NELLIE TRAVIS, THE TIGER QUEEN: LOOKIN’ GOOD, SINGING GOOD
by Aaron Porter
Since the passing of Koko Taylor, there are few Blues women who you could say have the guts and talent to take up the mantle of Queen of the Blues, but I’m sure most people would agree that with a nickname like “The Tiger”, Nellie Travis is the one to do it. Complete with the history and roots that make most great Blues artists what they are today, Nellie has established herself as a tough as nails, wise, but gentle songstress that the Blues community desperately needs now more than ever. After speaking with Nellie and watching her cool demeanor give way to reveal a sweet, kind hearted woman, there was little doubt left in my mind what her future holds. Ladies and gentleman, Nellie “The Tiger” Travis, Queen of the Blues.
Bluesletter: You grew up in the Mississippi, right? Down in the Delta?
Nellie”The Tiger” Travis: Yes. I was born and raised in the Delta.
BL: Is that where you got started singing?
BL: The blues, it seems, influences every genre of music. So, do you still have the gospel and a little bit of country influence in your music now?
NT: Somewhat, yes, somewhat I do. I have a lot of people tell me that when I do an Etta James song or someone, they will say, “Wow! Did you start singing in church?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” So there’s something in there that a lot of people hear of it.
BL: How long have you been singing the blues?
NT: Roughly for about 23, 24 years.
BL: That’s a hell of a career. Have you been performing at Buddy Guy’s Legends since they opened?
NT: Yeah I have performed here several times since they opened and numerous times at the old club. I was just here in December. This is one of my spots away from my spot. I love this place.
BL: Where did you get the nickname, “Tiger”?
NT: Well, I got that name from my cousin. We were actually sitting out at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted one night, shortly after I came to Chicago – about 5 or 6 years after I moved here – and I was like, everybody’s got their own names. I was hearing about how everybody got their middle names and I was like, “We need to come up with another name for me,” and so me and some other people were sitting there and I said, “How bout Angel?” and they said, “That doesn’t fit you, no!” So somebody else said something, and then he said just out of the blue, “I got it! Tiger.” And instantly it rang a bell. And the rest is history.
BL: It’s been said that the blues can be a fairly competitive business. Do you have any thoughts on that?
NT: Competitive? It’s only competitive if people make it competitive. For me, I don’t compete. We are all in this thing together and we all pull together. Those that think it’s competitive – it’s competitive for them, but for me, not. I’m solid with who I am. If Patti LaBelle was on stage singing, Nellie could get right up there and sing just like she did. There could only be 3 people in the club. I sing in clubs where there are 1,000 people or more, because that’s me. A lot of musicians will be like, “Well there ain’t nobody in here, I ain’t got to sing hard.” Well that’s not what I do. [pullquote]I get out there and sing to 2 people like I would to 2 million.[/pullquote] But again, it’s only competitive for people that make it competitive, but it’s not a competitive business. Financially it is(competitive), but not vocally.
BL: If you want to make in the business you don’t really get to be just an artist; you have to be a business person as well in order to not only protect yourself, but to further yourself.
NT: Exactly. To advance in the business.
BL: That’s good. Are there any artists currently alive that you find inspirational? Do you particularly enjoy their music or do they inspire you to either perform better, or do they help your game? Anything like that?
NT: Well a lot of them I’ve gotten into are not alive, but Etta James is a person I listen to. I like her style and she’s a hot mama.
BL: I like that, a hot mama. You were recently given the title of the New Queen of the Blues. What are your plans looking towards the future?
NT: I want to state a little bit about that before answering the question. On November 22, 2009, I was crowned the New Queen of the Blues by Pervis Spann the Blues Man. Pervis Spann is an icon, a 40 year icon in the business. He brought big acts like the Jacksons, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King; but he’s also crowned several people – 7 people. I’m the 7th person he’s crowned. He gave Koko Taylor the name – Queen of the Blues; B.B. King – King of the Blues; Tyrone Davis – Wonder Boy, so he’s pretty credible. I don’t want people to think that I just decided to say that, ok – I’m the New Queen of the Blues, because it works like that for some people but not for me. However, my influence is Koko Taylor. I actually wrote a song that’s on the new album entitled, “Koko, the Queen of the Blues” and it is solely dedicated to her. Koko was my mentor, my mom, and my friend. As a matter of fact, this year will make 11 years that I was singing at Koko Taylor’s Banquet Hall, New Year’s eve, 11 years ago; and my mother was videotaping me and she fell dead at my feet, and Koko took me on as a child – as one of hers. So we had a chance to talk about lot of stuff, but I wrote this song in dedication for her; because I know she left a spot in this world for me to fill, and that is to be the Queen. Did I know I was going to get the title? No, but I’m happy that I got it and I’m gonna wear it well and am going to push it to the best of my knowledge.
BL: You spoke about your new album that’s coming out very soon. Do you have a record release party planned?
NT: Yes, March 15th is the release party here at Buddy Guy’s.
BL: Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
NT: Yes, my favorite song is, “Born in Mississippi.” I wrote that song. Actually, I wrote 6 of the songs on the album. I started to write two years ago. (Nellie sings) “I was born in Mississippi, lived on Highway 61. I was born in Mississippi, lived on Highway 61. There’s a place they call the Delta. Baby, we can have some fun.” That’s my favorite one on there. It’s more my favorite because I wrote it and also because I feel it.
BL: Can I tell you when you sing, sometimes I just wanna hug ya?
NT: That’s cool.
BL: You probably get that a lot.
NT: Oh yeah.
BL: Do you have a favorite song from any of your other albums?
NT: Yeah, actually on my very first album I wrote a song called, “I Got Amnesia.” I was inspired, I was in Europe. I had come down a mountain and to see the streets were so narrow that one car had to wait and let the others pass the only thing on the side was the deep blue sea with no sides or nothing. So, I got really afraid, so coming back up the mountain I just laid on the back seat and I just started humming this song. When I got back I recorded it and then I laid it, and it’s called, “I Got Amnesia.”
BL: Wow. That’s appeared on more than one of your albums, right?
NT: Yes, as a matter of fact, it’s my signature song and I pretty much put it on every album that I have recorded.
NT: And it’s called, (Nellie sings), “I got amnesia.”
BL: It’s that personal to you?
NT: Right. It’s more or less talking about saying that my man is leaving me home – we’re living way out somewhere, and he goes away and he stays gone. And one day I get lonely and decide to call a friend of mine and the friend came to my rescue. So whenever my man come home, I’m gonna act like I fell and bumped my head like I got amnesia, cause I don’t want to know who he is anymore.
BL: You said you wrote 6 of the songs on your new album?
BL: In the blues industry, it’s pretty common for songs to be recycled. Do you think it’s important for an artist to write their own music?
NT: It’s very important for an artist to write their own music. That’s why I felt so strongly about writing mine because I have read stories of past entertainers, past recording artists that do not own their music, they don’t own the rights – they have no rights to the songs because they didn’t write them. [pullquote]It’s important to write your own stuff because it gets money for you in the future.[/pullquote] Because if you write this song and you get this song published, or whoever gets the song published – that’s who gets paid for it and who gets to say what is done with that song. So, it’s important to write your stuff, get your stuff copy-written and put it in a production company under your name where you will have control of it at all time. Because just like we were saying(with the song) “Mustang Sally.” If somebody can take “I Got Amnesia” or “Born in Mississippi” and make it a bigger hit than it’s going to be, then hallelujah. That means money in the bank for me.
BL: Like we were saying, it’s important because writing music or anything artistic like this, it’s no different than a Mona Lisa or a van Gogh or a Picasso. It’s all art and it’s all important. Yes, the money thing is a little sticky, but…anybody that says they don’t need money to live is a liar.
NT: Right. Well, the thing is, having something on the record. You know, you live longer when you die as long as you have music, because music never stops. But you want it to still benefit your family as it did when you were living.
BL: You have to protect yourself, and you have to protect your family.
BL: And taking care of them in the future is a way of getting that done.
BL: Have you performed anywhere recently that you would say is not your typical Chicago scene?
NT: Yes, actually in July of 2010 I went to Japan, and I had been to Japan before, but this particular time we went to a city called, Aomori and it was totally different from other parts of Japan. It was unbelievable, the people were so warm – I mean they just had so much love for me, you know. I tend to do this Etta James song and for some reason it brought tears to a lot of their eyes. You could just look out and see the crowd and it just gave so much feeling to me and did something to my heart. Because one thing that I learned about people that are not from the States, they just learn to accept it…you know, they have a lot more respect for your craft than your own kind do here.
NT: That was one of the places, and as a matter of fact, I played in Japan before in 2000 when I did my very first album, I Got It Like That, it was actually the first honor that I ever had of performing on the same stage as Buddy Guy. Then after I did my performance, he called me out with him. It was a great deal.
BL: Awesome. You were saying that there is such a huge following of the blues over in Japan, and it’s not really quite the same here in the states; and that’s one of the things that blues artists struggle with is the recognition of their talent, with the amount of work that they put into what they’re doing. Have you had any experience with this? What accolades have you received other than, of course, being dubbed the New Queen of the Blues, which is huge.
NT: Well, it’s a hard business to be in when you don’t have anyone that’s in higher power to push you; but, I’ve been pushin’, pushin’, pushin’ every year and I’m still pushin’, and I think there’s just a little bit of gap in between what needs to be closed up to complete everything that I’m trying to do for myself as far as pushin’ being the Queen. With the new title, it’s just pushing me more, you know, making me go on and do this because I’m sure this is what Koko would have wanted me to do. [pullquote]Now, Koko has big shoes to fill. I don’t mean literally from her feet, but just as big as the world. [/pullquote] And, like the song said, “it would take a lifetime to fill her shoes.” You can’t fill them, but actually what I can do, I can walk behind her and get my own shoes set up, you know what I mean? I can walk behind her, because those are some shoes you could never fill. But, with all the advice that she gave me, and everything that I listened to her about, there are shoes for me to fill and they will be mine.
BL: Beautiful. What, in particular, do you feel draws fans to you as opposed to other artists?
NT: First would be my sound, the way I sing. Secondly would be the way I perform, and the third would be my fans. I say that because I take pride in my fans, and I do a one-on-one with my fans and try to keep certain bases with them. You know, where they know that I’m concerned about how they’re concerned about me. As far as them supporting me and everything, I don’t have a problem with that. I have a following, I have women following in the south from certain records that I do, which is totally amazing. But, I go out there with my fans on my mind, you know, of going out and making them happy. I walk out on that stage with my concern on them, not even when I should be sometimes concerned about musicians, but that’s not my concern. Because, what’s coming out of here, is what’s going out there. A lot of times they hear the music, and a lot of times there’s musicians that hear the music; but a lot of people out there, they’re here – they come and focus on me. That’s why a lot of gigs I do, a lot of times at certain places I play they’ll want you to play X amount of time or you can just go and do your thing. So, I try to go out as much as I can because if my name is on the billboard, then I should be the one singing.
NT: But my main focus is always on my fans, and what sets me aside from other blues artists, is the fact that – my whole deal is that I look good, I sing good. I don’t have the blues, but I’m here to give you the blues.”