Travis Wammack was only 8 years old when he went into his first Memphis recording studio and plucked out a song called "Rock and Roll Blues" for Eddie Bond's Fernwood label. Bond, the country and rockabilly artist famous for his cycle of songs about McNary County's tall-walking sheriff Buford Pusser and infamous for telling Elvis Presley not to quit his day job, saw Wammack performing on a street corner and heard something special in the kid's youthful picking. Wammack started opening shows for the likes of Warren Smith and Carl Perkins, and seven years later, the 15-year-old prodigy teamed with Sonic Studio's Roland Janes, Jerry Lee Lewis' guitar player and a legendary producer of Memphis garage bands, to crank out "Scratchy," one of the greatest instrumental singles of all time.
From its sloppy intro to its raging hooks to its brief backward vocal, "Scratchy" was a song clearly ahead of its time. The song was originally recorded as the "B" side to the equally quirky instrumental "Firefly." It was offered to Nashville guitar god Chet Atkins, who decided not to release the single, saying, "It scares me. I'll pass." In 1964, at the height of the British invasion, Janes released the record independently with "Firefly" as the "A" side. But while Wammack was on tour supporting Peter & Gordon, whose hit "World Without Love" was racing up the charts, something strange happened.
"We were playing Chicago when I got a call from Art Roberts at WLS [radio], and he asked if I would play 'Scratchy' tonight. He said, 'We've got two new hits at WLS today: Peter & Gordon's 'World Without Love' is number two. 'Scratchy' is number one.'"
Wammack credits Janes -- and the freedom he was given to "play around" in the studio -- for the critical success of his early singles.
"I had my own key, and I'd get to the studio way before Roland would. I'd open all the mail and tell him what he needed to read when he got there," Wammack says. In addition to reading other people's mail, Wammack was constantly experimenting. He replaced the G string on his guitar with a tenor banjo string and built a distortion unit out of an old tape recorder that gave his cherry-red Gibson a distinctive "fuzztone" sound.
But being ahead of your time has its drawbacks. Although Wammack's songs would find distribution through Atlantic, he remained a minor solo artist even as he became a highly sought-after studio musician backing artists ranging from Charlie Feathers to Aretha Franklin. As Memphis' soul scene waned, Wammack found plenty of work at Rick Hall's Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which rivaled Stax for the title of most soulful spot in the South.
"The R&B sound was shifting from Memphis to Muscle Shoals, and I was already going down there to do a lot of work, so I figured it was time to move," Wammack says.
Wammack became a fixture at Fame and often worked as a go-between.
"Rick was good," Wammack says, "but he didn't always know how to communicate with the musicians."
When the recently deceased Lou Rawls came to record a tribute to Sam Cooke at Fame, he brought with him a reputation for being difficult to work with. Wammack was sent to scope out the situation and bring back a report.
"[Rawls] started pulling out all this sheet music, and I said, 'Hold on.' I asked, 'So did you come here for the Muscle Shoals sound? We don't use sheet music; we like to feel things out.'" Rawls said he'd come for the sound, put his sheet music away, and never complained once. "Later I heard that Lou had been telling people about 'this funky white boy' playing guitar in Alabama," Wammack says.
When Little Richard called and asked Wammack to be his bandleader, the funky white boy discovered that "Scratchy" had a much bigger reputation than he realized.
"We were playing one show in Birmingham, England, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were in the audience," he says. "After the show they came backstage. My son Monkey [Travis Jr.] went over to talk to them and asked if they wanted to meet Little Richard. They told him, 'No, we came back to meet your daddy.'" Page and Plant told Travis Jr. that they had been surprised when Little Richard introduced his band and announced that Travis Wammack was playing guitar. According to Wammack, they turned to each other grinning and said, in unison, "Scratchy."
"Jimmy Page told me that after he heard 'Scratchy' he knew right then he wanted to be a hot guitar player," Wammack says.
Wammack, who plugs in at Neil's on Saturday, January 28th, and who will play the Ponderosa Stomp at the Gibson Guitar Lounge later this year, still rips through his Sonic-era instrumentals but rounds out his set with popular, if overplayed, standards such as Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl." He's been known to break into a self-indulgent cover of "Play That Funky Music White Boy," but, even playing well-worn, and in some cases worn-out, material, Wammack's virtuosity is unmistakable.
"I want everything to be perfect," Wammack says. "I try to be the consummate performer."