Friday, September 18, 2009

Travis Wammack

Travis Wammack was born in 1944 in Walnut, Mississippi and raised in and around Memphis, Tennessee. His father played guitar and soon little Travis was picking away. Most guitarists base their style on that of another, earlier guitarist, but Wammack has no percursor, his sound was totally original and he cites no influences other than his dad and the unnamed blues and country players he heard on the radio and later encountered in bars and on the Memphis street. Soon he put together a band and started playing wherever he could. Singer and all around hustler Eddie Bond discovered the pre-pubescent picker as the opening act on a bill that included Sun Records rockers Jack Earls and Warren Smith. Bond brought him to the Slim Wallace's Fernwood label, where Sun refugee Roland Janes was the staff producer.Wammack began his recording career, he was twelve years old. Wammack's first ever session birthed the rockabilly classic Rock and Roll Blues b/w I'm Leaving Today (another tune, I Want To Rock, was left un-issued until the next century). It did well in Memphis but nothing outside of town.
Roland Janes left Fernwood to open his own recording studio called Sonic. He began using the young Wammack as a session guitarist. It took a couple of years but eventually he started recording the youngster as a solo artist. In 1961 he waxed a scorching guitar instrumental which became a minor hit on the Ara label-- Scratchy b/w Firefly. Had he disappeared after that disc was released we'd still be talking about him today. At age sixteen, Wammack was as good a guitar player as rock'n'roll would ever produce. His style was flashy, wild, unpredictable, full of humor, tension, surprise, and fire. He had a distorted tone, and brilliant technique. Although he was and is a fine singer, his most memorable recordings would be instrumentals. Scratchy would rise to #80 on the pop charts but in some cities it did considerably better, especially when Atlantic took over its distribution. In the next six years Wammack would record twelve singles with producer Roland Janes at Sonic, six issued on Ara and another six were picked up by Atlantic. Together with a handful of un-released tracks that finally saw light of day in 1987 when Bear Family released them (it was the first CD I ever bought) they constitute one of rock'n'roll's greatest canons. Listen to the tone of his guitar on Distortion pt. 2 , his third era single. It's inhabits the middle ground between Link Wray and Lonnie Mack. He could take standards like Night Train and Louie Louie and turn them inside out, with a surprise on each turn around. It's Karate Time, and Upset, the former issued as the flip of Night Train, the latter on the b-side of Louie Louie are two of his best originals, his sound taking on the characteristics of aural quicksilver (and I don't mean messenger service).
Of the highlights of what lay languishing in the tape vault include his version of the Thunder Road theme song as well as originals Super Soul Beat and Tech-Nically Speaking. I have never before used the word gonzo, but Wammack's playing was so good I'm plumb out of adjectives.
Night Train b/w It's Karate Time, released in 1967 on Atlantic was the last of his singles to fully embody this original style, after six years and eleven flops, his style began to change. He made his living in those years as a session man, often at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, playing on countless hits and misses. He would cut singles for Capitol (a version of Parchman Farm from 1970) and Congress (Twangin' My Thang) , before making his first, self titled LP, for Fame in 1972. He was singing almost full time now, out of control guitar instrumentals were out of style.
By the time his second LP-- Not For Sale came out in 1975 on Capricorn, he was sounding nearly as much like Duane Allman as himself. Allman, another Muscle Shoals session guitarist had achieved post-mordem hippie-rock stardom and would be the most influential guitarist in the south in the early 70's.
Neither of Wammack's solo albums sold much, and in 1975 Travis Wammack began his tenure as Little Richard's band leader, staying with him for more than a decade. At one point Wammack's son would join him in Richard's band, playing drums.
After the 1987 re-issue of the Ara sides on the afore-mentioned Bear Family CD-- That Scratchy Guitar From Memphis, Wammack began to return to his unique and much heralded style, recording a surprisingly good, self released, comeback LP Still Rockin' in 1998, followed up by Snake, Rattle and Muscle Shoals in 2000. He appeared at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans in 2008, and is still at it, picking his Gibson 335 with jaw dropping speed and dexterity. There's a quote from Chet Atkins, the ever tasteful guitarist and producer responsible for the "countrypolitan" sound of the early 70's, who upon hearing Travis Wammack play was asked what he thought, he responded-- "This stuff scares me". As it very well should... a full discography can be found here.

11 comments:

MikeBluetele said...

There's a fine line between genius and madness, and this stuff has one foot on each side of that line. Gotta love it! Thanks, Hound! This is almost all new to me---I had only heard "Rock 'n Roll Blues" before, and I hadn't paid any notice to that. Putting it all in a context like this really brings it all home.

In case anyone gets curious, that vocal break in "Scratchy" is the same thing played once forward and then again backwards. That's probably old news, but I had to check it out for myself immediately.

Anonymous said...

thank you
there is a Distortion pt1
but it's the same with some harmonica

The Hound said...

"there is a Distortion pt1
but it's the same with some harmonica"

My 45 has "I Ain't Lyin'" on the b-side....

Gene Casey said...

And check out the great DVD "Heroes of Rock & Roll" a 1988 show HBO produced (with great Fats, Bo, JB, Jerry Lee, BB King, Ray Charles mini-sets) featuring Little Richard doing "Great Gosh Almighty" with Travis whammying, looking oddly like a denim-clad of Sam Phillips.

Gene Casey said...

Oh, and, just wondering...what kind of father lets his son join Little Richard's band???!

Anonymous said...

I have "Scratchy" on an old 45. It went to #2 in Detroit in 1964.

Anonymous said...

Countrypolitan is probably the best description of Travis in the early 70's.
Here's a track from '73 that peaked
at #68. "How Can I Tell You"

http://www.divshare.com/download/8560955-79f

KevanA

The Hound said...

"there is a Distortion pt1
but it's the same with some harmonica"

Just flipped through my 45's again, it seems you're right, I do have a distortion pt. 1, and a pt. 2, both w/the same catolog #'s and same flipside, very weird.
pt. 2 is much better, I can see why they pulled the pt. 1 and replaced it w/pt.2.

Billy said...

Great post! You forgot to mention that today he raises rattlesnakes and hunts 'em with a bow and arrow!

I've got a Ronco compilation with his "(Shu Doo-Pa-Poo-Poop) Love Being Your Fool" sandwiched between Abba and the Bay City Rollers. Weird.

Jumpy said...

What kind of father names his son "Monkey"?
PJL

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This will not truly have success, I consider so.

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