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Gotta travel on: Noted guitarist, singer Billy Grammer dies at age 85

Mona Sandefur
updated: 8/11/2011 10:19 AM

The man whose music helped put the communities of Benton, Sesser and Valier on the map passed away early Wednesday morning at age 85.

Born Billie Wayne Grammer and known professionally as Billy Grammer, the legendary singer is best remembered for his million-selling "Gotta Travel On," that touched countless listeners of country and pop music in 1959.

Born Aug. 28, 1925 in Benton, to Archie and Stella Grammer, Billy Grammer was the eldest of 13 children and never forgot his roots.

His father played the violin and the trumpet, and his son followed the music, selecting a slightly different path.

During a 2009 interview, Grammer said relatives told him he played his first chord on the guitar at age 5.

He learned his first song, "Mary Lou," at age 4. Although his father kept putting fiddles in his hands, he preferred the guitar.

Grammer recalled that his father played by ear and his cousin, Everett, Price taught him more chords on the rhythm guitar.

Grammer said he would go to sleep while performing during square dances, adding that his father would have to tap him with his fiddle bow to wake him up after the last set ended.

After Grammer signed with Monument Records in Nashville, Tenn., "Gotta Travel On," written by Paul Clayton, hit No. 4 on the U.S. pop music charts in 1959. Grammer became a familiar face the same year as a regular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry.

Naming his band after the notable tune, The Travel On Boys, Grammer used "Gotta Travel On" as the opening song by Buddy Holly on his final tour during the months of January and February 1959 prior to Holly's untimely death.

Grammer recorded his first chart version of Mel Tillis' "Detroit City"?titled "I Wanna Go Home,"?which reached the Billboard country music chart in early 1963.

Playing music was not enough for the talented performer who founded Reid, Grammer & Gower in 1965 with Clyde Reid and J.W. Gower. The company fashioned the Grammer guitar between 1965 and 1968 before a fire destroyed the factory that stood in downtown Nashville.

Ampeg bought the company, constructed a new factory down the street from the former building and renamed it Grammer Guitar Inc. GGI produced the Grammer guitar until 1970.

The legendary guitar that produced remarkable sound quality was installed into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville on March 1, 1969.

Grammer served in the Army during World War II, working as an apprentice toolmaker at the Washington Navel gun factory Shop 20 after his discharge.

He married his high school girlfriend, Ruth Burzynski, on Oct. 29, 1944, in their home church in Rend City.

The couple returned to Franklin County shortly after the war ended when the 18,000 of the 24,000 workforce were laid off including Grammer.

Grammer and his wife returned to Grammer Hill that was settled by his grandfather.

Grammer's great-grandfather and Civil War veteran is buried in the family cemetery that sits on the hill above the log cabin.

In an article that ran in Country Song Roundup Magazine in 1965, Grammer said he graduated from Valier High School, where he met and started dating a little dark-haired Polish girl named Ruth Burzynski.

"Some folks have wondered whether I was a singer first or a guitar player," he recalled. "I was a singer at WARL in Arlington, Va., and because of having to fire a lead guitar man, I became a lead guitar player, too.

"I worked with Connie B. Gay off and on until I went out west for health reasons," Grammer said. "Upon returning East, I again went to work with Mr. Gay on the Jimmy Dean Show. I stayed with Jimmy for over three years until he went to New York."

The legendary performer said he wondered what was going to happen to him in the music business until "Gotta Travel On" was recorded. "That song created a spot for me on the Grand Ole Opry," Grammer said.

"There have been many heartaches connected to the music business in coming up the ladder but I have enjoyed the most part of the trip, especially the many wonderful friends that have helped me," he said. "My wife has been wonderful and a tremendous help along the way."

The couple shared shared 66 years of married life and raised three children, Donna, Dianne and Billy.    

The performer and the Travel On Boys played during the rally in which Alabama governor George Wallace was shot on May 15, 1972. The band performed "Under the Double Eagle" march as Wallace took the stage to speak before a shot was fired that left the presidential candidate paralyzed.

Grammer delivered the invocation for the Grand Ole Opry House opening on March 16, 1974.

Inducted into the Illinois Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990, he celebrated his 50th anniversary with the Grand Ole Opry in February 2009.

Sesser Mayor Ned Mitchell said Grammer received a plaque to take home when the community celebrated the musician's 80th birthday.

"We also had a plaque made to hang in the Sesser Opera House," Mitchell said. "It will be on display from now on and down through the ages to come residents and visitors alike will come to know our friend and neighbor Billy Grammer."

Grammer's name also adorns the Billy Grammer Band Shelter located at Capital Park, on the southeast corner of the Benton Public Square. The stage is utilized for musical performances and other events throughout spring, fall and summer.

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