Photo: Steven Wolf
Chicago is known around the world for its Blues; its rich history of Blues performers has influenced many famous musicians. Nellie 'Tiger' Travis is one of Chicago’s gems. Blues historian and host of Chicago’s Blues Breakers for over 25 years, WXRT
DJ Tom Marker has been proclaiming her talent for years. Travis performs regularly in many of the established Blues clubs in Chicago, and at the annual Chicago Blues Festival.
A recent exhibition, Blues for Smoke, currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through April 28, 2013, features exhibitions, lectures, readings, and performances by visual artists, writers, poets, and musicians whose work reflects the Blues. Originating at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and curated by Bennett Simpson, it was given a two-page review in the March 2013 issue of Art in America.
Blues reflects life: it encompasses all moods, milestones, and demographics using repetition and rhythm. It is part history, sociology, and musicology; it is entertainment and art. Chicago’s current and historic talent pool goes deep in this genre. Get out there, listen up; clap your hands, tap your toes, and shuffle your boots. Enjoy.
When did you arrive in Chicago?
I moved to Chicago in 1992. This is where my mom lived. I was raised by my grandmother in an all-black town, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and came here in the summer when I was a teenager. I didn’t like Chicago and never thought I would end up here. However my mother was sick, so I moved back here from Los Angeles and ended up staying.
What age did you start singing?
As far as I can remember, around age five I started singing in church.
How did you get the nickname ‘Tiger’?
In early 2000 I was working at Kingston Mines, on break we went across the street to B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. I was with my cousin and a few others and mentioned that everyone had a ‘name’ and I had plain Nellie Travis. There’s Melvia ‘Chick Rodgers, Big Time Sarah; we needed a name for me. I said ‘Why don’t we turn Nellie backwards and make it sound French—N’eille—or how about ‘Angel?’ They disagreed and said those didn’t fit me. My cousin said ‘I’ve got it…'Tiger'' and it instantly rang a bell. It took me to an extreme. My house is a jungle: I’ve got tigers everywhere because people bring me tigers if they see a tiger anything.
Define the ‘Blues’.
The Blues is an experience. The black community is the originator of the Blues. It’s an experience of hardship, pain and reality. The Blues originated with a lot of my ancestors, from being enslaved, and it was something for them to do to forget about everything that was going on in life. That’s what the Blues is; it’s within you, and it’s what you have experienced—the hardship in life.
Do you always perform with the same band members?
No. However, in most cases I do use the same band members. With certain venues I do Southern Soul music and I have musicians that play that genre; Southern Soul is close to R & B but I call it Modern Blues. It’s a juggle and a struggle but this year I’m working on having a permanent band.
What are some of the difficulties in playing with a new band?
If I’m required to just do straight Blues, it’s not difficult because most musicians can play a shuffle or a lump or the Jimmy Reed-type Sweet Home Chicago thing; a lot of that music is public domain. As long as they can do that, I’m fine. If I have to do Southern Soul it can be difficult, but once we rehearse I’m pretty content. I’m strict and strong about my music and can’t afford for it to not be right. I search and get the best musicians.
What is the most exciting international locale where you’ve performed?
The most exciting was Japan, just the rapport. With any foreign country you get great rapport from people because they have a greater respect for your craft than those in the United States. In Japan, it’s like I have an entire family there; they show so much love and you can’t help but feel it. It’s more Americanized than any other country; you can get USDA choice beef.
Is there a special routine, meal or prayer before you perform?
There’s always a prayer. I normally pray to myself, sometimes I pray with the guys. I don’t know other people’s religion so I don’t intervene. I ask the Lord to give me strength to be in my song and my spirit as I perform.
Is there always a dressing room?
It depends on the event. If this is just the regular standard gig like Blue Chicago, they don’t care whether you dress or not. Kingston Mines has a dressing room. I used to change for every set and I had to buy more clothes. Now it depends. When I’m doing main events and I’m the headliner, a dressing room is in my contract. Water, cold trays, fruit—that’s all part of my rider; it’s for the band, and it should be in my dressing room when I arrive for the performance. I don’t order alcohol for the guys; if they want it they purchase it themselves. I don’t want to be responsible. When I was really drinking I would request a fifth of Hennessy for me; that was part of my rider too. But I don’t drink like that anymore.
What’s your favorite song to perform?
My favorite is one of my original songs, I’ve Got Amnesia. I don’t always perform it because the bands don’t always know it. Second is I’d Rather Go Blind by Etta James. I lose myself in that song and I’ve had the pleasure of re-recording it as well. That’s in my show every night. I’ve Got Amnesia was the first song I wrote. The title came to my when I was in Greece one year and we had to go below sea level to perform. We were in a campground and I knew that I had to go back up this mountain that looked like a piece of the Prudential Building, a side of a rock. We’d come down from there and to think that I had to go back up I just wanted to get amnesia and forget about it. That’s the way I write. I’ll do a title first.
What are the roots of Chicago ‘Blues’?
I was told this was the Blues capital, but I really can’t tell sometimes. Muddy Waters, Willy Dixon, Jimmy Reed—actually all of them were the roots of Chicago from what I understand. There was a migration from the South; Muddy Waters was from
What are your favorite Chicago venues?
Buddy Guy’s Legends is my first favorite. I opened for Buddy in January and Tom Marker was hosting. There’s something about that new stage that brings out another me. The sound system is perfect. When it’s Buddy’s time to perform and they’re still clapping for me—that stage is special. In addition I like Kingston Mines and Blue Chicago.
What are the strengths of Chicago’s music market?
I don’t think it can be compared to Nashville; they are world renowned for country music. I can’t say what the strengths are because we don’t even have Blues radio stations and this is the ‘Blues Capital.’ I don’t understand that. You’ve got Tom (Marker) doing his Blues program but other stations that did programming had 5 watts where it couldn’t spread out. I don’t know what the strengths are but that’s the weakness. You can go all over the world and you’ve got country music on the radio station, and you don’t need an antenna. It should be at least like that in Chicago since it is considered the Blues Capital. They’ve got more computer stations in Mississippi playing my stuff; I get played a lot in the South. I don’t get played at all in Chicago. Why can’t every radio station in Chicago have a Blues channel? I don’t get it. Quit calling it the Blues Capital if you’re not going to support it.
What is the future of Blues?
To be honest, if we don’t get more black children involved in the Blues, the future of Blues is not going to be black Blues. It’s our heritage; we don’t mind sharing it. The younger white kids are coming up in the Blues, and there is nothing wrong with that, but as far as the future of the Blues we’re not even controlling it right now, the record companies basically have control of it. You still have the black artists that are doing it but it’s all about money and recognition for the record companies. At the rate it’s going, a lot of the uneducated blacks are falling by the wayside with it because it’s being taken over by other people, not just white people but Japanese. They perfect it; Japanese people are smart. They pick it up quick; they can play for me any day. But that’s what I feel about the future of it; we won’t be the ones getting credit for it if we don’t instill it into others. Where are the Koko Taylors? Where are the Muddy Waters? Who’s going to step in as we die off? Where are they?
Do you have a mentor?
Koko Taylor was my mentor. She’s gone now. I mentor myself in every way that I can because I discovered that some people are not to be trusted. It’s me and my Maker.
You mentioned Koko Taylor. You wrote a song and performed it at her funeral.
A recorded version of my song Koko (Queen of the Blues) was played at her funeral and I performed one of her songs the day before the funeral. I was scheduled to record in Texas the day after her passing. I took the plane; I had a full day in the studio. I finished my session and I had time to write; I wrote the song in the studio.
Was that easy or difficult to do?
It was really easy; it just came to me. I just started humming it. That’s how I’ve Got Amnesia was discovered too. That’s the Blues because if you can hum it, you can sing it; if you can think it, you can believe it; if you believe it, you can achieve it—right in the back of a car going up a mountain.
Who are the artistic influences in your life?
Koko was one of those people and Big Mama Thornton. They have that ‘gutsy growly’ thing going on. That’s what I’m all about, it’s part of my soul.
What three words describe you?
Loving, caring, sharing; that’s totally who I am.
You have a family. How many children do you have?
I have three sons: 32, 31 and the youngest is 16. He came years later. I think I was moving too fast and God shut me down. I have four grandchildren now—two boys and two girls—it’s fun. I braid hair. We bake cookies. We have a really good time around Christmas. I’ll be working a lot and then I don’t see them; they spend time with the other grandmother. She works too, but everyone’s schedule is different than Nellie’s because I work the crazy hours of the night, especially when it comes to the
Kingston Mines—until 3:30 a.m. When I first came to Chicago I did six years in a row at the Kingston Mines. Now I just play one day a month and some weekends. The work is easy. It’s the time; in between you’ve got to wait an hour for another band to play.
If not singing the ‘blues’, what would your career path be?
It would probably be acting which I still do. Before wanting to be a singer, I wanted to be a beauty queen. My goal was to be Miss USA. I was the Homecoming Queen for my high school. I was Miss JFK (John F. Kennedy High) in 1979, the year I graduated.
In what capacity do you act?
I did a commercial for T-Mobile in 2011, There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays. It was filmed at Woodfield Mall. There were 100 ladies in pink dresses; we were with Carly Foulkes, the girl who does the T-Mobile commercials. I did a commercial a few years ago at the Checkerboard Lounge on East 43rdStreet where Mick Jagger and others played one year. I’ve performed in plays: I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot, a Fernando Jones play, and The Lust of a Man by Tracie Armour-Adetunji.
Do you have an agent for that?
Now I would have to become a SAG member, which they raised the price to $3000. With the two commercials I did, you can do a Taft-Hartley; you can do two free ones. After that, in order to do a union shoot, you must have the SAG card. I’d have to do a benefit to get mine, that’s a lot of money. You have to be guaranteed something is coming in to cover the SAG costs.
When do you write most of your songs?
I write when I’ve got peace and quiet or when my mind is totally focused. I have to be happy and in the mood. I have to be somewhere where I’m jolly and I’m just feeling the song.
Do you have a new CD in mind that you’re going to do a body of work for or do you do the work first and then say I have enough for a CD?
It depends on what I’m doing it for. I just finished another Southern Soul album and a couple of weeks ago they released a single, Mr. Sexy Man. Floyd Hamberlin writes for me; I didn’t write anything on that album. But I just finished working on the album that was released last February; I wrote six of the songs on it. I write about reality. Coming up with a title stems from
something familiar; I then write from experience or what I think might happen. For example, I’ve got a song on the recent album that came out last February I Was Born in Mississippi. I’m telling where I was born in Mississippi, and how much fun you can have if you go down there and hang out.
What was a significant turning point in your career?
Moving from Los Angeles to Chicago was significant. I was singing in L.A., doing Top 40. It was all about who could sleep with whom and that wasn’t my forte. When I left Mississippi to move to California I told my grandmother, ‘I’m going out there and if I have to sleep on Quincy Jones’ doorstep, he’s going to hear me.’ That was my attitude. She said ‘I want you to always remember: Don’t stoop lower than what your morals are, because you can always come back to church and sing.’ I never forgot that. I had some crazy offers in L.A. but I didn’t take them.
When you arrived in Chicago did you go straight to the Blues?
Yes, I had no choice. I was told that Chicago is the Blues capital; when I moved here I didn’t have a clue about the Blues. Coming from Mississippi it was Gospel. I did top 40 when I moved to L.A. In 1995, I was invited to Kingston Mines. I went on stage and sang Proud Mary; they hired me for the following Tuesday. I said that I didn’t know any Blues songs and they told me
‘You’ll figure them out.’
I went out and listened to different bands, and this is what I tell young girls that ask me for advice about music: it’s good to go out and listen. My best experience came from listening to others on stage. I had to listen to Mustang Sally. I heard Sweet Home Chicago; didn’t know a word. I went on stage and made up something. I had to improvise, to make it work for me and that shows your professionalism. I didn’t go on the internet and find them, I learned them from people.
There are a few places on the south side where I perform my Southern Soul in addition to Blues. I’ve got a song on the Southern Soul charts, Slap Yo’ Weave Off.
What has been your biggest career challenge?
The biggest challenge is wanting to record with a major record label and I’m working on that. I’ve been on minor record labels; I recorded with CDS Records of Carlsbad, CA.
What has been your most rewarding experience?
What could have been my most rewarding experience never happened. Last year I participated in the IBC (International Band Competition). To make a long story short, they called me as the winner and when I got to the stage they said it was a mistake. Big tears from me. When I hurt, hit songs come up and I write about it. Even if I didn’t get the title there’s a queen in me; every female is born a queen. There’s a song I wrote There’s a Queen in Me.
I’ve been around the world many times before
and they say there were great role models
that opened many doors,
but there’s one thing you need to see
and that is there’s a queen in me.
Apart from that incident, having a hit song, If I Back It Up, What You Gonna Do, has been my most rewarding experience. It’s on everybody’s ring tone in the South and all of the females have ordered tracks to do the song on their shows. It’s popular and has been a classic since 2007. That’s a great tribute.
What would you still like to achieve?
My goal that I work toward every day is to sing the National Anthem for the Super Bowl; it would be a thrill and a chill.
How do you relax?
Time spent with my grandchildren is most relaxing for me; we play cards. With everything else that I have to do, I make time for them. They love to watch me on TV. I perform at the Bulls games on occasion and somehow we became the cameraman’s favorite band. I always keep them up if I’m going to be on TV or we’ll watch a video of a past performance or look at an album. I’m way up there in their eyes, and to my family in the South; they think I’m a rich recording artist. My entire home town thinks so and that’s a good thing.
Do they have a Nellie Tiger Travis Parade Day?
They did! Everybody comes home for Labor Day weekend and they had a Nellie Travis Day that day. Mound Bayou is an important location in the history of music and a Blues Trail Marker was installed in my home town. I’m working with the mayor to get a community center built where kids can learn to skate and participate in summertime activities. The people love me there. I attended Koahoma Junior College in Clarksdale, Mississippi, majoring in Criminal Justice. I’ve had several jobs in my life time
but singing was my passion.
If you could have dinner with any performer, past or present, who would that be?
I would love to have dinner with sexy Mick Jagger.
Who are your favorite female performing artists?
They are Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, and Beyonce; not necessarily in that order but I love them all. I see a little of me in Tina, I see a lot of me in Gladys, and I see some ‘wannabe me’ in Beyonce. I saw her in the 2013 Super Bowl halftime show. She’s awesome and really worked that camera. If I was ten years younger and knew things then that I know now I would be another form of Beyonce. I’ve never been a dancer but I’ve always been a great entertainer with a gifted voice. I grew up in the 60’s and
it wasn’t there for us. That makes the struggle harder and your Blues greater.
Do you have any words of encouragement for emerging talent?
I tell them to be themselves; don’t try to be anybody else. Be the best you can be and don’t let anyone or anything discourage you from achieving your success. People will try to stop you, they’ll throw stumbling blocks.
What are you currently reading?
I read the internet every day, from news and politics to entertainment, music, Blues. With technology today you can ask any question and be anything you want to be. It’s a matter of understanding it and continuing to pursue what it is you are trying to do. The only time I will quit is when the Lord says I quit. Koko said ‘Nellie if I can’t sing I’d rather die.’ A lot of the older Blues artists were that way and that’s how I feel about it.
Would you like to add anything?
I pray one day there could be affordable community radio stations for musicians without a major record label. That’s important. When I get rich I’m buying a Blues radio and television station, and I did say when and not if. I’ve got many ideas for the Blues. Chicago is called the Blues Capital. Nashville is the Country Capital and you hear country music on every corner; you can hardly get regular stations in Nashville. Chicago should be that way; we should have more Blues radio stations. There are many great Blues artists here that have never been heard. There are many great Blues albums and music that nobody has heard because there isn’t a station to play them. We’re in competition with the major record companies and they’re making sure their artists’ music is played three or four times a day. You could feel discriminated against but rules are what they are in business. There is a need for more Blues radio stations; and if they even had one Blues television show it would be awesome. I should be responsible for that; it would be good for me.
Kathleen Waterloo had an 18-year career in interior architecture in Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1996 and is currently an artist in Chicago.