Billy Grammer, Singer and Guitarist at the Opry, Dies at 85

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Billy Grammer, Singer and Guitarist at the Opry, Dies at 85

Postby radiofan » Sat Aug 13, 2011 8:50 pm

Billy Grammer, Singer and Guitarist at the Opry, Dies at 85
Published: August 11, 2011

NASHVILLE — Billy Grammer, a singer and guitarist whose 1958 recording of “Gotta Travel On” became a crossover hit and led to a long career on the Grand Ole Opry, died on Wednesday in Benton, Ill., the town where he was born. He was 85 and lived in Sesser, Ill.

A Grand Ole Opry spokeswoman, who confirmed the death, said Mr. Grammer had a heart attack in March.

“Gotta Travel On,” adapted by Paul Clayton and others from a British folk tune, was a million-seller and the first hit for Nashville’s Monument Records and its founder, Fred Foster, appearing on the pop, country and rhythm & blues charts. Since then it has been covered by, among others, Jerry Lee Lewis, June Carter and Bob Dylan, who recorded it for his 1970 double album, “Self Portrait.”

Mr. Grammer named his band after the song, calling them the Travel On Boys. On May 15, 1972, hired to perform at a presidential campaign rally in Laurel, Md., for George C. Wallace, the band was playing Mr. Wallace’s usual exit song, “Under the Double Eagle,” when Mr. Wallace was shot and paralyzed from the waist down.

Mr. Grammer also designed and produced flat-top acoustic guitars under his own name through a company he started in the 1960s. He donated his first model to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969, and in 2004 Sotheby’s sold an abalone inlay acoustic model played by Johnny Cash for $131,200.

A regular at the Grand Ole Opry for decades, Mr. Grammer delivered the invocation for the opening of its new hall in 1974 with President Richard M. Nixon in attendance. He also appeared on Ed Sullivan’s and Dick Clark’s television shows.

His other hits included “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” A much sought-after session man, he recorded with Patti Page, Louis Armstrong, Eddy Arnold and others.

Billie Wayne Grammer was born in Benton on Aug. 28, 1925, the eldest of 13 children of Archie and Stella Grammer. Part of a southern Illinois farming and coal-mining family, he spent his childhood on a farm, fishing the Wabash River and dreaming of becoming a mechanical engineer.

After high school he served in the Army and took on an apprenticeship as a toolmaker. He made his way to Washington, where he was hired in the bands of Hawkshaw Hawkins and Grandpa Jones. He also appeared as a guitarist on Jimmy Dean’s television show. He then formed his own band and began performing as a solo artist.

He learned to love music as a boy listening to his father play the violin. “Dad kept putting fiddles in my hands,” Mr. Grammer wrote in an online autobiographical sketch, “but I had guitaritis.”

Additional reporting by The New York Times.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 12, 2011, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Billy Grammer, 85, Singer And Guitarist at the Opry. ... d=fb-share
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