Bobby Lee Trammell (1934–2008)
Bobby Lee Trammell was known as a boisterous performer of boogie-woogie-flavored rockabilly music with such songs as “Arkansas Twist” and “You Mostest Girl.” He was later elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives and the Craighead County Quorum Court. Trammell’s high-energy music has been compared to that of fellow Arkansan Sonny Burgess, while his onstage antics drew comparisons to Jerry Lee Lewis.
Bobby Lee Trammell was born on January 31, 1934, in Hergett, a small unincorporated community in Craighead County near Jonesboro. He was one of four children born to Wiley and Mae Trammell, who were cotton farmers. His parents were also musicians, with his father playing fiddle and his mother playing the church organ. Trammell was exposed to gospel music at his Pentecostal church and was occasionally able to hear the high-energy gospel music at a local African-American church.
At Nettleton High School, Trammell played the kind of country music he heard on the radio on the Grand Ole Opry show. In 1956, musician Carl Perkins appeared at Nettleton High School; he allowed Trammell to come onstage and sing a song. Perkins was impressed enough to encourage Trammell to go see Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Bringing his demo tape, Trammell saw Phillips, who encouraged the young man to keep practicing and come back in a few weeks.
Instead, in a decision Trammell later said he regretted, he headed to California to seek his fortune. He worked at a Ford Motor assembly plant in Long Beach, California, before finding a singing job at the Jubilee Ballroom in Baldwin Park, where he was spotted by country music promoter Fabor Robinson. Trammell recorded his own compositions, “Shirley Lee” and “I Sure Do Love You Baby,” at Robinson’s studio in Hollywood, though they did not become hits. However, “Shirley Lee” was performed by pop star Ricky Nelson on the album Ricky Nelson, released in 1958. Nelson asked Trammell to write more songs for him to record, but Trammell declined, another decision he later said he regretted.
Trammell gained a reputation for wild antics, both on and off stage, including climbing a radio broadcast tower, swinging from the rafters while performing, destroying Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano before a show, riding shirtless on the shoulders of his bass player in the middle of a song, and climbing on the television cameras during a live performance of George Klein’s Top Ten Dance Party on WHBQ-TV in Memphis; he was never invited back.
Trammell moved to various record labels, where he enjoyed some regional success but never gained hit status. In the 1960s, Trammell grew his hair long and billed himself as “The First American Beatle.” That career move did not grant him the kind of fame enjoyed by the English band.
In the 1970s, Trammell played country music but never appeared at the Grand Ole Opry due to his reputation as a difficult performer. During the punk era of the early 1980s, Trammell found a cult following with the single “New Dance in France” and, later that decade, found some success in Europe during the rockabilly revival there. In 1984, he performed at a rockabilly festival in Holland, where he wore a Superman outfit and jumped on a piano. However, he lost his balance, fell, and broke his wrist.
In the 1990s, Trammell revitalized his political aspirations, which had begun in 1968 when he ran unsuccessfully against an incumbent Craighead County sheriff. Trammell was elected to serve as a justice of the peace on the Craighead County Quorum Court in 1995–1996. He would return to the Quorum Court from 2006 to 2008.
In 1997, running as a Democrat and listing his occupation as land developer, Trammell was elected state representative for northeastern Arkansas’s District 88. He served in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1997 to 2002. During that time, political friends occasionally asked him to perform his music, but he regularly declined.
In the Arkansas General Assembly, Trammell attempted to address the growing problem of methamphetamine production and use in northeastern Arkansas. He was the primary sponsor of HB1004, the “Arkansas Methamphetamine Lab Act of 1999,” which provided for strict penalties for those found guilty of manufacturing the drug. In the House of Representatives, he served as chair of the Public Health Labor and Environment Subcommittee and vice chair of the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee; he also served on the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs and Legislative Audit-State Agencies committees, as well as the Constitutional Issues Subcommittee. He was an ex officio member of the Agriculture and Economic Development Committee and held non-voting status on Legislative Council Alternates. In 2002, he sought a seat in the Arkansas Senate but was defeated by Jerry Bookout.
Trammell, who was the father of two daughters, died in Jonesboro on February 20, 2008. His family told the Jonesboro Sun newspaper that Trammell loved his music but was most proud of his service as state representative.
For additional information:
Cochran, Robert. Our Own Sweet Sounds: A Celebration of Popular Music in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005.
Hurd, Coy. “Bobby Lee Trammell, Rockabilly Wild Man, Mr. Arkansas Twist, State Legislator.” The Free Weekly, April 24, 2008. http://www.freeweekly.com/2008/04/24/bobby-lee-trammell-rockabilly-wild-man-mr-arkansas-twist-state-legislator-by-coy-hurd/ (accessed September 9, 2020).
Leigh, Spencer. “Bobby Lee Trammell: Exhibitionist Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer.” The Independent, March 7, 2008. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/bobby-lee-trammell-exhibitionist-rocknroll-singer-793178.html (accessed September 9, 2020).
McNutt, Randy. We Wanna Boogie: An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement. Fairfield, OH: HHP Books, 1988.
Pasmore, Victoria. Stars of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway. Little Rock: Plum Street Publishers, 2016.
“Representative Bobby Lee Trammell.” Arkansas General Assembly. http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/1999/R/Pages/MemberProfile.aspx?member=Trammell (accessed September 9, 2020).
Garland County Historical Society
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