A Soul Detective survey of some of the lesser known sides cut by the man Sam Phillips called “The greatest Rock & Roll guitar player around.”
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Born in the small town of Walnut in the Mississippi ‘Hill Country’ in 1946, Travis Wammack moved to Memphis with the family he describes as ‘dirt poor’ when he was four years old. He had a guitar in his hand by the time he turned eight, and hung out down on Broad Avenue, the main drag that dragged its way through the blue-collar Binghampton section of town where he was growing up. By the time he was ten years old, he had learned every song that blared out of the gin joints and honky tonks along the strip.
Travis tells the story of how he would stand there next to the jukebox with his guitar, and when a customer would come up to play a song, he’d ask them what they wanted to hear and convince them to drop their dime in his guitar instead so he could perform it for them. A wheeler-dealer even then, one of the patrons that caught his act was Eddie Bond, then a disk jockey on the popular KWEM out of West Memphis. Bond was impressed, and soon got permission from Wammack’s parents to allow him to tour as the opening act on the musical ‘jamborees’ he sponsored across the mid-South. By all accounts, ‘Little Travis’ became quite the sensation, stealing the show from the likes of Carl Perkins and Bond’s own Stompers, which at the time would include Reggie Young and John Huey. It must have been a sight to behold!
A.F.of M. local 71 was not amused, and told Bond that it was alright for Little Travis to sing, but he wasn’t allowed to play his guitar because he wasn’t in the Union, even though technically he wasn’t old enough to become a member. When they played local clubs like Hernando’s Hideaway, Travis said, they had to sneak him in inside the bass drum case! After some legal wrangling, and a trip to the main office in New York, Wammack become the youngest person to ever join the Musician’s Union, at eleven years of age.
Roland Janes had gotten his start in Memphis around the same time. “Jack [Clements] and Slim [Wallace] were building a little studio in Slim’s garage on Fernwood Street,” Janes told David Less, “Jack said, ‘Oh, you play guitar huh?’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’m… somewhat.’ and he said, ‘Well bring your guitar in and let me hear ya play somethin.’ So I did, and we played around a while and he said, ‘We’re trying to get together to cut this little record on this guy named Billy Riley. You think you might be interested in helpin’ us on that?’ of course I jumped at the chance…” When Clements brought the tapes to Sam Phillips at Sun he hired him on the spot, promptly signed Billy Lee Riley, and released Trouble Bound on Sun in May of 1956. Janes would soon become Phillips’ go-to session guitarist, playing on earth-shattering records like Riley’s Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll and The Killer’s Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On.
Eddie Bond showed up at Slim’s garage shortly after that, and brought Little Travis with him. In what may have been Scotty Moore’s first project with the label, they would cut two sides on the young Wammack that he had written himself. Released as Fernwood 103 in September of 1957, both Rock & Roll Blues and I’m Leavin’ Today are just cookin’ records that still hold up today. With Bond’s Stompers (with Reggie Young on guitar, Smokey Joe Baugh on piano, Stan Kesler on bass and Johnny Fine on drums) on board, this kid had it goin’ on! Bond would take Travis over to Union Avenue for a session at Sun a few months later to cut I’m Gonna Rock (written by Eddie himself), but for one reason or another it wasn’t released at the time. That’s Stan Kesler handling the bass duties once again, and Jimmy Van Eaton on the drums, but there seems to be some confusion as to who’s playing that ‘killer’ piano… detectives?.
Travis would hang around Sun as often as he could, usually catching a ride with another musician friend from the neighborhood, Harold Dorman. He was there the night Ray Harris cut Greenback Dollar, Watch And Chain. “Man, they couldn’t keep the mic on him,” he told me, “he’d get so into it that he’d be jumping around like a wildman, waving his arms and howling…” As Ray’s future business partner Bill Cantrell told Colin Escott, “In the studio he’d throw himself around, arms going like windmills… they had to keep up with the guy. Man, he was crazy.” The kind of crazy that made quite an impression on our 12 year old rocker. That’s Wayne Cogswell on guitar here, but once again the piano player remains unknown…
In addition to his studio guitar duties at Sun, Roland Janes had been out there performing with both Jerry Lee’s band and Billy Riley’s Little Green Men for a few years. After Ray Harris split to form Hi Records (with the aforementioned Cantrell and Quinton Claunch) in 1957, and Sam Phillips fired Jack Clement and Bill Justis in early 1959, things at 706 Union Avenue were not the same. Adopting the more user-friendly surname ‘James’, Roland would produce a session on himself at Sun that February. Although most of that material remained unreleased for decades, the way cool Guitarville (featuring Martin Willis and the rest of the Green Men), was released on Sam’s brother’s label, Judd, in May… kinda makes you wanna surf down Madison Avenue, don’t it?
That Summer, Roland brought Jack Clement and Harold Dorman to visit Ray Harris at Hi to cut a song Dorman had written that they thought had potential. Dorman had recorded for Sun back in ’57, but it seemed like Sam Phillips was leaving more records ‘in the can’ than he was releasing. Partially in response to that, Janes and Billy Riley would create their own Rita imprint and issue Mountain Of Love on it in December.
A few other releases (including Janes’ only other solo record, given a three star rating in Billboard) would follow, before he pulled Harold’s single, added strings, and re-released it with the power of Bill Lowery’s National Recording Corrporation behind it in February of 1960. The record took off, climbing to #21 on the Hot 100, but going all the way to #7 R&B that Spring, during the same period when Bill Black’s Combo (with our man Martin Willis now wailing on that sax) just owned the #1 slot that May. Pretty amazing, when you think about it – that two of the R&B top ten records were cut on South Lauderdale by Little Green Men. Wow!
Presumably with the proceeds from Dorman’s big hit, Roland Janes would open the doors at his own studio at 1692 Madison Avenue in late 1961 – The Sonic Recording Service, about two miles down the road from the new location of Sam Phillips.
Little Travis, meanwhile, had grown up a bit. After a stint as one of Bud Deckelman’s Daydreamers, he formed his own band that played around the neighborhood. It was the bass player in that group, Prentiss McPhail, that told him about Sonic, and suggested that he go ‘try out’ at the studio. Fearless teenager that he was, Travis reportedly told Janes “I’m going to be a star and I want to be your session guitarist.” Now it was Roland’s turn to ask the question that Jack Clement had asked him eight years ago, “Let’s see what you got, kid…” Impressed with his guitar ‘chops’, he told him to come back next Tuesday, when he would be cutting Jerry Lee Lewis’ uncle (and father-in-law) Jay W. Brown (more on the results of that session in a minute).
So there you have it, the innovative cutting-edge Memphis guitarist of the fifties handing off the baton to the next generation… very cool! As Wammack settled in as the ‘house’ guitar player, Sonic was willing to cut whoever came through the door. Travis tells the story of how Red West, then head honcho of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia, came in and told them he wanted to make a record, but that he couldn’t sing, or play any instruments. “No problem!,” they told him, and cut this down and dirty version of Willie Dixon’s My Babe, which was released on Wayne McGinnis’ Santo label in early 1963. Great Stuff!
Roland had started up another label in 1962 named Renay, cutting local acts like Narvel Felts, Jerry Lane and Ken Williams. The big fat Memphis grease of Williams’ My Very Own (Trash Can) gives you an idea of the creative atmosphere at Sonic in those days. Wammack fit right in. Originally released on Renay, a song Roland cut on Narvel Felts’ drummer Matt Lucas would be picked up by Mercury after Rufus Thomas got behind it on WDIA. Issued on their Smash subsidiary in May of 1963, I’m Movin’ On (a rockin’ cover of Hank Snow’s 1950 smash hit) would hit the charts itself that Summer and climb almost halfway up Billboard’s Hot 100, stalling at #56. An even bigger hit in Canada (go figure), Lucas needed a guitar player to go up North with him in support of the record, and Travis was only too happy to oblige.
One of Style Wooten‘s first productions at Sonic was on a gentleman named Cowboy Slim Dortch (who had no doubt, like Quinton Claunch, spent his youth listening to ‘border-blaster’ XEG). The smokin’ Sixteen Miles is one of the few examples of pure Rockabilly cut in the midst of the British Invasion. After Slim exhorts Travis to “Make it moan, son!”, he does just that, whipping out some of the fastest guitar licks ever committed to vinyl. Phew! Speaking of Rockabilly, Arkansas’ own Bobby Lee Trammell booked Sonic soon after that and cut six sides for the obscure Hot label. In addition to that twangin’ guitar, I believe it’s our boy Travis that intones the name of Bobby’s favorite condiment here on this awesome garage rocker Mayonnaise, with label credit to Roland Janes as producer. Yeah, baby!
In the Spring of 1964, Wammack got a call from his booking agent, Ray Brown, about a six week gig that Summer backing up British pop duo Peter and Gordon, then climbing the charts with Lennon-McCartney’s A World Without Love. Smack dab in the middle of the ongoing Beatlemania that was sweeping the nation, Travis has some tales to tell about that tour (incuding a rather shocking one of their appearance at the New York World’s Fair!). Another Memphis group, Reggie Young and Bill Black’s Combo, would be accompanying The Fab Four themselves on their second U.S. tour that August, but Travis and his band were out there among ’em first.
1964 was also the year that Roland formed the ARA (American Recording Association) label with someone named Wayne Todd, to release some of the material he had been recording on Travis, Prentiss McPhail and others. Jerry Wexler apparently got wind of the label in New York while Travis was up there that Summer, and picked up National distribution on it that August. Firefly was supposed to be the A side of ARA 204, but it was the Big Apple disk jockeys that flipped the record over and ‘got on’ Scratchy which, with the big company’s muscle behind it, would spend 12 weeks on the charts that Fall.
Just a hugely influential record on both sides of the Atlantic, I don’t think you can say enough about how groundbreaking a recording this was. It would peak at #69 in Cashbox that December (as Johnny Rivers’ version of the Harold Dorman song that had started it all was climbing into the top ten), but remains a timeless guitar classic. Travis still sings the praises of what a studio genius Roland was. Working in an era before multi-track capability, he was a master at ‘ping-ponging’ overdubs without any degradation of quality. That garbled section there in the middle of Scratchy represents the first instance of running the tape backwards to be released on vinyl – years before ‘Revolver’ hit the racks, boys and girls. The fact that this funky studio located in a strip mall in Memphis represented the state-of-the-art in experimental recording techniques at the time is kind of hard to get your mind around… but it did. Thank You Mister Janes!
Wammack would go on to have five more releases on ARA (including a duet issued as Travis and Prentiss), but none of them dented the charts. Some attempted to mine the same gonzo instrumental vein that Scratchy had, with titles like Distortion, Part 1 (on which he employed the primitive ‘fuzz box’ he had invented from household electrical parts), but the best of the lot was his cookin’ cover of the Bobby Bland anthem, Don’t Cry No More. Released in July of 1965, Travis told me, “People thought I was a black woman!”
You can’t make this stuff up.
In late 1965, Wexler stepped in and purchased a bunch of Sonic masters, including the tapes from Travis’ initial 1962 session on Jay W. Brown, releasing Don’t Push Me Around (penned by Roland) on ATCO that January, with our young guitar slinger’s stinging style already well developed. Atlantic would also re-issue both sides of Bobby Lee Tramell’s first Hot single on the main imprint that May, with hoppin’ dance number (co-written by Travis and Trammell) Shimmy Loo designated as the ‘plug side’. Both just great records, I’m pretty sure that’s Travis blowin’ that wild harmonica, too.
As part of the same deal, Bert Berns also picked up a couple of Prentiss McPhail sides for release on his Atlantic subsidiary, Bang. The ‘Wooly Bully type’ Moolah Man has Travis’ guitar all over it, but sounds more Jessie Hill than Sam Samudio to me… check out those harmony vocals!
Travis’ records had now been moved up to the main label at Atlantic as well, and there would be three 45s issued on him in 1966, but nobody seemed to notice. With blockbuster hits on the label by folks like Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett taking most of his attention, It’s almost as if Wexler wasn’t quite sure what to do with him or, for that matter, Roland Janes. Wammack’s singles ran the gammut from raunchy instrumental covers of R&B hits, to the sensitive ‘singer-songwriter’ type material Travis had been writing himself. Waiting falls into that latter category, and is just a hidden gem of a deep blue-eyed Soul record. I love Janes’ atmospheric production, with our young man’s pleading vocal layered over those dreamy guitars. Despite being given a B+ in Cashbox as a ‘warm soulful outing’, it sank like a stone.
In February of 1967, with the sudden explosion of Martial Arts in American popular culture (due in large part to Bruce Lee’s role as The Green Hornet’s kickin’ sidekick Kato on everybody’s TV), Atlantic would release Travis’ own contribution to the craze, It’s Karate Time. Just a floor-filler of a dance record, it’s hard to believe it didn’t make the charts back then (especially in light of the fact that Bert Berns would be sending JerryO’s Karate-Boo-Ga-Loo into the R&B top 20 within a few months), but the fact remains it didn’t. Increasingly frustrated with his perennial lack of success at Atlantic, once Aretha hit for Wexler that March, Travis would become even less of a priority at the label. As the year progressed, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and then his phone rang…
It was that ‘wildman’ Ray Harris at Hi Records. Excello had brought in Slim Harpo for a session at the studio in April, and he had made a deal with them to release some of his ‘product’ on their labels at a later date… only now there was a problem. Reggie Young and Bobby Emmons had jumped ship, and signed on with Chips Moman at American. “They were scared to death of Ray,” Travis told me… he wasn’t. A ‘wildman’ himself, you could find Wammack most days hunting rattlesnakes in the wetlands down under the Memphis-Arkansas bridge, and Harris would beg him to come to the studio instead. It was a transitional period at the label, with Willie Mitchell beginning to bring in members of his road band like Teenie Hodges and Howard Grimes, but Ray liked the idea of running the show. As we’ve discussed over on the Reggie Young Discography Project, Willie Mitchell had begun receiving label credit as a producer at Hi earlier that year, but not Ray… even though he had behind the board for just about every record cut there since 1959, including those monumental Soul sides by O.V. Wright. This may be partially due to the fact that the ‘producer’ credit on the label was a relatively new development, I don’t know, but all that was about to change.
Stacy Lane kind of styled himself as the Memphis version of Wilson Pickett, and had cut a couple of sides for Estelle Axton’s Bar label before Travis brought him to Ray at Hi. Together they came up with the smokin’ African Twist, more or less an answer record to ‘Funky Broadway’. Yes, that is Charlie Chalmers blowing his heart out on that sax! Excello had high hopes for the record, judging by their ad in Record World in February of 1968, with ‘Produced by Ray Harris’ printed right on the label [Inexplicably, also credited as a songwriter on both sides of the single, is James Fuller, a founding member of The Ventures!]
The B side of the follow-up on Excello is another mover and groover, Funky Little Train. I love when Stacy says “Ok, Travis, you go…” The big fat plug side of that record, No Brags Just Facts, written by Travis and Stacy, out Picketts the Wicked Pickett but, nonetheless, it couldn’t seem to crack the charts. Excello would issue another great Ray Harris produced two-sider on their A-Bet subsidiary that May, this time a duet by Dee And Don. Travis brings the swamp into the mix on the swaggerin’ I Can’t Stand It, which had first been given the male/female treatment by Jerry Butler and Betty Everett in 1964. Call me crazy, but I like this version better! The deep Soul B side, How Much It Hurts Me (written by ‘T. Wommack’), is just about as good as it gets. How is it that a killer record like this had been virtually ignored for so long? Wow! Not to be confused with Dee & Lola, who had been cutting at American with John R, this 45 appears to be their only release.
“We’re all here, why don’t we cut somethin’?” Travis told me Harris said one day. “OK, Ray, let’s do Hendrix’s Fire,” Travis answered. “He had no idea what I was talking about…” but they cut it anyway, with that ‘live in the studio’ vibe that was all the rage back then. “Sho is Funky!!” Released on Hi’s M.O.C. subsidiary in October of ’68, it’s the flip of this one that just knocks me out. That’s Stacy Lane and Travis claiming “We Got Soul”, and you know what, they do! This side has often been included on these like Royal Memphis Soul compilations, and it’s natural to think that it’s a Willie Mitchell and Hi Rhythm track… but it’s not. Travis had brought in his bass player Bob Wray by then, and that’s James Hooker on the B-3. I’m not sure who came up with the name ‘Bad & Good Boys’, but it certainly fits. We Bad!!
We asked Jerry ‘Satch’ Arnold why he hadn’t gone with the others to American, “I wasn’t asked,” he said, and that’s that. With Travis kind of serving as the bridge between the old school and the new, he would soldier on in the house band along with both Satch and Willie Mitchell on the instrumentals the label was famous for. Buried treasures like Ace Cannon’s funky Soul For Sale, and groovy Bill Black’s Combo records like Creepin’ Around and Closin’ Time would be cut during Wammack’s tenure there at Hi. Who knew?
With Travis’ Atlantic contract expired, he was in the market for a new label. I’m not sure how it came about, but he would sign with Congress, a newly re-activated division of MCA, in early 1969. They certainly pulled out all the stops, sending ‘Wamack’ for a session at American during its absolute prime.
I’m not sure what Congress’ target audience might have been (they had also just signed Elton John), but the decision to cut Travis on a re-make of Wolverton Mountain, a 1962 #1 Country hit for Claude King, makes you wonder. By Travis’ own admission, “I was singing like a Bee-Gee on that one…” Despite Tommy Cogbill’s production (and Reggie’s guitar), it didn’t do much. They would send Travis back to American in November to record his latest composition, Twangin’ My Thang. Another funky-ass dance number (with a tip of the hat to Skip Pitts’ gravelly guitar work that had propelled The Isley’s It’s Your Thing to the top of the charts a few months before), it nevertheless died on the vine.
Rick Hall had been flying Travis down to Fame for sessions for a few years, without giving him any label credit. When he asked him why, Rick told him, “Memphis and Muscle Shoals are in competition for the recording dollar, and I won’t put the name of a Memphis musician on the records I produce here…” “What about Charlie Chalmers, Bowlegs Miller and James Mitchell?,” Travis asked him, “they’re all from Memphis.” “Yeah, but you’re famous,” Hall told him. At that point, I’m sure Travis thought, ‘Hell, I ain’t THAT famous!’ In any event, Rick had been ‘blowing smoke’ about Travis relocating to The Shoals for a while and, with ‘The Swampers’ recently departed for greener pastures, he doubled up on his efforts. Without much happening for him there in Memphis, in late 1969 Travis took him up on the offer.
One of the first things he did when he got there was to re-cut Twangin’ My Thang, this time released as a group effort by his new compadres, The Fame Gang. Produced by Mickey Buckins, it just cooks along with Travis’ sitar and chunky wah-wah rhythm over those ‘vehicular’ horns, this is one awesome record. Check out Jesse Boyce and Freeman Brown just gettin’ on down… Da Fonk is in Da House! There is a LOT more to the Travis Wammack saga, and we will pick up our narrative with the rest of the great music he’s been creating down there in Northwestern Alabama for the past fifty years in our next installment…
For now, though, I just want to congratulate Mister Wammack, who will be receiving his Bronze Star from The Alabama Music Hall of Fame on June 11th…
You Go, Little Travis!!
– with special thanks to Travis, Jay Halsey, Colin Escott, John Ridley, John Broven, Mark Nicholson, Frank Bruno, Alexander Petrauskas, David Less, Junior Lowe, Billy Lawson and Johnny Belew…