If Bobby Lee Trammell never became as well known as Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard, it wasn't for lack of trying. In a time when Elvis was tamed and Jerry Lee was on the outs, Trammell kept gyrating shamelessly and doing loud, raw rock & roll and staying away from ballads. Born in the early '40s, he was one of four children of Wiley and Mae Trammell, who owned a cotton farm near Jonesboro, AR. He came by his musical ability naturally -- his father had played the fiddle professionally and his mother was the organist at the local church. He was drawn not only to the music of the church, however, but also to country music, and he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio religiously; more than that, he had an interest in black gospel music, and occasionally sneaked out to the local black Pentecostal church, to watch and listen to their music and dancing. Trammell was playing country music in high school and aspiring to a singing career, but that remained a far-off dream until one day when Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins performed locally, and he was permitted by Perkins to sing a song with the band, and then advised Trammell to pay a call on Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
His contact with Phillips was very brief, owing to what Trammell himself freely admitted --in an interview with Ian Wallis -- was his own immaturity. He ended up heading west and taking a job at the Ford plant in Long Beach, CA, and was still trying to get signed when he attended a carnival where Bobby Bare was performing. He managed to convince Bare to let him on-stage to sing a couple of numbers, where he showed off a gyrating style that was in the same league with the early Elvis Presley. He was seen by Lefty Frizzell, who invited him to try out for a performing venue called the Jubilee Ballroom in Baldwin Park, CA, where he won the opening spot on a bill that included Frizzell, Freddie Hart, and Johnny Cash. He earned a regular spot at the ballroom, and was soon building up a following among the teenage listeners in the basically country-oriented crowd, for a whopping 75 dollars a week. One of the people who saw him there was Malibu-based manager Fabor Robison, who offered Trammell the chance at a recording career.
Within two months, in November of 1957, he cut a single, "Shirley Lee" b/w "I Sure Do Love You, Baby" -- both originals -- at Robison's home studio backed by James Burton and James Kirkland -- then both in Bob Luman's band -- on guitar and bass, respectively. The record, on Robison's own Fabor label, did well enough to attract the attention of a nationally distributed company, ABC Paramount, which leased the master from Robison. Without ever making a major impact on the charts, "Shirley Lee" sold almost a quarter of a million copies by some reports, and also entered the repertory of another new, young West Coast-based rock & roller named Ricky Nelson. Trammell was also invited to audition for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett, but was rejected for being too hard a rock & roller -- and then, in his youth and naivety, he also blew off a suggestion that Nelson would seriously look at recording any new songs that he wrote, thus letting tens, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties (a concept totally alien to him at the time) slip out of his reach.
He also very nearly lost his recording contract over the abortive first session for his second single -- another original -- entitled "You Mostest Girl." Robison had initially booked an orchestra and chorus, and when Trammell proved unable to sing with that kind of backup in a decidedly non-rock & roll vein, they nearly called it quits. Luckily, Robison recognized his error and soon let Trammell cut the song his way, with a five-piece band behind him. Unfortunately, neither this nor a third single, "My Susie J -- My Susie Jane," managed to chart. Following Robison's retirement in 1959, he was left on a small label called Warrior, to which his contract had been sold. By then, however, he'd pretty much washed himself up in California and on the West Coast country circuit, mostly because of the intensity of his performances and his own immaturity. Whereas Elvis Presley had always been shocked and even a little fearful of the reactions to his hip gyrations, and downright cautious in his attitude, Trammell devoured the screams of the crowds as he engaged in motions that one country promoter found many times more suggestive than Elvis in his early days; he also liked to build up the crowd reaction, tearing off his clothes, jumping on top of the piano, and generally inciting the crowds, all of this at a time when promoters and authorities were trying to quiet rock & roll down. All of that, plus a practical joke and protest that went awry -- leaving Trammell hanging from a collapsing broadcast tower, to be rescued by the police -- left him unemployable in California.
Soon he was back in Arkansas and managed to burn out his reputation there as well, engaging in a rivalry with Jerry Lee Lewis -- then in eclipse as a rock & roll star and trying to re-establish himself as a country musician -- that resulted in his vandalizing the piano that Lewis was to play. By 1960, no clubs would book him and no DJs would play the records that he made for an ever-tinier regional labels, down to the point where he was recording himself and distributing out of the back of his car. According to interview with Wallis, he also turned down the efforts to license his songs, by major labels such as Warner Bros. -- then a new outfit and hungry for talent -- Columbia, and Dot (which, as the home of Pat Boone, would have been a funny fit). When the British Invasion hit, he grew his hair long and continued to run against the grain -- especially in Nashville -- cutting good, bold rock & roll, mostly for the Sims label, even recording sides with a soul flavor. Finally, in the 1970s, Trammell moved into country music and spent most of that decade playing and recording in that vein, with good enough results that he kept eating. In the 1980s, Trammell tried to get in on the European rock & roll revival, which was in full swing and giving artists such as the surviving members of Bill Haley's Comets their best paydays in decades, but it was a failed effort. He has since left music, so far as is known, having finally been forced into a "day job" in his fifties. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi