jazz organist Brother Jack McDuff’s guitarist took him along to the WDIA studios, where B.B. was hosting a 10-minute show and playing his guitar every day.
Sponsored by Pep-Ti-Kon, which was billed as an “elixir” but had a high alcohol content, the show proved so popular that it eventually filled an expanded time slot and was rebranded Sepia Swing Club. “Pep-Ti-Kon sure is good – you can get it anywhere in the neighborhood,” Haddix chuckles, reciting the commercial jingle credited with helping King land the job on the air that launched his incredibly successful career.
“When I saw him, all of the chords my dad had taught me and everything else was pushed to the side,” Haddix recalls. All I wanted to do now was bend some strings! And meeting him for the first time later on was so exciting, I can’t put it into words.”
Too young to master the skill, he kept on practicing at it until he could. Perseverance is the key to success for any would-be guitarist, he insists, stressing the importance of never losing sight of whatever you’re trying to achieve – advice he tempers with the recommendation: But don’t give up your day job because making ends meet isn’t easy either.
Influenced by Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, Little Milton and Buddy Guy, Haddix gradually tried to fuse what he learned into a style all his own – something that he admits now probably didn’t happen because a lot of folks compare his attack to B.B. today.
Now old enough for backbreaking work beside his dad, Travis only attended school when it wasn’t possible to tend the fields through his teen years, but he was dead set about getting an education – something he managed to achieve thanks to an understanding principal who prepared homework for him on a regular basis and sent it home with his younger siblings at the end of their day.
“I always thought growin’ up that there were better places to go and better things to do than sharecropping,” he says, “so I lit out as soon as I could” – uprooting himself to join Al in Milwaukee, Wis., where he was now based.
Growing up in a large family in such hardscrabble conditions, all of the Haddix children grew up with a strong desire to better themselves – something that’s resulted in success in several fields, including music, law, government service and sports. One nephew, Michael Haddix, was a first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles and played with the Green Bay Packers. Another, Wayne Haddix, was a corner back with the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals.
Sports appealed to young Travis, too.
“I always thought growin’ up that I was a pretty good basketball player because of my long legs and long arms,” he remembers. “I wasn’t exactly (Philadelphia 76s Hall of Fame guard) Hal Greer (chuckles), but I could handle myself pretty good. We never won a lot of games, but I always thought it was the other guys’ fault.”
Haddix enrolled into Marquette University and attempted to walk on to what was even then one of the most successful programs in college history, but dropped out after a hot minute during his first semester, quickly coming to terms with the fact that “my basketball prowess was sorta self-claimed. In retrospect, though,” Haddix says, “if I’d been a basketball player, my career would have been over 50 years ago. But I’m glad things turned out the way they did ‘cause I’m still playin’ the gitar today!
“And Milwaukee was so-o-o cold, I couldn’t even think straight. Not knowin’ any different, I had an aunt and uncle livin’ in Cleveland and decided to move there in 1959.”
Enrolled in Cuyahoga Community College, he subsequently earned an associate degree in industrial management, something that would come in handy while building a musical career and also paying for his daughters’ college schooling. He spent 22 years working for General Motors and 22 more delivering parcel post for the USPS during the day, half of the time working the other job, too.
Travis’ music career kicked into gear when he was drafted into the Army in 1961 soon after receiving his diploma. He started working with his rhythm guitarist, fellow Clevelander Charlie Favors, while still Stateside during basic training. Stationed in Stuttgart, West Germany, they entertained at the large number of service clubs that dotted the region at the time and landed occasional gigs in local blues clubs, too.
“We had a choice,” Haddix remembers, “we could either play and entertain or we could do guard duty. We chose to play!”
Their partnership was interrupted when Favors was transferred to another base along with his unit but resumed — and lasted for decades — after they met up again after they returned to the U.S. and were stationed to the same base in New York.
Back home in the 216 area code after their discharge, the two hooked up with bassist Chuck Barkley and spent six years as members of his ensemble, Chuck & the Tremblers. Travis was on the mic on their only 45, “Stop Cheating Woman,” a Haddix original backed by an instrumental. Recorded in 1965, it debuted three years later on the Del-Nita imprint.
“That was an unexplainable experience,” he says today. “I had a record out, and I was at the top of the world!”
But it took almost two decades before he appeared on vinyl again, this time as a member of Ernest & the El Roccos. An R&B group led by bassist Ernest Good, they recorded as Ernest & D.L. Rocco, they released two Del-Nita 45s. The Haddix original, “Moon Child,” was backed with “Count Terry Devine” and featured his soaring guitar solo. “Billy’s Bagg”/”How to Keep Your Man” soon followed.
It was during that era that bandmates branded him with the Moonchild nickname he still goes by today. “Every time I played back then,” he says, “I always had a big smile whether things were good or bad, and the guys in the band started callin’ me ‘Moonshine,’ ‘Moon Dust,’ ‘Moonchild’ – and it sorta stuck!”
Known for his sunny disposition, sexually charged stage act and original material that echoed the Stax-Volt tradition of his youth, Haddix enlisted members of both his old bands in the late ‘80s and launched his first group, The Now Sound, performing regularly at Plush Entertainment Center, then one of the top venues in the city.
Things went south one night when they were slated to open for soul-blues giant Johnnie Taylor.
“Johnnie come to Cleveland, and he didn’t have a band,” Travis remembers. “So somebody said: ‘The Moondog got a goodun. He can back you’ – and we did!
“When we got through at the end of the night, he asked all of us to be his road band. All the other guys left, and stayed with him for a long time. But I couldn’t leave. My daughters were small.”
Undeterred by the setback, the guitarist quickly formed the first iteration of the Travis Haddix Band soon after, continuing to build a name for himself performing with a traditional but contemporary approach and as a songwriter, too.
For years, Haddix kept sending out demos to labels, hoping someone would pick up a tune and record it. He finally hit pay dirt with the postal-themed “Lick It Before You Stick It” – but only after Denise LaSalle and her Ordena Records initially rejected it. With lyrics that included the lines: “You are making her feeling good/but you can make her feel better/if you treat your lady like a stamp on a letter,” the song appeared too raunchy to air.
“Then one day, I turned on the radio,” he says, “and Denise was singin’ it on the air.”
Haddix has been making waves on a regular basis since 1988, when Artie “Blues Boy” White, one of the most beloved blues artists on Chicago’s South Side, went into the studio and covered “I Dig My Gig” for his Where It’s At album on Ichiban, the Atlanta-based label whose star-studded roster included Millie Jackson, Clarence Carter, Barbara Lynn, Tyrone Davis, Little Johnny Taylor of “Down Home Blues” fame, Buster Benton, Gary “B.B.” Coleman, Chick Willis, Raful Neal, Theodis Ealey and others.
Until Artie’s passing in 2013, Travis furnished him with dozens of soulful numbers, including “Jodie,” “Man of the House,” “Turn About Is Fair Play,” “Not in the Begging Business,” “Mr. Mailman” and more. And shortly after their initial success together, White lent a helping hand as Travis – at age 50 – signed with Ichiban, too.
Haddix inked his contract late in ’88 and debuted quickly with the album Wrong Side Out. Two more well-received discs — Winners Never Quit in ’91 and What I Know Right Now in ’92 – followed before Travis finally called it quits on both his night and day job and he produced Big Ole Goodun, earning awards on both sides of the Atlantic for stylish efforts with plenty of pop appeal.
When Ichiban was going well, good times were plentiful. All of the soul-blues greats on the label used to sit around a bullpen, competing with each other to figure out who could write the most risqué number. Considering that Haddix was going head-to-head with Carter’s “Strokin’,” Willis’ “Stoop Down Baby,” Ealey’s “Stand Up in It” and more, his “Two Heads Are Better Than One” was facing some pretty stiff competition.
“The one that won our little bet was B.B. Coleman with ‘Uncle Bud,’” Travis remembers. Consisting of nine or ten profanity-filled verses, it describes the life of a no-good wife-stealer who kills ten of his own wives through his lovemaking and then tries to do the same to Satan when he dies and goes to Hell. Check out the lyrics online and you’ll understand why he deserved the honor.
Back then, as now, Travis notes, “my biggest sales come from overseas because I travel there a lot. Ichiban sent me to Europe for the first time in ’91 or ’92 when I was still workin’ for the post office.
Travis always maintained a deep interest in the business side of the music industry, something that came in handy in the mid-‘90s when Ichiban’s business started to fail despite being in the enviable position of being the chief rival to the powerhouse operation Malaco was running in Mississippi.
Today as in the past, he notes, “I got back from Switzerland one time and had a letter of removal waiting for me because I’d overstayed my time. So they fired me. But I’m a veteran, I had an impeccable record with the post office – and they had to hire me back…and pay me for the year I was off!
“It was the most money I ever had in my life. I took it, went to a dealership and bought me a big conversion van with a TV and VCR that I toured in it for years. We played in a lot of little clubs…juke joints…holes-in-the wall. We were playin’ in one of ‘em, and somebody started a fight…shooting. Charlie and I left our guitars, ran out to the parking lot and stooped behind a car.
“When the shooting stopped, things were so fast and furious, somebody had already driven the car away. We were stooping down in the middle of the parking lot behind absolutely nothing! We laughed about that until Charlie passed away of COVID a couple of years ago. But at that particular time, it wasn’t all that funny.”
Travis had started in childhood on his dad’s Stella acoustic and graduated to a Harmony before turning to a Gibson 335. He’s been using the same 1965 Guild Starfire since the mid-‘60s after acquiring it from a cousin who suggested they give each other’s axe a try. Haddix handed over his Gibson but never saw it again, believing someone in the family either broke or pawned it.
Like B.B., Albert King and Elvin Bishop, Travis has named his six-string, too. “I call mine My Lady,” he says. “The gitar is a beautiful instrument, and most of the gitars – except the Flying V – are very shapely – just like My Lady. And, just like my lady, it won’t do nothin’ I want it to do!
“I always get a big laugh when I tell that to an audience.”
And even before losing his 335, he already had an affection for Guilds after having seen Robert Jr. Lockwood, a fellow Clevelander, playing one earlier that year.
Lockwood eventually became a longtime, revered friend, Haddix says with deep affection. “I used to go down to his house to play checkers with him, too. And I never could beat him. Sometimes he let me win so I’d keep playin’.
“I kinda adopted Robert as my father. He taught me a lot of things. He never could teach me how to play the Robert Johnson style of music or the music that he played. He tried to teach me the chords he made, but I never could do that, and I could never do the bottleneck either. I made a mess outta it.
“But he did give me plenty of insight on what I should do as an artist. If he came in a club where I was playin’, I always tried to play my best because Robert would walk up to the stage and tell me right there: (paraphrasing) If you’re not gonna play with any conviction, you oughta get off the stage.
Lockwood’s true words were far more harsh, he insists, because his language was far more “colorful.”
Travis always maintained a deep interest in the business side of the music industry, something that came in handy in the early ‘90s when Ichiban’s business started to fail.
“Even with the limited experience I had,” he remembers, “I could see that it was going belly-up.”
Not wanting to go down with the ship, he launched Wann-Sonn Records — which incorporated the names of two of his three daughters, Wanda and Sonya – and Haddix Publishing Company in 1995, releasing the CD, Dance to the Blues, four years prior to Ichiban finally going into bankruptcy.
“There’s an advantage and a disadvantage of doing what I did,” he notes. “The advantage is: You’re the boss. And the disadvantage is that…you’re the boss, too! (chuckles) There’s no middleman if somethin’ goes wrong. You don’t have nobody’s shoulder to cry on.”
That said, he’s released 14 of his own CDs on the label — most recently Texas Toothpick in 2019 – and others by Charles Wilson – Little Milton’s nephew, Michael Calhoun of Dazz Band fame, Howard Robinson of the Howard Street Blues Band and one by his goddaughter, Dee Dee Franklin, too.
For years, he also hosted a regular Monday-night radio show on Cleveland’s WCSB-FM, and he also penned a book, Caught in the Middle, which is chockful of musical memoirs. In addition to working many of the biggest nightspots across the U.S. and prior to his wife Essie Mae’s sudden passing in 2015, Travis performed frequently in Hawaii and across Europe, often tying in tours with romantic getaways.
“She loved goin’ to Hawaii and Switzerland, too. As fast as I made the money, she spent it,” he says wistfully, adding: “When you lose a loved one, you live with it but you never get over it. I continued to tour and continued to make records to get my mind off of it.”
Today, with long flights and all the protocols travelers and delays people having been having to deal with because of COVID and after experiencing health problems of his own in recent years, Haddix is a little gun shy about flying. But he’d just returned from a trip to Las Vegas – where he walked his sister down the aisle to celebrate her 50th anniversary – when we spoke.
“Right now, flying’s no fun anymore,” he admits. “Maybe I’ll change my mind…I dunno.”
Fortunately, however, fans can rejoice because he has started playing out locally recently now that the pandemic has slowly released its grasp on the globe. His next booking is slated for Nov. 27 at The Music Box in Cleveland. And his next CD is also slowly taking shape. One thing he knows for sure, he says, is that it’s going to include “Why Did Jesus Have to Die,” a gospel tune that’s become a favorite when he’s performed it with the musicians and choir at Open Door Missionary Baptist Church, where he’s a member.
If anyone objects to him mixing blues and spirituals in his shows, he cites the scriptures for proof that even in olden days, it was okay. “In the Bible, David instructed the leaders of the Levites to bring their musical instruments and to play some happy music,” he insists, “not ‘we’re gonna play some blues’ or ‘we’re gonna play some gospel’ – just ‘happy music.’
“This old cliché about the blues bein’ the Devil’s music…I hope that’s over and done with! Because our society has a tendency to label everything…blues, jazz, contemporary, country-and-western… But back in the olden days, all of the music was happy!”
It’s a pretty good bet that Travis will remain true-to-form with the disc, mixing his usual blend of salacious secular material with a smidgen of spiritual healing. And he says another good listen will be “Beauty in a Brush Pile,” which states that you can find something good in even the most unlikely places if you look close enough.
Check out Travis’ music and find out where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.travishaddix.com