Bobby Lee Trammell: Exhibitionist rock'n'roll singer

Saturday 08 March 2008 01:00 GMT

The rock'n'roll music of the 1950s encouraged exhibitionism but few could top Bobby Lee Trammell's performances. He was too eccentric for mass acceptance but singles such as "Shirley Lee" and "You Mostest Girl" are highly sought by collectors.

Trammell was born on a cotton farm in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1934 and, as both his parents played instruments, he became interested in making music. When he attended a Carl Perkins concert in 1957, Perkins let him sing with the band. He was impressed and told him to contact Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records in Memphis. Trammell went to Memphis but when Phillips told him that he should rehearse, Trammell became bored and moved to Los Angeles.

Working for the Ford Motor Company by day, Trammell played clubs by night and was signed to the Fabor label where he recorded his own song, the spirited "Shirley Lee". The record sold encouragingly and was released nationally. Ricky Nelson recorded the song as the opening track on his album Ricky Nelson (1958), and wanted Trammell to write for him but, typically, Trammell couldn't be bothered.

Trammell's second single, "You Mostest Girl" (1958) owed much to Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" and audiences loved it. Performing, Trammell became excessively wild and would even strip off. The country music songwriter and promoter Tillman Franks, described him as "downright vulgar, ten times worse than Elvis". He never appeared at the Grand Ole Opry as he couldn't be trusted. Appearing with Jerry Lee Lewis, he sabotaged the star's piano and, performing in a bar, he'd leap on the counter and kick off the glasses.

In 1960 Trammell recorded "Woe, Woe Is Me", written by another wild man, Dorsey Burnette. When the radio station KFWB refused to play it, Burnette persuaded Trammell to climb the radio tower and sing it from the top. The police tried to talk him down and he dropped his guitar into their midst. Whether it was accidental or not, Trammell was fined $250.

He wrote and performed songs for the twist craze, notably "Arkansas Twist" (1962). During the mid-1960s, he grew his hair and billed himself as "The First American Beatle". He then made the relatively sane country-rock Love Isn't Love, including maudlin songs about his mother. A single, "New Dance In France", with a frantic vocal and a dubbed audience had a cult following during the punk era and it was released on the album Jukebox At Eric's (1980).

In 1984 Trammell performed on a rockabilly festival at Eindhoven, Holland. Wanting to outshine the other performers, he wore a Superman outfit but when he jumped on a piano, he lost his balance and broke his wrist.

Outside of performing Trammell was a public-spirited man. He became a Democratic politician and was elected to the Arkansas House Of Representatives in 1997. His political friends asked him to perform but he thought it unwise as his other self might take over and ruin his new career.

Spencer Leigh

Bobby Lee Trammell, singer and politician: born Jonesboro, Arkansas 31 January 1934; Justice of the Peace, Craighead County Quorum Court 1995-1996, 2006-08; Member, Arkansas House of Representatives 1997-2002; (two daughters); died Jonesboro 20 February 2008.

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