Howard “Guitar” Luedtke’s newest album has been about 50 years in the making.
Luedtke, a Chippewa Valley native, logged more than 6,000 miles traveling to Alabama three times to record “Goin’ Down to Alabama: The Muscle Shoals Sessions,” a 12-song blues album, with musician Travis Wammack and his team.
Wammack said meeting and working with Luedtke was “like magic.”
“Our styles just blended,” Wammack, 71, said. “It was awesome.”
While the album was recorded between Feb. 17 and June 5, 2015, Luedtke’s journey to connect with the man who “planted the seed of guitar” in him as a child took significantly longer.
The story begins in early 1965, when Luedtke was just learning guitar with his second cousin Ray Luedtke. Rick Macomber, a friend of Ray’s, introduced the cousins to Wammack’s two instrumentals, “Fire Fly” and “Scratchy.”
“I had his record when I was 11 years old,” Luedtke, now 63, said. “I just loved the guitar picking on ‘Fire Fly.’ ”
Macomber doesn’t remember if he first heard Wammack on the radio or through a friend but said, “When I heard that 45 it was the most incredible guitar playing I’d ever heard,” and he wanted to share it.
Luedtke kept the record for a few months, but it somehow got lost before he could return it. Years passed, but Luedtke never forgot Wammack’s distinctive guitar sounds. About two decades later, in 1984, the record literally “fell out of the sky,” Luedtke said.
“I had just put an album on the turntable, which was on a low shelf, so I was on my knees looking down,” Luedtke wrote in his new album’s liner notes. “While still looking down I used both hands to place the album cover on the shelf above my head and at that instant — something fell from above into my hands.”
Lo and behold, it was the Wammack record. After listening to the long-lost album, Luedtke returned it to Macomber, who Luedtke said lost it again before he was able to make a copy on cassette.
About 10 years later, with the advent of the Internet, Luedtke was able to secure himself the elusive disc, and he started to find out more about the guitarist he’d admired for so long.
“After all those years, I still thought that was the only record he had and I didn't know who he was,” Luedtke said. “I thought he was a large black man, and I thought he was long dead.”
Thanks to online resources, Luedtke discovered that Wammack was in fact alive and a “little white kid,” only a teenager when he recorded the album Luedtke loved so much.
“In 2013, that’s when my wife came across a website with 13 CDs by this guy,” Luedtke said. “Up until that point, I knew very, very little about him.”
Wammack got his start with guitar at age 11, and his guitar licks can be heard on records that have sold over 60 million copies. He also traveled the world as Little Richard’s bandleader in the 1980s and ’90s.
Wammack’s honors include the Professional Musician Award from the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and inductions into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Southern Legends Entertainment and Performing Arts Hall of Fame.
Luedtke and his wife, Deb, were blown away by Wammack’s music, and they decided to travel to Alabama to see him perform. They contacted Donnie Gullett, Wammack’s bass player and studio partner, who suggested they come to the Catfish Haven in Russellville, Ala. to see Wammack perform with his band.
“We went down there, and I walked up to (Travis) for the first time and I said, ‘Sir, I’ve been looking for you for 50 years,’ ” Luedtke said.
It was like they’d known each other all their lives, Wammack said.
“The first night we met, I invited him on stage and we played, and it’s been like we’d been playing together forever,” Wammack said.
The initial meeting spearheaded the album and Luedtke’s additional trips to the Muscle Shoals area in Alabama. Wammack had nothing but praise for Luedtke and “Goin’ Down to Alabama,” calling Luedtke “one of the best blues guitar players out there right now.”
“You don’t hear a lot of music with the energy that’s in that CD out there anymore,” he said. “... (Howard) is awesome, and y’all are lucky to have him up there in your neck of the woods.”
Macomber said it’s an incredible story and he’s proud to have had a part in introducing Luedtke to Wammack’s music years ago.
“Howard’s just great to begin with, but with Travis Wammack and the other people from Alabama on that CD, it’s a great album to listen to,” he said.
Luedtke said he would’ve been happy just to watch Wammack from across the room and return to Wisconsin, but he expressed nothing but gratitude toward the man he has looked up to for years.
“I haven’t shut up for going on three years now, and I probably never will,” he said of meeting and recording with Wammack. “Things like that, they just don't happen.”
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