Some new revelations straight from the horse’s mouth… along with a major discovery!
(YouTube playlist of all tracks below, as always…)
Down in The Shoals, it was kinda like ‘all Travis all the time’ as, in addition to being asked to speak at the unveiling of his ‘star’ at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, we got to see him and The Snakeman Band perform at no less than three different gigs over the course of the few days we were down there – the Johnny Belew Benefit at Champy’s, the Rally by the River benefit for St. Jude’s Hospital, and the tenth annual Sheffield Street Party later on the same day. The fact that he and his band were willing to set up and play all three shows, knowing they were only getting paid for one, says a lot about the type of people these guys are, and further demonstrates the warm and welcoming vibe of the ‘Quad-Cities’ area… it always feels like goin’ home.
Having the opportunity to hang out and bother Travis in between sets enabled me to clear up a few things, and answer a few questions I had after our big investigation last time out…
As you may know, Sam Phillips left more records ‘in the can’ at Sun than he actually released. Over the years, that material has seen the light of day on myriad compilations, CDs and box sets. In 1985, a company called Redita Records in The Netherlands issued an LP called Rock ‘N Roll Fever, composed of mostly obscure tracks by Rockabilly era artists, one of whom was named ‘Little Louis’ Robertson. According to the liner notes on that album, his identity is “…a mystery, appearing only on some Memphis demos from 1957…” Actually, according to the excellent resource 706 Union Avenue, the session for Robertson’s previously unreleased track on the album, I’m Gonna Rock, was held at Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service on August 12, 1958.
In the early nineties, Dave Travis purchased Eddie Bond’s Stomper Time Records and ‘relocated it in England as a reissue label’, according to Discogs. I’m not sure what happened next, but somehow Mr. Travis must have decided that the pre-pubescent dulcet tones of ‘Little Louis’ must actually have belonged to ‘Little Travis’, and released the same recording of I’m Gonna Rock in a few different formats as a Travis Wammack cut, an error which has now been carried over in the digital age to places like YouTube and Spotify.
It’s gotten so out of hand that on Discogs, Wammack is actually listed as an ‘alias’ of Robertson. Well let’s set the record straight once and for all:“That ain’t me,” Travis told me, “and I never heard of anybody named Louis Robertson, little or otherwise, back then. I’m not sure where they got the idea… I told Stuart Colman that it wasn’t me when I was over in England with Little Richard… I remember a guy named Lou Roberts, but I don’t think it’s the same person.” There ya go.
Lou Roberts headed a ‘blue-eyed Soul’ band, The Marks, that played the same circuit in and around The Muscle Shoals area as groups like The Fairlanes, The Del-Rays, The Pallbearers and Hollis Dixon’s Keynotes in the early sixties. He did record at Sun (by then Sam Phillips Recording on Madison Avenue) in early 1965, cutting four sides for Stan Kesler, who leased them to MGM. Known locally as ‘King Louie’, he would continue to record for Kesler’s Sounds Of Memphis subsidiary in the early seventies. Roberts’ keyboard player, Don Culver, was quite the songwriter and (as we discussed earlier) wrote one of the truly great Soul songs, picked up by Charlie Chalmers for Barbara & The Browns, and later by Papa Don Schroeder for James & Bobby Purify. So, detectives, do you think Lou Roberts is actually the grown-up version of Little Louis Robertson? Hmmm…
One of the absolute highlights of our road trip was getting to see J.M. Van Eaton, the fabled Sun Records drummer, perform Great Balls of Fire with Travis Wammack. At 83 years old, Van Eaton still seems as spry as ever, beating them skins with the same kind of energy he displayed as one of the architects of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He recently re-located to Muscle Shoals, he told me, to be closer to the music, and you never know where he might turn up, sitting in with local acts like The Snakeman Band whenever he gets the chance. Along with Roland Janes, he was one of Billy Lee Riley’s Little Green Men, and had a couple of cool instrumental releases under his own name on Riley’s Rita and Nita labels after leaving Sun in 1959.
In 1988, Bear Family Records in Germany issued an LP called The Roland Janes Sessions that pulled together some obscure tracks by the Green Men, including three previously unreleased cuts attributed to J.M. Van Eaton that were recorded at Sonic in 1964 with Travis Wammack on guitar. As it turns out, one of those tunes, entitled Something Else on the LP, actually was released as the flip of one of Travis’ ARA singles as Somethin’ Else in late 1965. Written by Van Eaton, it sounds more New Orleans than Memphis, with those punchy horn lines over that second-line drumbeat. In any event, I guess it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, it’s just great to see these two Memphis legends back playing together after 57 years!
“I’ve got something for you,” Travis said after his set at Champy’s… I had no idea what he was talking about. After the ‘star’ ceremony at the Hall of Fame, he handed me a near-mint copy of the Red West Combo 45 we featured in our last post. “Just my way of saying thank you,” he said. I was pretty much blown away… I mean, I didn’t expect anything. Very Cool! Just a great record, My Babe has this early-Stax Memphis instrumental vibe goin’ on, and holding it there in my hand afforded me the opportunity to ask him who else was in the ‘Combo’ – “That’s Prentiss McPhail on bass, James (Brown) Hooker on organ and Danny Taylor on drums… Danny and Jerry ‘Smoochy’ Smith had a duo that was kickin’ butt in Memphis at the time.”
As it turns out, that butt kickin’ duo actually had a release on what appears to have been their own label, Smo-Dan. I’m not sure how Shelby Singleton got the publishing on The Only Thing Wrong With Her, but there ya go. Speaking of arcane Memphis records, Travis told me that, as part of the same deal with Red West, they cut Elvis’ ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ girlfriend, Anita Wood, at Sonic, resulting in a couple of Santo 45s of her own. Released in April of 1964, This Has Happened Before, with Roland Janes employing the same kind of ‘vocal doubling’ that Chips Moman would begin using on Sandy Posey a couple of years later, is just a great ‘popcorn’ record that has flown under the radar for far too long.
You know, every time Mister Wammack opens his mouth, it seems like there’s more to be learned about his history in the music business. I just found out that, in addition to his band playing behind Peter and Gordon on their first U.S. tour in 1964, the Pop duo also covered two of Travis’ compositions on their U.K. album released shortly after that, My Little Girl’s Gone and Two Little Love Birds. Travis would cut his own more rockin’ version of that one for Janes’ ARA label in 1965.
At the Hall of Fame event, Travis told us “I was always on the look-out for a new sound for my guitar, and one night I was at the Drive-In Movies and I started thinking about what my guitar might sound like coming out of that little speaker that you hung there in the car window… so I just kind of forgot to take it out of the window one night, and drove home with it. I hooked it up to my amplifier, and it sounded pretty good!” I asked him later on if he had used that set-up on any records – “Stay,“ he said. Released in June of ’66, I wonder if Wexler knew what Travis was up to… you can’t make this stuff up!
Travis went on to say, “When I was a kid, my family would tie up the butter and milk on a rope, and lower it down into the well so the cold water would keep ’em fresh. I used to love to hang over and stick my head down in there and yell… I loved the big fat sound the echo made. One day, I found this like ten foot length of pipe and I dragged it down to the studio. ‘Roland,’ I said, ‘I’m gonna put my amp at one end of this pipe, and I want you to put a microphone on the other.’ Sounded good, man!” Once again, I asked him if there were any records with that set up on them – “Have You Ever Had The Blues,” which was his next release on Atlantic. “I told you George Jackson grew up in the same neighborhood as me in Memphis, and that’s him that asks ‘Tell me, have you ever had the blues?’ at the start of that record. Years later, when I was playing those like ‘Legends of Rock & Roll’ shows with Little Richard, Lloyd Price [who wrote the song with Harold Logan] made it a point to come up to me and tell me how much he liked my version. I was amazed he had even heard it!” Ya gotta love it…
After the re-discovery of the incredible Ray Harris produced A-Bet 45 by Dee and Don in our last installment, I asked Travis about them: “I used to feature Dee and Don as part of my live shows, and I was the one that brought them to Ray at Hi.” I then started ‘googling’ a bit to try and find out more about who they were. As it turns out, there is a page about them on Sir Shambling’s Deep Soul Heaven (of course) on which Jim O’Neal, the founding editor of Living Blues reports:
“Don’s real name is Homer McMinn, better known now as Papa Don McMinn, a regular performer on Beale Street since the 1980s. He has been called ‘The Pale Prince of Beale Street’ and ‘The Boogie Man.’ He is a white singer and guitarist originally from Kansas, where he made a 45, Mary Jane, in the 1960s on the Runnin’ Wild label under the name Tiny Lyman & the Jukes. He’s mostly known for blues and boogie but also does country, rock and R&B.” Well, alright… John Broven then sent along an obituary confirming the sad news that the Pale Prince had passed away in 2017. There was, alas, still no information on Dee, but through Broven I was able to reach out to O’Neal directly and get him on the case…
“I found Don McMinn’s Facebook page still accessible today and started tracing a Dee Martin who was mentioned and connected somehow. One thing led to another and I have attached my file on her: born Catherine Virginia Fisk, she married McMinn (here in Kansas City), recorded as a backup singer as Dee McMinn (with Roy Head), Dee McKinnie (with John Mayall), Virginia Fisk (with McMinn) & Dee Martin (on the last sessions she did in Memphis).. . . Please forward to Red under condition that I be awarded an honorary Soul Detective badge for this!” [Actually, folks, Jim earned his badge years ago providing us with vital information about Sir Lattimore Brown and Cosimo Matassa… thanks, Jim!]
Once Jim mentioned Facebook, we were able to find out that Dee was inducted into The McNairy County Music Hall of Fame in 2015, at which time her husband Eddy Jack Martin wrote:
“Dee began performing in public at the age of four, by the age of 7 Dee made her first TV appearance on The Red Foley Show. By the early 70s Dee found herself in Memphis, TN singing backup in many of the Memphis studios . Jeff Beck is just one of many artist Dee sang back up for. While working in Memphis, blues legend John Mayall came into a club where Dee was preforming. Three months later Dee is in LA recording the first of three albums with MAYALL… over the next three years Dee did two American and European Tours, from here Dee went to New Orleans to record her album which was produced by ALLEN TOUSSAINT. As if that is not enough Dee has performed with such artists as Robin Trower, Buddy Miles, Rufus Thomas, The Memphis Horns, Joe Cocker, Greg Allman, Larry Taylor (Canned Heat), Rick Vito (Fleetwood Mac) and The Amazing Rhythm Aces just to name a few…” Just, like, wow!
Sadly, however, Jim O’Neal also discovered that she too had passed away, in December of 2015. According to her obituary: “Her character and temperament can best be shown from the first time she was diagnosed with that ugly word cancer until she left this world for the beauty and promise of the next. Although she had every right to cry, be mad, or even fall into a depression after her diagnosis, she instead loved and lived every moment she was given. Neither hard times nor cancer would rob her of who she was. Always graceful, until God called her home.” May She Rest In Peace.
It was through Facebook, once again, that I was able to make contact with Papa Don and Dee’s daughter, Lorina, who is carrying on in the family tradition, singing The Blues in Memphis: “Papa Don was indeed my father. I have some extremely fond memories of Allen Toussaint and those days… The one you posted [A-Bet 9429], I had never heard. I even sent it to my stepmother, Don’s wife, and she had never heard it. They had to have been The same age as their youngest grandson is now then. Lol. We did a family album at Ardent about 7 years ago and thankfully I got Mom in there too to do one song. I forgot all about the Travis Wammack stuff that they both told me about in the past. You’re just now saying that jogged my memory about that. It’s weird how things go full circle… that they were at Hi back then, and I have recorded there independent of them since their passing blows me away.” All of this pretty much blows me away, too.
Now, courtesy of Lorina, please allow me to present the first known photograph of Dee and Don:
How awesome is that? Thanks so much, Lorina – You Rock!
Before I go, let’s take a look at another of those Congress sides that Wammack waxed at American with Tommy Cogbill producing in 1969, recently unearthed by Frank Bruno and Mark Nicholson. The breezy folk-rock of Don’t Walk Out Of My Life really does feature Travis ‘singing like a Bee-Gee,’ and with Reggie Young and the 827 Thomas Street Band behind him, definitely could have been a hit. It wasn’t, but remains just another indication of how broad and varied Travis’ solo career was before he even got to Muscle Shoals…
He’s Somethin’ Else!
…and just in case you missed our Soul Detective Road Trip Special Report, here ya go:
Special thanks go to Travis, Mitzi and Monkey Wammack, Lorina McMinn, J.M. Van Eaton, Jay Halsey, Jim O’Neal, John Broven, John Ridley, Mark Nicholson, Frank Bruno, Billy Lawson, Johnny Belew and all our friends in The Shoals.