A Letter and a Legend
50 years later, Howard ‘Guitar’ Luedtke tracks down his inspiration
Howard “Guitar” Luedtke has been a part of the blues scene for more than 40 years, both in the Midwest and internationally. He released his first album in 1992 and altogether has recorded six. He plays solo, as a duo with his wife, Deb, or as a full band with Blue Max.
He released his most recent album, Meet Me in Muscle Shoals: The Muscle Shoals Session II, in early 2019. When talking with Howard about his new album, he explained it as part two of his album, Goin’ Down to Alabama: The Muscle Shoals Sessions. What’s truly special about this album is that it was produced by a personal hero of Howard’s, a man named Travis Wammack.
Born in Chippewa Falls in 1952, Howard recalls growing up in rural Wisconsin with his cousin Ray. They spent their days climbing trees at the edge of the family farm, and on summer evenings while the adults stayed in the house and talked, Howard would sit outside under a willow tree with his cousin’s Danelectro and a six-inch amp with no name. During those humid nights with crickets and frogs in the background, Howard remembers Ray playing tunes like “Wildwood Flower” and “Sugarfoot Rag.” At the age of 11, Howard wanted a guitar of his own. Soon after his grandma bought him one, the first song that Ray taught him was “Wildwood Flower.”
One day in 1965, Howard and Ray went to see a friend named Ricky. That was the first time that either of them had seen a real Fender guitar. Ricky introduced Howard and Ray to a record that he wanted the young men to listen to for a couple of weeks while they were learning their way with the guitar. The album had two instrumentals – “Fire Fly” and “Scratchy” – by a “large black man named Travis Wammack,” Ricky said. “He plays a Strat and you’ve never heard anything like it.” Ricky put the album on, and Howard and Ray were hooked. They listened to it over and over again and banged on their guitars for hours to try to sound like Travis Wammack. Howard kept the record for six months, with every intention of returning it, but somehow it got lost.
Howard and Ricky played guitar together through their teens during the ’60s until Ray passed away at the young age of 22. Howard describes him as, “my cousin, brother, guitar teacher, and best friend.”
Over the years, Howard adopted different guitar heroes such as Johnny Winter, Alvin Lee, and Rory Gallagher, but he never forgot the long-lost record by Travis Wammack. After years of talking about his guitar idol and bringing up his name, Howard learned that very few people had heard of him. It wasn’t until 1984 at a party that Travis Wammack’s “Fire Fly/Scratchy” 45 fell into Howard’s hands once again. After a few days of listening to the album, it was passed on and lost again. About 10 years later, with the help of his wife – and the Internet – Howard was holding his third copy of Travis Wammack’s record. Knowing that most people had websites, Howard asked Deb if she could help him find anything on his guitar legend. After some searching, Deb found a picture and showed it to him. Howard was astonished to discover: “He wasn’t a large black man with a Strat, he was a white kid with a Gibson!”
Howard wrote an almost eight -age letter to Travis and sent it along with two of his own albums. A dew weeks later, Deb received an email from the bassist for Wammack’s band, The Snakesman, and shortly after that Deb and Howard were on their way to meet the guitar legend. They found him at the Catfish Haven in Russellville, Alabama. In a fond and humble way, Howard describes seeing him at the other side of the bar. He walked over, and as he reaching out his hand to say, “Sir, I have been looking for you for 50 years and listening to your music all my life.” Wammack warmly responded with, “I’ve been listening to your music for weeks.”
You can’t talk to Howard without talking about Travis Wammack. His voice was filled with disbelief and delight about finding the legend for whom he had looked so long and making music with him.
For the next few months Howard will be traveling around playing local shows. You can see Howard “Guitar” Luedtke and the Blue Max band at the Northwoods Blues Festival at Riverfront Park in Chippewa Falls on June 21. They will be on stage at 1:30pm. For a schedule of shows or more information about Luedtke, check out howardluedtke.com. For more information about the Northwoods Blues Festival, go to northwoodsbluesfest.com.