The Memphis Sound
7:25 am
Tue May 1, 2012

Travis Wammack Turns A Nashville Cat Into A Fraidy Cat

The story, as I understand it, can be summed up in these two parables, noted by Chris Davis in the Memphis Flyer in 2006. At the peak of their popularity in 1964, British duo Peter And Gordon played a gig in Chicago. At the time, they held the top spot nationwide with their song “A World Without Love.” Travis Wammack, who grew up in Memphis, was a young guitarist in the touring band, and also had a single on the charts. Before the concert, Wammack took a call from legendary WLS DJ Art Roberts. Art wanted to make sure that Travis would play his song, called “Scratchy,” that night. It turns out that on the WLS chart, Peter And Gordon were number two. “Scratchy” was number one in the windy city.

A similar situation occurred years later, as Travis toured England backing rocker Little Richard. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin attended a show, and popped up backstage afterwards. Wammack’s son, Travis, Jr. (though everyone calls him Monkee) met the two and introduced himself. Monkee offered to take them to meet Little Richard, but their shocking reply was, “No, we came back to meet your daddy.” Page traced his desire to excel as a guitarist back to the inspiration of that same record, “Scratchy.”

What is this record that, chances are, you’ve never even heard?

Well, let’s start with Travis Wammack. Born in Walnut, Mississippi, Travis moved to Memphis at a young age. Travis was discovered early on by Elvis guitarist and Fernwood Records top man, Scotty Moore. The wunderkind Wammack recorded compositions such as “Rock And Roll Blues” and “I’m Leaving Today” when he was 11. So even though he was only 16 or 17 when he recorded “Scratchy,” this was not Travis Wammack’s first trip to the rodeo.

The song drew inspiration, oddly enough, from a Mel Torme tune, “Comin’ Home Baby.” Wammack distilled the melody into guitar riffs, then expanded on these with a foretaste of the lightning speed for which he would become famous in later years as a studio musician. Travis employed a home made fuzz tone effect he crafted from old tape recorder parts. “Scratchy” also introduced the use of backwards recording, with an unusual middle section consisting of a non-sequitur narration, played first forward, then backwards.

The song was actually intended as the B-side of a record titled “Fire Fly.” The single was offered to Chet Atkins, of RCA in Nashville. Atkins passed on it, and indicated the record “frightened” him. It was released on the ARA label. Even though it sold consistently and was quite popular in a number of regions, the limitations on distribution and promotion kept it from making it big everywhere all at once, so it didn’t make the huge chart impact a coordinated effort might have produced.

Travis found his niche outside the spotlight, satisfied with being the secret ingredient in records which have sold over 60 million copies. First in Memphis, at Roland Jane’s Sonic Studios, then at Fame Records in Muscle Shoals, Wammack’s guitar powered hit records for scores of artists from Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to the Righteous Brothers and even The Osmonds.

Among Wammack‘s recording credits we find “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” by Mac Davis. This reminds me of a side story a guy who toured with Mac Davis once. He told me about the frustration the drummer went through trying to get his toms (those drums you see that are bigger than the snare drum but smaller than the bass drum) to sound like the ones on the record. He tried all sorts of tricks, like putting towels over the drum heads and placing objects on the heads to deaden the sound, but couldn’t come close. They finally asked Davis what the secret was, and were informed that the sound on the record wasn’t a drum at all. It was derived from beating a large Rubbermaid garbage can.

Travis finally made the top 40 on his own with a “Love Being Your Fool’ in the 70’s, and is a member of a number of musical halls of fame. If he’s not necessarily a household name, rest assured the speediest guitarist in the South remains on the speed dial of producers around the world.