Why Lattimore Matters…

Sir Lattimore Brown backstage at The Ponderosa Stomp 2009

Lattimore Brown was deep. There was a certain compassion, a spirituality about him that was hard to define. You can see it in the Cheryl Gerber portrait above. When you were around him, things happened. Unexplainable, almost mystical things. He lived his life on the edge, walking a fine line between Heaven and a Hell that never seemed too far away.

“I’ve thought about it a lot since then,” I wrote after I first met him in 2008, “and for me it’s come to represent the apparent contradiction of absolute beauty living right next door to the ultimate evil… of the dark as a necessary component of the light. It’s helped me to understand the reality of a life of tragedy that is continually redeemed through faith, of art that is purchased with pain… of the true meaning of Soul.”

From the blistering heat of a broken childhood spent picking cotton in the Mississippi Delta, to the unspeakable cold of a Korea that froze his Army comrades to death, Lattimore had become well acquainted with that pain before he turned twenty, yet he went on to live an incredible life. He was there with Sunbeam Mitchell in Memphis in the early fifties, with Ernie Young at Excello later on in Nashville. In Houston, in Dallas, in Little Rock, he made a name for himself leading one of the best ‘reading bands’ on the circuit. Busting out of the Club Stealaway on Jefferson Street in the mid-sixties, he would become known as ‘The Tennessee House Rocker’. Before long, Brown was recording with The M.G.’s at Stax, with The Memphis Boys at American, and with Rick Hall’s Fame Gang in Muscle Shoals…

Yet, success remained elusive. Despite the inherent quality of his records, for one reason or another, they never made the charts. By the time Benny Latimore dropped his first name in the early seventies, our Lattimore felt he was fighting a losing battle, and just walked away, into an obscurity that all but devoured him.

Everyone thought he was dead.

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard the story of how Hurricane Katrina nearly blew what was left of him away – of how it led, instead, to his miraculous re-discovery. It seemed he still had a tale to tell – unfinished business on this side of the line, in the land of the living…

Sir Lattimore would have turned ninety this year, and in honor of that fact, Chase Thompson and I are collaborating on a ‘documentary mini-series’ that will attempt to convey the power and the personality of this American original in his own words, using unreleased video footage that we shot of him along the way.

We’ve completed two episodes so far, and I’m including them here, as well as on the completely re-imagined sirlattimorebrown.com, where we will post more of them as they become available.

episode two: MOUND BAYOU
episode one: BILOXI

Lattimore Lives!

-red kelly, October 2021

Travis Wammack – Somethin’ Else

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 Matassathanks, Jim!]

Catherine Virginia Fisk 1954

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:

Dee & Don McMinn, circa 1967

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!

YouTube Playlist for Travis Wammack – Somethin’ Else

…and just in case you missed our Soul Detective Road Trip Special Report, here ya go:

…gotta love the fact that YouTube picked Billy Lawson’s mug as the ‘thumbnail’ – lol!

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.

Travis Wammack – One Bad Boy

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.”

You Tube Playlist Below…

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! A session cut at Sun a few months later resulted in an unreleased track commonly attributed to Travis called I’m Gonna Rock, but, as Travis told us himself recently, that’s not him… 

Travis did hang around Sun as often as he could, however, 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.

As this page from Reggie Young’s session log book indicates, he was in good company!

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…

YouTube Playlist for TRAVIS WAMMACK – One Bad Boy

Quinton M. Claunch 1921-2021

It seemed he would always be there.

There, in the unassuming house in Parkway Village that he bought for his family in 1948. The house he lived in while he was working with Sam Phillips at Sun. The house he lived in as a progenitor of Hi Records. The house where a late night knock on the door would usher in the Soul Era at Goldwax.

I knocked on that door myself many times over the years, and got to know the man behind so much of the music I loved. A true character, his quick sense of humor and way with words was always accompanied by a mischievous glint in his eyes. No matter how much you thought you knew about him, there was always something more to tell. It was almost as if he left something out on purpose, so he could talk about it later on.

The last time John Broven and I knocked on that door in 2019, he told us the tale of how he would stay up nights as a boy growing up in Tishomingo, Mississippi and tune in ‘Border Blaster’ radio station XEG so he could listen to Cowboy Slim Rinehart on the radio. He wanted to play guitar so bad, he said, that his father sold a calf from the family farm and bought him one from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. When the family moved north to Muscle Shoals, as his father got work as part of the war effort at Alcoa Aluminum, Quinton brought that guitar with him and changed American Music forever.

He had never mentioned that before.

He had told us before that, when Sam Phillips didn’t follow through on a promise to him and his best friend Bill Cantrell that he would use one of their songs as the flip of a Carl Perkins single, was when they made up their minds to leave Sun and start their own company, Hi Records. What he hadn’t told us, but now happened to mention that November afternoon, was that when The Beatles later covered the song (Sure To Fall), he was able to pay off the note on the house.

Incredible.

When I was doing the research for my 2015 interview of Willie Hightower at The Ponderosa Stomp, I discovered that Claunch and Cantrell had actually produced a whole album on Willie at Hi in 1982, one that hadn’t been released until 2007. Even though I had known him for years, he had never mentioned that either. It was that interview, and Hightower’s excellent performance at The Stomp, that would eventually lead to Quinton’s triumphant return to Muscle Shoals to work with Billy Lawson at Wishbone and produce one of the best Soul albums in years, Hightower’s Out Of The Blue in 2018.

He had said he wanted to go out in a “blaze of glory,” and he did – the record is nothing short of amazing.

I used to call Quinton a lot, and when I asked him how he was he would invariably respond, “I’m still here.”

Now, sadly, he is not.

Memphis will be a different place without him in it… I will miss my friend.

Billy Lawson

Billy Lawson grew up just outside of Muscle Shoals next door to Junior Lowe and, like Junior, he had a guitar in his hand by the time he was six years old. Lowe became sort of his mentor (and guitar hero), and would allow him to sit-in with his band at local State Line clubs before he was out of grade school.

His Zip City neighborhood was also home to Earl ‘Peanutt’ Montgomery, the man whose career as a songwriter included a slew of top ten Country hits he penned for his main man George Jones… Billy was paying attention. The Music was in him, and he knew he had no choice but to follow where it might lead. While still in his teens, Billy and his band began working that same State Line dance hall circuit Junior had.

In his early twenties he got himself a job at Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey’s Wishbone Studios in Muscle Shoals, learning about songwriting from some of the best in the business. Billy and his band were still playing most nights out on the strip, which got them noticed by casting director Tonya Holly, who would hire them to appear in the Oscar winning film Blue Sky in 1994. Setting his sights on Nashville with stars in his eyes, it looked like he might have a shot at making it as a performer when he was signed by Epic Records… but Billy soon realized that wasn’t going to happen.

His unique way with words caught the attention of Tree Publishing executive Don Cook, who signed Billy on as a staff songwriter in 1995. By the Summer of ’96 Learning As You Go, a song Lawson co-wrote with Larry Boone, would top the Country charts for Rick Trevino. Within a few months, Trace Adkins would take another Lawson composition (this time written with John Schweers), I Left Something Turned On At Home, straight to number one. In just a few short years, Billy Ray Lawson had become an in-demand Music City songwriter, placing dozens of other songs on the charts. As the nature of the music business began to change in Nashville after the turn of the century, however, it would become ever more difficult to make a living as a songwriter in the digital age.

Billy Ray decided to stay closer to home…

The Shoals was his stomping grounds, and Lawson began hanging out with the man who had put the town on the map, Rick Hall. Over lunches at their favorite Italian restaurant, Billy just soaked it all in. He knew what he was called upon to do.

Opening his own Big Star Studio, Billy began producing a few records. After that, it seemed like things all began to fall into place. Wishbone Studio, which had been empty for years, became available and Lawson figured out a way to buy it. When Larry Rogers’ Studio 19 was marked for demolition on Nashville’s Music Row in 2015, Billy worked out a deal with Larry to install the studio’s Trident 90 console at Wishbone. One of the first records cut there was Willie Hightower’s great come-back album, Out Of The Blue. With the legendary Quinton Claunch on board as his executive producer, the album features some of the best songs Billy has ever written, like this one:

(check out Lawson’s shirt… )

The first time we met Billy was when Reggie and Jenny Young brought us to Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia so we could check out Johnny Belew’s amazing cornbread salad. Billy invited us to visit Wishbone the next day, where he was in the process of cutting another come-back album of sorts, Darryl Worley’s Second Wind: Latest & Greatest, with he and Darryl producing. The first single pulled from the album, co-written with the great Ed Hill, has become a breakthrough digital hit:

Billy Lawson and his band (now called ‘Wishbone’) are back out there performing locally in The Shoals area, to rave reviews. Performer, songwriter, producer, studio owner – it might seem like he had this whole music thing sewn up – but there was one thing missing… his own record label.

Not anymore. Along with partners Mike O’Rear and James Wright, Billy launched Muscle Shoals Recordings this past week with the release of their first single, Avalon:

A loving tribute to Rick Hall and all things Muscle Shoals, that’s Junior Lowe and Travis Wammack on guitar there, folks and Clayton Ivey and Jim Whitehead on the keys, same as it ever was…

Billy Lawson’s got it going on!

Henry Henderson

Henry Henderson was one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever known. He was also one hell of a Soul singer… one who just couldn’t seem to catch a break. When I visited Billy Lawson at Wishbone earlier this month, he asked me if I knew of any ‘old school’ singers he could work with, as he had just done with Willie Hightower. When I showed him a video of Henry performing at our annual Soul Bash, he freaked. “Oh man, he sounds like Jimmy Hughes!,” he said, and was ready to cut a deal with him right then and there. This was gonna be the chance at the big time he had been looking for for years… I called him from the studio, but there was no answer. I tried him again, and again on our way back to New York, but couldn’t get through.

We made it a point to drive by his apartment on the way home, and I left a note in his mailbox asking him to please give me a call, leaving my number in case he had lost it. Within the hour, my phone rang. It was the property manager from Henry’s building… “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mr. Henderson has passed away.”

My heart was broken. I mean, here I was, after all these years, finally able to offer him the chance to cut a record in Muscle Shoals… but he was gone. I spoke to his good friend Mary Forehand, who told me, “He passed on January 18th… he was having chest pains and drove himself to the Hospital. He was found sitting in his car the next day.”

Just so very sad, that this wonderful human being died like that, alone and un-noticed. He was an amazing friend, and I am a better person for having known him… May God Rest Your Soul, My Brother!

Here is the appreciation I wrote about Henry back in 2015:

I know we talk a lot around here about places like Memphis and Muscle Shoals, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Nashville, but somehow it seems I haven’t paid enough attention to my own hometown. As the site of the premier Black entertainment venue in the world, New York truly had it going on throughout ‘The Soul Era’.

The Big Town knew few rivals as a recording center in those days as, in addition to Bobby Robinson’s Harlem empire, it was home to ‘major independents’ like Atlantic, Scepter, Big Top, Roulette, Sue, Jubilee and Bell, (to name a few), all of which cut at various ‘hole in the wall’ studios in and around Manhattan.

Home to such luminaries as James Brown, Don Covay, Gary U.S. Bonds, Roy C and Freddie Scott, Long Island enjoyed a thriving Soul scene all its own, with night clubs and lounges that featured live music springing up wherever there was a sizable Black community.

Courtesy Freeport Historical Society

Calling themselves ‘The Showcase of Talent’, the Celebrity Club on Sunrise Highway in Freeport was one of the most celebrated of those clubs, and when they brought in Leo Price to put together their ‘house band’ in the early sixties, he decided to stick around. As he told Seamus McGarvey in Now Dig This“I stayed up there… playing around those clubs, and backing up groups. In those days [most] recording artists didn’t have their own bands, and the Jimmy Evans Booking Agency – I was his band – he had the acts… we played behind.”

It was his connection with Evans that made Leo a favorite with Long Island club owners, as he was able to bring in national level acts like Wilson Pickett and The Shirelles to keep the cash registers ringing. Price soon had more work than he could handle, and helped install a young singer named Henry Henderson as the leader of the house band at another popular club named Mister C’s in Roosevelt.

Henderson had grown up in Jackson, Mississippi, and by the time he was a teenager he was fronting his own group that was represented by Tommy Couch’s Malaco Attractions. After cutting a few sides for them that were never released, Henry took off for the bright lights, and wound up here on Long island in 1964.

This was right around the time that Little Buster‘s phenomenal Lookin’ For A Home was garnering some airplay on local radio. Henry met Buster shortly after that when he was performing at Brownie’s Lounge in Lakeview and the two transplanted Southerners hit it off, following each other around the Long Island club circuit from The Freeport Yacht Club and The Steer Inn to Club 91 and The Bluebird Cafe way out in the sticks.

In a scenario truly reminiscent of Animal House, in the late sixties notorious bar owner Robert Matherson hired Little Buster to play for his all-white clientele every Sunday at The Oak Beach Inn. When Buster wasn’t available, Henry took his place and, between the two of them, they introduced an entire generation of essentially clueless caucasians to the Real Soul music that was happening all around them.

As the sixties gave way to the seventies, The Highway Inn in Uniondale eclipsed the Celebrity Club as ground zero for Long Island Soul, with Leo Price’s band once again providing the back-up. When Leo decided to move on, he called on Henry to take his place as leader of the house band, backing up everyone from Big Mama Thornton to The Ohio Players.

In the early seventies, Henry got together with producer Clyde Wilson and cut a single for a Long Island label named Interstate 95. As Henry recalls it, the studio was located in the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, and they were all set to release the 45 when the label owner, Daniel Yudow, died suddenly, and that was the end of that. Sir Shambling calls the L.L. Milton release that Clyde Wilson produced for the label “a real throwback to the 60s,” and that’s just what Long Island Soul has remained all these years.

As disco began to take hold in the mid-seventies, Henderson had the good sense to lay low for a while, and returned home to Jackson for a few years. By the early eighties he was back on Long Island, starting up a new band, ‘The Honey Holders’ that would help him carry on in that soulful tradition…

As you may know, I was a huge fan of Little Buster and, as I’ve said before, I’d seen him perform “more times than anyone else, ever.”

When Buster passed on in May 0f 2006, I was devastated. It was at a tribute to Buster held that June that I first met Henry Henderson. Once I heard him sing, I knew he was the real deal. We would become good friends, and his stories about the scene in those days have never failed to fascinate and enlighten me.

designed by Studio Pollman

When Sir Lattimore Brown was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, we flew him up here to New York for treatment, and began arranging what we thought might be his final performance. I asked Henry if he would be willing to get The Honey Holders back together to back him up, and he jumped at the chance.

Once the two Mississippi natives got together, they were thick as thieves, and I knew that Real Soul was in the house. As anybody who was there that night can tell you, it was a performance we won’t soon forget. After Lattimore tragically passed in 2011, both Henry and I decided to keep his memory alive by bringing back his Honey Holders every year to what has come to be known as the CLUB 91 SIR LATTIMORE BROWN MEMORIAL NOFO SOUL BASH.

Although the personnel may vary from year to year, Henry has never failed to deliver the genuine article. Featuring veterans like Saxy Ric, guitarist Sam MacArthur (who was a member of Leo Price’s Celebrity Club band), bass player Fred Thomas (of The JB’s), sax man Bobby Gaither (who played on Joe Haywood’s Warm and Tender Love), drummer Joe Mannino, bass player Douglas Jackson, and many more, The Honey Holders are the place where Long Island Soul lives!

Embedded below is a short video of Henry & the Holders at this Summer’s Soul Bash shot by The New York Times’ own Corey Kilgannon:

Like I said, Henry Henderson is the real deal… I love this man.

– red kelly, September 2015