A fiery singer whose music encompasses both contemporary blues and Southern soul, Nellie Tiger Travis was born in the early ’60s in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Travis was primarily raised by her grandmother, who was a minister and sang in the church. Several other members of Travis’ family were singers and musicians, and she began singing in church services when she was five years old. In her teens, Travis participated in beauty pageants, and was homecoming queen when she graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 1979. While Travis considered a career in acting, her love of music won out, and she moved to Los Angeles in hopes of launching her career. There, Travis sang with Top 40 groups, but grew disillusioned with the politics of the music business. In 1992, she left Los Angeles for Chicago, where she thought she would be living temporarily as she looked after her ailing mother.
Travis ended up staying, and in 1995 she was booked for a show at the well-known Windy City blues venue Kingston Mines. While she previously had little experience with the blues, She soon took to the music, and found a mentor in Chicago blues queen Koko Taylor. In 2000, Travis was talking with friends about how she needed a nickname; someone suggested “Tiger,” saying it fit her tough but feminine personality, and the name stuck. Within a few years, Travis was a regular attraction on the Chicago blues circuit, she shared stages with some of the biggest artists on the scene (including Buddy Guy, Bobby Rush, Otis Clay, and Little Milton), and she was named “Entertainer of the Year” in a reader’s poll by the Chicago weekly newspaper New City.
In 2000, Travis released her debut album, I Got It Like That, through her Tiger Belle label; the same year, she recorded a collaborative album with Japanese guitarist Shun Kikuta, Heart and Soul. As Southern soul became a larger part of Travis’ repertoire, she released 2005’s Wanna Be with You, which fused Chicago blues influences with contemporary soul tropes. 2008’s I’m a Woman featured a radio hit in the song “Slap Yo’ Weave Off,” which gained a loyal following in the South. In 2009, Travis’ mentor Koko Taylor died; she performed at Taylor’s funeral, and included a song written in her honor, “Queen of the Blues,” on 2009’s I’m in Love with a Man I Can’t Stand. Travis wrote another song her honor, “Koko,” which appeared on her 2011 album I’m Goin’ Out Tonight. In 2013, Travis scored another Southern soul hit with “Mr. Sexy Man,” which inspired a line dance popular in Southern soul venues. By this time, Travis was an established star in the blues community, performing regularly in Japan and Europe as well as the United States.
2014 saw the release of the collection Nellie Sings the Blues.