Cult rockabilly figure Bobby Lee Trammell died at his home in Jonesboro, Arkansas on February 21st, aged 67.
He may never have had a hit, but Trammell had a recording career that lasted nearly 20 years beginning with his 1958 debut “Shirley Lee” (ABC-Paramount 9890). He is highly regarded by rockabilly aficionados. He was born in Jonesboro in 1940 and grew up on his parents’ cotton farm. In 1956 he took a demo reel to Sam Phillips at Sun. Phillips was busy at the time and advised Trammell to return later. Instead, the teenager decided to head out for California and try his luck there. He got a job at the Ford Motor Company in Long Beach, all the while trying to interest people in his music. Local owner of Fabor Records, Fabor Robison, signed him and Trammell’s composition “Shirley Lee” was taped, with guitarist James Burton and bassist James Kirkland helping out. Burton and Kirkland had played together in an act called the Shadows in the mid fifties (the group went on to become Ricky Nelson’s backing band). “Shirley Lee” was a big enough hit locally for ABC-Paramount to pick it up for national release. It sold well, but not well enough to chart and ABC didn’t pursue its interest in Trammell.
By 1958 the initial burst of excitement that rock and roll had brought was wearing thin. Ballads ruled the day and most of the raw spirit of the early years had been lost. Trammell didn’t do ballads. He did do raw. He was also gaining a reputation for being too wild for bookers to handle. Some shows ended in riots, and his stage antics led him being banned from the Louisiana Hayride for being “downright vulgar” . He had a committed following, but his records didn’t sell in any great quantities and he drifted from label to label – Radio, Warrior, Vaden, Skyla, Alley and Atlanta all released 45s by him between 1958 and 1962.
His bad-boy reputation led to him being more or less completely ostracised by all promoters, and he found it increasingly difficult to get bookings. Still more labels followed – Santo, Sims, Alpha and Hot were the next four to briefly handle him. In the seventies he had switched to country music with some limited success, but he returned to rockabilly the following decade to try and capitalise on the European rockabilly revival. In 1984 he was playing a show in Holland when he tried to jump on to the piano only to fall and break his wrist. It signalled the end of a long career littered with bad decisions and bad luck but never any lack of spirit and energy.
A final twist to Trammell’s story came in the nineties. The bad boy of rock and roll switched to politics and in 1997 he was elected to the Arkansas House Of Representatives on a Democratic Party ticket.