Music to My Ears

Travis Wammack – Memphis Royalty

We’re going to visit a guy today who is known to guitar players but not to the general public. Travis Wammack recorded his first record when he was 12 years old and had a hit single at 16. He is a legend in the Southern rock world for his work at Sun Studio and Sonic Recording Service in Memphis, then FAME Studios at Muscle Shoals with Rick Hall, going on to be Little Richard’s band leader from 1984 to 1995. So grab a beer and a bowl of crawdads and we’ll jaw.

In 1954 “Little” Travis Wammack was eight years old, living with his parents in Memphis. His dad brought a guitar home and told the kids whoever wanted to play it could have it. Travis swallowed that guitar like a frog with a June bug. His mother would remember he would fall asleep with the guitar in the bed and his “little foot just tapping away.”

I know this is possible because I had a band mate, Stu Clemens, who would do the same. Don’t ask me how I know this. Some stories just shouldn’t be told.

When Travis turned 11 the family moved to Binghampton, a suburb of Memphis. While in Memphis and later Binghampton Travis would lug that guitar half his size into department stores, restaurants and bars to play for change. He’d camp out by the juke boxes and when a customer came up to play a tune, Travis would ask, “What are you going to play?” Most of the time he knew the song. The customers would put the nickel into the guitar’s sound hole (no case) and he’d play it. Travis would relate that from the time he was 11 years old he never needed any money from his parents.

A local DJ for KWAM, Eddie Bond, saw Travis on the street with his guitar. Bond asked him to play a few tunes. Eddie Bond was also a promoter who booked acts into shows around the South called jamborees. He asked Travis if he’d like to open for a few of them. Well he had to check with Travis’s parents first.  Little Travis was still 11. His parents, knowing Travis’s talent and potential, acquiesced as long as Travis didn’t miss any school and that Bond would be responsible for him.

“Little” Travis as he would be billed started opening in venues around Tennessee and Arkansas for guys like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. There is a cool story of Bond trying to find an electric guitar for Travis to play at a show and Perkins let Travis borrow his. Because Travis was small the guitar reached down to his toes. So, Carl took out a pocket knife and cut a hole in his guitar strap that had been specially made for him, so that Travis could play the thing. Wammack remembers being impressed and honored, and never forgot the gesture.

Eddie Bond then got a call from the musicians’ union who told him Travis could sing at his shows but not play the guitar. Bond responded that they had tried to get Travis into the union but had been refused because of his age. “You mean you won’t let him in the union because he’s too young, but you won’t let him play in my union band?” Eddie Bond hired a lawyer and sued. Bond and Travis went to New York to the union’s headquarters, where their case was heard. The union politburo voted Travis in, and he became the youngest member of the musicians’ union at 11 years old.

Wammack quickly developed his own style, sound and chops. He invented a fuzz tone by running a lamp cord out of the external speaker jack of his amp and into a tape recorder. The overdrive out of the tape machine resulted in a sound he became known for. He also experimented with the little amps and speakers in the drive-in theaters. I, um, assume he purchased these legally. Travis called his style, which resembles chicken picking, “stuttering.” Chicken picking uses a hybrid pick and fingers “popping” style to get the “pluck”, but Travis had a fingerpicking style that was morphed more from guys like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.

By 15 he figured he would try his hand getting session work. Roland Janes, a session player at Sun Studio, had left and started his own studio, Sonic Recording Service. Travis admits he was a little cocky and went in to meet Janes telling him, “I’m going to be a star and I want to be your session guitarist.” Janes had been a top session guy with Sun and would be hard to impress. He had Travis play him a few songs and agreed to let him do some sessions.

Before long Janes was using Travis and his bass buddy Prentiss McPhail almost exclusively. One reason was talent but another was economics. The guys got $8 a session whether that session was five hours or 15. So the boys would be playing at shows in the evenings, then going right to the studio to work all day. Obviously, Travis had ditched the school gig by then.

The trade-off was that Wammack and McPhail had access to the studio and could use it anytime they wanted, and they did. In 1962 Wammack and McPhail wrote an instrumental called “Scratchy” which would eventually reach #80 on the charts.  You can hear Wammack’s tape loop fuzz here.

 

Yes, that was a backwards tape loop on the vocal, considered to be the first use of that technique.  That’s what happens when you let unsupervised teenagers do what they want in a studio.

Dig this. “Scratchy” was the B side. “Firefly” was written by Wammack and he thought that was the hit.  You can see why; the guitar playing is remarkable for a sixteen year old in 1962.

 

Rick Hall at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals had seen Travis play and tried to get him to move down to Alabama, but at the time Wammack was doing well around Memphis so Hall had to settle for flying Travis down periodically.

You all know the story of Rick Hall’s entire band leaving FAME and starting Muscle Shoals Studios. Hall was a competitive and vindictive man. He called up Travis, wanting him to put together the best band around. Travis did know the right people and Hall convinced him to leave Memphis and relocate to Muscle Shoals.

Thus started a period where Wammack met and played with the best in the business. Hall was a top producer/engineer and everyone wanted to record in Muscle Shoals and get that sound.

Wammack recalls that in 1970 Little Richard came to FAME to record a new album. Travis mentioned that he and Junior Lowe had recorded a scratch demo called “Greenwood, Mississippi” and felt the style was a cross between Richard’s style and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Richard wanted to hear it so Travis took him out to his truck where he had the demo on a cassette.

He’s in his truck with Little Richard. Must have been a moment.

Little Richard loved it so they went in to tell Rick Hall they wanted to do the song. Hall set up the studio and the musicians started in. But Travis relates that Little Richard was in the vocal booth shaking his head. They stopped and Richard said to Wammack, “This isn’t right. Where’s that music from the truck?”  Travis replied that was just a demo. Richard said, “That’s what I want to record over.” This thoroughly pissed off Rick Hall, but hey it’s Little Richard. That’s what they did and Little Richard had a minor hit with it.

Hall needed a vocalist so he asked Travis if he knew anyone. Travis did, and talked George Jackson into coming down from Memphis. Jackson was not only a great singer but a gifted songwriter. He worked for FAME for a while, but Rick Hall was a hard man to work for, demanding and set in his ways. Jackson eventually left FAME for Muscle Shoals Sound Studio which was about the worst insult you could give to Hall.

Travis Wammack tells the story of George Jackson calling him from Muscle Shoals Studio telling Travis he had a rock and roll song he’d like him to hear. Travis showed it to Hall but he rejected it saying they could write a hundred like that. No animosity there. Jackson sold the song “Old Time Rock and Roll” to Bob Seger who liked it just fine. Rick Hall was a hoot.

To emphasize what an influence Travis Wammack was, while touring with Little Richard in England in the late 1980s one show was attended by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. When Richard introduced Travis Wammack, Plant and Page turned to each other and simultaneously said “Scratchy!”

They asked if they could go backstage (granted) to meet Wammack. Page told Travis that record was the one that made him begin to practice earnestly and make it in music.

If you’re still with me and interested, this is a half-hour vid of Travis telling some of these stories and more. He’s a good storyteller and remembers everything.

 

Also, I’d like to credit a book, Travis Wammack’s Rock and Roll Days by Steve Johnson that I used for material and some research. It’s more like a collection of remembrances from Wammack and his cohorts but the stories of the rowdy rockabilly days are fun.