BOBBY LEE TRAMMELL
Born 31 January 1934, Jonesboro, Arkansas
In spite of his undeniable talent, Bobby Lee Trammell never had a major hit record. His problem was being a little too wild. If only his energies could have been channeled into a positive direction, he might have been a major player in the rock 'n' roll field.
Bobby was raised on a small cotton farm in Arkansas by parents who both played instruments. Music was his principal interest from an early age and when Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash played a nearby date in 1956, Bobby Lee was in the first row. Carl allowed him to sing with his band on stage and advised him to go and see Sam Phillips. Bobby travelled to Memphis with a demo tape of some songs he had written, but good ole Sam, being a busy man, didn't have time to attend to him properly. He told Bobby to keep rehearsing and to come back in two or three weeks. Being an impatient kid, Trammell was not prepared to wait (a decision he still regrets today) and instead headed off to the West Coast to seek his fortune there. He found work at the Ford Motor Assembly Plant in Longbeach, California, and later landed a job as a singer at the Jubilee Ballroom in Baldwin Park. It was there that he was spotted by veteran country promoter Fabor Robinson, who owned the Fabor, Abbott and Radio labels. At Fabor's studio in Hollywood, Bobby recorded his own compositions "Shirley Lee" and "I Sure Do Love You Baby" with just three instruments. He himself played rhythm guitar, accompanied by James Burton on lead guitar and James Kirkland on bass, both from Bob Luman's band. "Shirley Lee" was a very commercial piece of rock 'n' roll and started kicking off in Baltimore. The Fabor label did not have the financial muscle nor the distribution outlets to readily support a major hit, so "Shirley Lee" was leased to ABC Paramount, eventually selling a reported 250,000 but falling short of the major chart success that it deserved. Ricky Nelson covered the song on his second album. Ricky's father found Bobby too wild for the Ozzie and Harriet show, but asked him to write more songs for Ricky. Bobby told Ozzie Nelson he was too busy, another decision he regretted later when he saw how much money Johnny and Dorsey Burnette were making from their songs for Ricky Nelson.
In March 1958, Trammell recorded his (excellent) second single, "You Mostest Girl"/"Uh Oh", with a four-piece black harmony group, again produced by Fabor Robinson, who released it first on Fabor and then on Radio. (There was also a reissue on Skyla in 1961, credited to Bobby Lee.) Joe Maphis played on his third single, recorded in September 1958 : "My Susie J, My Susie Jane"/' "Should I Make Amends". But Bobby's records didn't sell. Almost from the start of his career, Trammell was getting into trouble with the authorities because of his exuberant performances which would often go too far, as he would intentionally incite his audience to the point where riots would break out with the consequent damage to auditoriums and problems from club owners and promoters. Robinson's contacts were mainly in country music and Bobby Lee was booked on the Louisiana Hayride, but shocked all concerned with his hip-shaking antics and was described by Tillman Franks as "downright vulgar - ten times worse than Elvis Presley". Bookings on the Hayride were cancelled and proposed appearances on the Grand Ole Opry never materialised.
Fabor Robinson never really got to grips with his wild rockabilly singer. Though he believed in Bobby's potential, he was probably a little too old to have any real chance of directing him properly. He retired in 1959 and sold Bobby's contract to Warrior Records, where he recorded another good single, "Open Up Your Heart"/ "Woe Is Me", but nothing happened. By now Bobby Lee was finding it hard to get bookings as a result of his earlier excesses, and he moved back home to Arkansas. Further recordings were made for a series of small labels, details of which can be found at Terry Gordon's website: http://rcs.law.emory.edu/rcs/artists/t/tram1000.htm
In the mid-sixties, Trammell billed himself as "The First American Beatle" and cut five singles for the Sims label. In 1972-73 he scored two minor country hits on the Souncot label. Of his later recordings, the best were a remake of "You Mostest Girl" for Capitol (1973) and "It's All Your Fault" for Sun International in 1977. Like many other rockabilly stars from the fifties, he was brought to Europe in the 1980s, to perform at the 1984 Rockhouse Festival in Eindhoven, Holland. Though he was clearly in poor physical shape, it was a wild and frantic show, which came to a sudden end when Trammell tried to jump on the piano. He landed awkwardly on top of the piano, wobbled, lost his balance and fell, breaking his wrist in the process. There was to be no new career in Europe. In a way, the event sums up Bobby's career. So much potential for so little reward. In the 1990s Trammell became a politician for the Democratic Party and was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1997.
CD : You Mostest Girl (Bear Family BCD 15887). 25 tracks from 1957-58 and 1963-77. Liner notes by Ian Wallis, which I have partly adapted for the above story. Another, less interesting CD (with only little overlap) is "Arkansas Twist" on Buffalo Bop 55153 (30 tracks).
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