Nellie “Tiger” Travis
to sing the blues.
The pathway from the Mississippi Delta through Memphis to Chicago and onto the rest of the world was paved by some of the most influential artists in music history. Trailblazers like Muddy Waters, Dorothy Moore, BB King and Howling Wolf took the Magnolia State’s signature blues sound from the dusty flatlands of the cotton fields and laid the foundation for all American music to build upon.
Be it R&B, soul, pop, rock n roll, EDM or hip-hop, the cornerstone of modern music was birthed in these humble and destitute beginnings but went on to shape the sound of music across the globe.
Continuing in this ongoing tradition of influence and innovation is soul-stirring songbird Nellie “Tiger” Travis. Following in the footsteps of so many legends who came before her, this fierce and fiery songstress took a more scenic route from her Mound Bayou, Miss. breeding ground to sunny California to Chicago and all the way around the world.
With an unfiltered, down-home sound that encompasses classic R&B, contemporary blues and Southern soul, Nellie’s wide-ranging music crosses age, gender and racial boundaries. And she has been crossing those boundaries at home and abroad for more than 25 years.
Whether a smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall club in the backwoods of Mississippi, an overseas performance in the most exotic corners of Europe or playing a set on national television alongside the Roots crew on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Nellie Tiger Travis knows exactly what the people want and how to give it to them.
With party-rocking anthems like “If I Back It Up,” “You Gone Make Me Cheat,” “Slap Yo Weave Off” and all-time favorite “Mr. Sexy Man,” her music is more than just lyrics harmonized over instrumentals. It represents the definition of life itself for millions of loyal listeners.
“My music means the world to my fans and to me. They love the lyrics in my songs,” Travis divulges. “Both men and women often tell me how my music has impacted their lives. That is because I know what people like, and I know what gets the crowd rocking.”
Born into poverty in the early 1960s, Nellie was one of 14 children being raised by her strict grandmother, who was an evangelist. Surrounded by music at a very young age, several members of her family were gospel singers and musicians. But even though she was brought up in the birthplace of the blues, she was not exposed to the secular sounds of Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Instead, young Nellie’s first taste of music came in the form of gospel when she began singing in church at age five.
“A lot of people have asked me why so many of my songs are sad, and I tell them that much of my life has been sad,” she explains. “We grew up very poor. I had to pick and chop cotton to get school clothes every summer. Added to that, I didn’t get to know my father until after I graduated high school. So, I guess some of that sadness early in my life comes through in some of my music now.”
In her teens, Nellie participated in beauty pageants and was homecoming queen when she graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 1979. Although she initially considered a career in acting, her love of music won out, and she moved to Los Angeles in 1987 in hopes of launching a singing career.
“When I left, I told my grandmother I was going to California to become a star even if I had to sleep on Quincy Jones’s doorstep,” she recalls. “It never became true because it was nowhere close to being as easy as I thought. I didn’t even come close to Quincy Jones.”
There in sunny California, Nellie sang with Top 40 groups but grew disheartened with music industry politics. So in 1992, she left Los Angeles for Chicago to care for her sick mother. She only had planned to stay in Chicago temporarily, but some friends convinced her to check out the well-known Windy City blues venue Kingston Mines for gigs.
“When I first went, I was there incognito. I wanted to see what songs they were singing,” she remembers. “I knew that I could sing, but I just wasn’t familiar with the blues at all.”
After checking out the scene, she returned home and learned the lyrics to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” and Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago.” She returned to the club the following Thursday night dressed to kill in a white patent leather jump suit with matching hat and boots.
She got on stage and sent the crowd into a frenzy with her powerful vocals and irresistible stage charisma. “The whole management team came out and sat on the floor to watch me,” she thinks back. “The management hired me to sing that next Tuesday, and I didn’t know any blues songs.
She laughs, “I learned four songs real quick. Those four songs earned me fame there, and I played there for the next six years nonstop. “They loved me”
She also found love from a mentor in Chicago blues queen Koko Taylor, who took Nellie under her wing after they both witnessed Nellie’s mother die right before their eyes. “I was performing at Koko’s banquet hall on New Year’s Eve night in 1997,” Nellie describes. “Thirty minutes before the countdown into the new year, my mother was standing in front of the stage to record my performance, and she collapsed and died from an aneurism.”
Taylor stepped in as Nellie’s surrogate mother figure, and they remained close friends until Taylor’s passing in 2009. Two days after Taylor’s passing, Nellie went to the studio to finish her album I’m in Love with a Man I Can’t Stand. By the time she left, she had written and recorded “Queen of the Blues” in Taylor’s honor.
“I loved KoKo Taylor,” Nellie admits. “She showed me so much, and she will always be my queen!”
Over the many moons performing, Nellie became a regular attraction on the Chicago blues circuit, sharing stages with some of the most notable artists on the scene, including Buddy Guy, Bobby Rush, Otis Clay, and Little Milton. Her citywide fame earned her the title of “Entertainer of the Year” in a reader’s poll by the Chicago weekly newspaper called New City.
It was also in Chicago that she earned the nickname “Tiger.” Her cousin came up with the name which aptly describes her intense, feline vocal style as well as her feisty, independent personality.
“The Chicago blues scene has been good to me,” Travis confesses. “Since 1990 to 2019, I have traveled all over the world singing the blues. I’ve been all over Europe and played in Japan three times. Most recently, I’ve played in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Greece.
She continues, “I never knew they had heard of me over there, but after one call came for a show, the calls kept coming one after another.”
After a decade of trotting the globe on tour, Nellie decided to release her own original music in 2000 with debut album I Got It Like That through her Tiger Belle label; the same year, she recorded collaborative album Heart and Soul with Japanese guitarist Shun Kikuta.
As she continued to record, Southern soul became a larger part of Travis’ catalogue. In 2005, she released Wanna Be with You, infusing Chicago blues with contemporary soul. Her 2008 album I’m Woman featured radio hit “Slap Yo’ Weave Off,” introducing her to a loyal following in the South and the rest of the nation, performing the song on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Then in 2013, Travis hit pay dirt with Southern soul hit with “Mr. Sexy Man,” which inspired a line dance popular in Southern soul venues. To date, the music video for “Mr. Sexy Man” has reached well over 12 million hits on YouTube.
“People tend to want to classify me as R&B or jazz or blues or whatever,” she explains. “In Chicago, they classified me as a blues singer. Then she was classified as an R&B singer. My thing is blues and R&B. I always did different genres of music, and I never had a classification in my mind. They love every genre of music that I do, and I guess they take a pick of what I am to them.”
And she means many things to many different people. In her music, she caters to women while simultaneously making every man feel like the object of admiration. “A song sometimes gives people life. Women tell me all the time how empowering my music is. They tell how my music helps them get through things, and they make that fact known to me,” she reveals.
“And every man who approaches me asks me about ‘Mr. Sexy Man. They all have the same question, ‘baby, did you write that song about me?’ I’m like ‘of course I did. You know I did.’”
In 2018, she received nine awards, including a Key to the City of her Mound Bayou hometown, a Resolution from the city of Jackson, Miss., Chicago Music Award for “Blues Entertainer of the Year” and the Koko Taylor “Queen of the Blues Awards” from the Just Blues Awards. The following year, she won the “International Artist of the Year” from Zydeco Blues and Trailriders Awards in Houston.
A mainstay at home and in foreign lands, Travis has established herself as a star in the blues, Southern soul and R&B communities. Headlining at festivals, clubs and concerts around the world, Nellie “Tiger” Travis is beyond titles or genres. She is in a class all her own.
In November 2009, Nellie was crowned the New Queen Of The Blues for Chicago by Bluesman and WVON radio personality Purvis Spann, who previously had bestowed that honor on Ms. KoKo Taylor. KoKo was a mentor and friend to Nellie, and when she passed in early 2009 Nellie used her songwriting skills to write and record a tribute to her friend entitled “KoKo” (Queen Of The Blues). This soulful tune was also performed and used to eulogize Koko as part of her last rites and is on Nellie’s I’m Goin’ Out Tonight album.
She fronts one of the tightest Chicago Blues bands found anywhere in the world, comprised of the best musicians from Chicago’s Blues scene, and her shows in the city are packed, rollicking parties. Nellie Travis has headlined at the Chicago Blues Festival and at festivals and clubs around the world. From Japan, Greece, Italy, Germany, Brazil, all the way back to her home in Mississippi, Nellie knocks out audiences with her powerful vocals and irresistible stage charisma. She’s a permanent headlining personality at Chicago’s most successful blues clubs, The Kingston Mines, Buddy Guy’s Legends and Blue Chicago where she continues to pack them in.