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Travis Wammack

Travis Wammack is Still Rocking

May, 2001
by Michael B. Smith

We can think of no better introduction to our exclusive interview than the following article from ROLLING STONE, written a few years back by Greg Shaw.

"There are some names you never forget. Names like Narvel Felts, Felton Jarvis, Elvis Presley...Good Southern names for self-styled Southern boys that made some of rock & roll's great wild records. Such a name and such a man is Travis Wammack. I first heard of him in the summer of 1966 when I discovered a little-known single on the ARA label. It was an instrumental called "Scratchy." This first side had been a minor hit on select R&B stations. But it was the flip that really hammered his name into my mind.

"Firefly" was originally recorded as the A side. It was an R&B instrumental featuring the fastest guitar playing I had ever heard in my life, and not just fast but good. Brilliant, even. I was in San Francisco at the time and publishing a rock magazine, so I had some power and I did everything in it to bring this record to somebody's attention. I played it on the radio, took it to Bill Graham and begged him to bring Travis Wammack to the Fillmore, and wrote articles trying to build up some interest. And all to no avail.

In the meantime, I had unearthed some other records, vocals this time. A tremendous version of "Louie Louie," Maurice Williams' "Stay," another instrumental called "Distortion." With every new side I heard, my awe increased. These records rocked with the clean solid funk of Booker T's Memphis all-stars, moving along effortlessly while Wammack rode on top with his torrents of magnificent guitar pyrotechnics. Among the tight band of Wammack followers I had built up were some who believed he must be Lonnie Mack in disguise. Mack at the time was unknown, forgotten two years after his amazing "Memphis" single, and not only similar in style but about the only other guitarist anybody knew of who could play that good.

It wasn't until 1971 that I heard of Wammack again, when he surfaced on Congress Records, but perhaps it's time to let him talk.

"I've been playing guitar ever since I was seven," he says, and by age eleven he was already playing professionally in clubs around Memphis, where he had moved with his family from his birthplace in Walnut, Mississippi. At sixteen he was approached by Roland James, who had played guitar on many classic Sun records including those of Jerry Lee Lewis and now owned his own studio.

James was a hero to Wammack, and to this day he is grateful for the encouragement that he was given. Fifteen sides were cut during the time he was with James, but a three year lapse took place between his first recordings and their release.

According to his close friend and Producer Rick Hall (owner of Fame Records), Travis was so far ahead of his time nobody was ready for his sound in 1961. I thought back to my first hearing of Wammack in 1966, and became even further impressed. Finally, in 1964 Atlantic took the rights to "Scratchy," "Firefly" and a few others, and issued them on their ARA subsidiary. Unfortunately the promise shown by "Scratchy" was not followed up promotionally, and Wammack decided to wait out the remainder of his contract.

While he waited, he played local dates, did a lot of session work, and ended up touring with Peter & Gordon as backup guitarist. Back in Memphis he worked with Hi Records, Ace Cannon, Bill Black, Willie Mitchell and the other top instrumentalists of the area. By 1968 so well was he known that his work was in demand down in Muscle Shoals.

This was at a time when the focus in R&B recording was shifting from Stax in Memphis to Rick Hall's FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. Atlantic began doing all their recording there, and when the world heard the results everybody else tried to get on the schedule. A large part of the Muscle Shoals legend is due to Wammack, who played guitar on a lot of the sessions, including those for Aretha Franklin.

He moved there permanently and became one of the cornerstones of Hall's session band. His playing can be heard on records by artists as diverse as the Osmond Brothers, Clarence Carter, Bobbie Gentry, Wilson Pickett, Candi Staton, Little Richard, Liza Minnelli and Mac Davis.

So many writers, including yours truly, have railed against the trend toward solo albums by longtime sidemen that I feel it important to stress Travis Wammack's background. He was the first guitarist to use fuzztone, on "Scratchy" back in 1961. Along with Link Wray he was one of the original experimental stylists of rock guitar. His stage show is flamboyant and exciting, and in my opinion he has, more than ever, the quality of a star. As soon as his Atlantic contract expired he was back in the studio, recording first for Congress and then for Hall's Fame label. Travis Went on to be Little Richard's band leader for many years.

-Greg Shaw, Rolling Stone Magazine

Buy Travis Wammack's That Scratchy Guitar From Memphis at AMAZON.COM

When did you first get into the music business?

I started playing when I was eight years old and at age eleven I was the youngest person to ever be voted into the musician's union. They had to vote me in through the national office in New York. I grew up in Memphis and I was playing with professional groups there and was playing my own lead guitar back then. The union back then was pretty strong and they said that I could not play with the union musicians. And when I tried to join, we had to get a lawyer and I was voted in through the national office in New York. A d.j. in Memphis discovered me- Eddie Bond, a rockabilly singer, he is really popular across the water- and he discovered me and I started doing Jamboree shows with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and all the Sun people.

I had my first record when I was eleven years old on Fernwood records, which was a basement label to Sun- and I wrote both sides of "Rock and Roll Blues" and "I Believe in Today." The first time I went to England in 1984 I went over to do an album with Little Richard. The producer Stuart Coleman, who was one of the top D.J.'s, wanted me to do his program on Sunday on the BBC. He said I had an album over here that was one of the top five collector's items. He played "Rock and Roll Blues" and he played it for me and I sounded like a young Brenda Lee. It was a bootleg album with all Fernwood artists on the thing but thename of the album was Rock and Roll Blues not the title of my sound. Of course I never got paid for it or anything, but it was a lot of the Rockabilly stuff that was cut back then and Fernwood Records was the Label. Ace Cannon was on this album and Thomas Wayne, he was Luther Perkins' brother, and Luther was Johnny Cash's lead guitar player. Thomas Wayne had one hit called "Tragedy" on Fernwood back then. It was a lot of the Fernwood artists back then, Raymond Moppett was one of them.

I started playing with Eddie Bond doing these shows and things and then when I was sixteen, I went to the studio in Memphis with the guitar player who played on all the Jerry Lee Lewis records and Sun records, Roland Jennings, and we became friends and he started producing instrumentals on me and the first thing we put out was a song called "Scratchy." It was a big hit for me and stayed in the Top 100 for 9 months and was kind of like a sleeper. It would hit in a major market and then it would not do anything, and hit in another major market like Chicago and then it would go up, and it never got past the Top 40 but stayed in the top 100 for nine months.

Two Englishmen at the time had a number one record that was "World Without Love," written by Paul McCartney and sang by Peter and Gordon. Well, Peter Asher, who later became a great producer and produced Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor heard "Scratchy" and they hired my guitar trio to back them up on their USA tours. I toured with them, and Rick Hall was flying me down to play on sessions from about 1965 and then by 1969, I moved down here and went to work at Fame Studios. I went to work there and worked for about ten years as an artist and session guitar player. Played on a lot of the hit records that came out of there Mac Davis, Wilson Pickett, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin.

Weren't you on Mac Davis' hit, "Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me?" I had that 45 when I was younger.

Yes, I played three guitars on that one. I played on the original hit "Fancy for" Bobby Gentry. I played her little guitar that she played on "Ode to Billy Jo," and I played a lead on it. Then when Reba McEntire recorded it, she went in and copied it lick for lick. I played on "Patches" by Clarence Carter and "She's Having My Baby," by Paul Anka. "One Bad Apple" by the Osmonds - I played on all those Osmond hits.

The writer that wrote "One Bad Apple" came down with me when I moved down and he was from Memphis. He wrote a bunch of the stuff. When he left Fame and went to Muscle Shoals Sound, he called me up one day and said that he had a song that he wrote that was perfect for me. So he let me hear it and it was "Old Time Rock and Roll." I played it for Rick Hall and he said that it wasn't a hit, so I said okay. Then George went back to Muscle Shoals Sound where he was writing at the time, and let them hear it. Then Bob Seger recorded it, and it stands as one of the best all time rock and roll songs.

I was reading what the guy from Rolling Stone magazine wrote about you, and he was blown away by the B-side of "Scratchy," "Firefly."

That was supposted to be the A-side as far as I was concerned, and the B-side I split the royalties of that side with the bass player and drummer. I said, ‘if you guys will cut this with me I will split the writer's with you on the B-side, which turned out to be the A-side. (Laughs) The drummer on "Scratchy" is a drummer that played on all the Elvis stuff in Memphis. "Suspicious Minds," and Neil Diamond, B.J. Thomas and all that stuff up there. His name is Gene Chrisman.

Is it true that you were one of the first to use the Fuzz Tone?

Yes, I made my own. As a matter of fact, Gibson came out with their Fuzz tone and wanted me to endorse it. But at that time I was 16 and 17, and very cocky and idealistic at the time, and this did not sound like my distortion unit that I had built, so I felt like I could not compromise my sound and would not go for it. I probably should have to make the big bucks, though! (Laughs)

I was looking at some of the records that you played on, did you play on any of Wilson Pickett's hits?

Well, a lot of times when Rick was flying me down here all I would be hearing was tracks, you know, I never got any credit on anything that I played on until I moved down here. One day I asked the secretary, and she said that Rick did not want to put your name on anything because she said that Memphis was in competition with Muscle Shoals and she said that the only musicians he used on records were the local guys. Then when I moved down there, my name was on it. When I went to England everyone over there was aware of all that, and they had everything that I had ever played on and ever produced. On the show that I did over there, this guy pulled stuff out that I had done that I had even forgotten I had done. They are very smart over there and their research is very thorough, when it comes to something that they like. They probably know what you had for breakfast the morning you recorded. It is amazing.

Did you record on some of Aretha's stuff?

Yes, but I could not tell you which ones, and she was not there when I did it. Her husband Ted White was there and we did the tracks, and this was back before I had moved down and Rick was bad to put you on something and then put another guy on it and you did not know who was doing what because he would mix it up just depending what he was doing at the time.

Tell me a little bit about Rick Hall?

I felt like Rick held me back over there because I was a session guitarist and I had a knack for getting in with the artists and making them feel at home. Rick needed that, and he was hard to get to know and did not know how to relate to the artists. He would come to me and ask if everything was fine and if they were happy and I would hang out with the artists and musicians. I felt like he needed me there more than anything else. At one time I had five different record labels in two years, and I had records going up the charts and it seemed like when they would start happening good he would have a disagreement with the record company and they would give him my contract back and we would go back and cut other records. At one time we had a good deal with Capricorn and Phil Walden said that if he had management on me he could have made me another Duanne Allman. Rick had Duane Allman and sold his contract to Phil Walden for $25, 000. Rick was kind of seeing that he had made mistakes but in the meantime my career was suffering. He is a great producer and a likeable guy when you get to know him. If you can work for Rick Hall for one year you can work for anyone in the music business! (Laughs)

We have a lot of fans that are interested in the Allman Bros. thing and I wanted to ask you if you ever knew Duane or worked with him?

I did jam with him some at a place in Macon called Uncle Sam's. I never did know him well though, and I have done shows with his brother since then but I never did know him and he was a great guitar player.

One thing that I did want to touch on was your years with Little Richard. What it was like to work with him and what that whole experience was really like?

Well, Richard came down and did an album called "The Real Thing" album, and he tried to hire all of us to go on the road with him. Two of the guys, Jesse Boyce and Truman Brown quit Rick and did go on the road with him. I wrote one of the songs, "Greenwood Mississippi," on that album that was his first chart record that he had since "Tutti Frutti" days. That was in 1969, and I did not hear from him again until 1984 when he called and my wife. She said I had a phone call and I was in my studio at home- she said that he said he was Little Richard. He told me that he was going to England to record an album and he wanted all the Muscle Shoals players that had played on "The Real Thing" album and he wanted them to go with him.

I ended up getting Jessie Boyce the bass player. I couldn't find Freeman Brown, so I got James Stroud who was just getting into production at that time in Nashville, but was a great drummer from Jackson, Mississippi. He played on lots of things and got Billy Preston to record on the keyboards.

We went over there and did the album for Richard, and he talked to me and he asked me what I thought of his rock music. He asked me if I felt like it was the devil's music. I told him that when I think of "Tutti Frutti" and "Good Golly Miss Molly," I think of good times. He said that he wanted to get back into that and that he thought that he could touch on some lost souls out there and that is the only way he could do it. Then he told me he wanted me to put him a good Southern rock and roll band together. We put a band together and did the first concert in Arizona and tore the walls down. Then we did yhr movie "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and he just started getting big and did all the TV shows like Arsenio Hall

What really split Richard apart from the oldie but goodie acts was the band we had, it was awesome and we would go out there and run with Richard. He is fantastic and you never knew what he was going to do, never had a song list. He always did 2-3 hours every concert and always had the people in the audience eating out of his hand. He was a very religious guy, I have read a lot of books but in the 10 years I spent with him I never saw him with anything but a Bible in his hands. I made fantastic money with him but I became hesitant to fly so much and that is why I quit working with him.

He does a song that I wrote for him about him growing up in Georgia called "No Place Like Home," and that is the only song that he gets a standing ovation for. But I can not get him to go into the studio and record it. There are a couple of boot legs that he does from shows that are out there over in Europe but he is kind of strange in that respect, he tells me that he must have money up front because he might not be here tomorrow and he can not work on any percentage.

I never realized how popular I was over in Europe until I went over there and we did one concert over there and Robert Plant and Jimmie Page were there and they came backstage and my son Travis Jr., we call him Monkey, went up to them when he recognized them and asked them if they wanted to meet Little Richard. They said, no we want to meet your Daddy. Page said that the song "Scratchy" inspired me to go full tilt in the music business.He said, "Me and Robert were out in the crowd and when Little Richard introduced you we looked at each other and said "Scratchy!" I have not really "made it" I guess you could say nationally with hit records but I have been able to work for 40 years and enjoy it all. And I hunt and fish a lot, I am surprised that the people I read articles on, most recently the guitar player of Aerosmith and he was asked when did he realize he wanted to be a professional guitar player, and he said that when he heard the song "Scratchy." Sam Phillips calls me the greatest rock and roll guitar player around.

If Sam says that that is pretty good!

Sam's a great guy. I have released two cd.s in the past three years in town and selling them on the web and doing well. I am semi-retired and love playing in the live performances and still do lots of that.

How did you hook up with MSMM Studios?

Donnie and I have long been friends, and as someone who likes the underdog ,I told him I wanted to do my cd. over there. He is a great engineer and great guy to work with and I had never done any original stuff that I can say "this is Travis Wamack." We went in and did put lots of time in but not lots of overdubs it's mostly good feel, just getting that good feel on the initial track and adding some spice here and there on it.

There is one song on that CD I know that I have heard before and I want you to tell me where I've heard it the one about the "man on the run from Memphis, Tenn." who did that, it's your song but who else has recorded it?

It was recorded by a couple of rock groups a few years back. I think a release that was on Capricorn.

I was thinking maybe Grinderswitch?

It could have been Dru Lumbar. When he was with Grinderswitch, he was a big fan of mine and when he was with Capricorn he would come up a lot.

I wanted to ask about the Dale Earnhardt tribute and did you already do it at Talladega? How did that go?

Yes, it went over great and people loved it. It is a good positive up tempo thing and good Southern feel to it.


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