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Guitarist Link Wray Dies; Influenced Punk, Grunge

Link Wray performs at the Shim Sham Club in New Orleans in 2002. His early songs appeared in such films as Quentin Tarantino's
Link Wray performs at the Shim Sham Club in New Orleans in 2002. His early songs appeared in such films as Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." (By Cheryl Gerber -- The Washington Post)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Link Wray, 76, an early rock guitarist best known for his menacing sound on songs such as "Rumble" and "Jack the Ripper" and who boasted that his music "has always represented something screaming, something dangerous, something not normal," has died.

Mr. Wray died of a heart ailment Nov. 5 at his home in Denmark, according to a statement on his Web site from his wife.

Hard rock, grunge and punk music were direct beneficiaries of the loud, crude and entirely captivating sound Mr. Wray developed in the late 1950s. The purposeful distortion he created on "Rumble" stood out in an era of taintless, twangy pop.

The song's admirers included The Who's guitarist Pete Townshend, who once wrote in liner notes that "if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar."

Recorded in 1958, "Rumble" featured Mr. Wray's loud and clanging guitar chords, often called "power chords." He also created a rougher sound effect by punching holes in his amplifiers, deliberately shunning a "clean" recording.

When the record was banned on some radio stations -- there were some fears its title would glorify gang warfare -- the result was a publicity boon and a million-selling hit. "Rumble" also fixed Mr. Wray's reputation as a wild-man personality, which he played up in his black leather jacket, greasy pompadour and unstoppable profanity during interviews.

There was a brief attempt by record companies to scrub Mr. Wray's image in the early 1960s, but he lacked even the pretence of teen-idol smoothness. He recorded a full-orchestra version of "Claire de Lune" and "Danny Boy" before rebelling against commercially driven studio work. "They wanted me to do 'Zorba the Greek.' Can you imagine Link Wray doing 'Zorba the Greek'?" he later said.

Long based in Washington, he settled on a chicken farm in Accokeek with his brothers, recording from a coop and studio they called "Wray's Shack Three Track." Largely forgotten by the mainstream public, Mr. Wray had a mini-comeback as a featured sideman with rockabilly artist Robert Gordon in the 1970s.

He then moved to Europe after a rift with his brothers and seldom returned. An exception to this was a national tour in 1997 with the roots-rock band Dieselhed. He told a reporter at the time: "I've still got black hair, I'm still skinny and playing rock 'n' roll. I'm 68 years old, but my music is 20 years old. I'm just playing rock 'n' roll the rest of my life."

Fred Lincoln Wray Jr. was born to sidewalk preachers May 2, 1929, in Dunn, N.C. He and his brothers, Vernon and Doug, sang with their parents at revival meetings.

He quit school to focus on music, initially as a country singer and guitarist. But his once-serviceable voice took backstage to his guitar playing after he lost a lung to tuberculosis during Army service in Korea. He said he began to experiment with guitar sounds during this period, when he knew his guitar work would never match his idols, including Chet Atkins.

In Washington by the mid-1950s, he had teamed with Vernon on vocals and Doug on drums. They also invited in bassist Shorty Horton and made several minor country recordings.

Their band name changed frequently but settled on Link Wray and the Wray Men during a television appearance from Fredericksburg on Milt Grant's popular bandstand show.

Grant asked the Wrays to imitate a popular tune of the day, "The Stroll" by the Diamonds. As Mr. Wray later described it, he was completely puzzled by the request until Doug began to pound out the underlying beat.

"So I said, 'Okay,' and started going GRRRRRMMM, GRRRRRMMM, GRRRRRMMM with my guitar, and he started playin' the drums, and all the . . . kids started hollerin' and screamin' at me, and they forgot all about the Diamonds," he later said.

Grant rushed them to a studio to record what he rightly knew would be a sensation. "That place wasn't even a music studio," Mr. Wray told Guitar Player magazine. "It was used by politicians to record their speeches, and the engineer had never recorded a band before. For example, when he miked the kick drum, he put the microphone behind the drum by my brother's foot. But that's how we got that knockin' bass drum sound."

The recording found its way to Cadence Records owner Archie Bleyer, but he was unimpressed. His teenage daughter rescued the song when she told her father it reminded her of the gang fight scenes in the Broadway musical "West Side Story." Bleyer promptly reconsidered and titled the song "Rumble."

There were a handful of other hits, including "Raw-Hide," (1959) and "Jack the Ripper" (1963), but Mr. Wray soon retreated to Accokeek. Several mid-career recordings flopped, but Mr. Wray still attracted a strong following during rare public appearances. New audiences also discovered him when his early songs appeared in such films as Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1994) and Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day" (1996).

Mr. Wray's marriages to Elizabeth Canady Wray, Katherine Tidwell Wray and Sharon Wray ended in divorce. He had eight children with them but little contact after settling in Denmark in the early 1980s. Survivors include his fourth wife, Olive Julie Povlsen Wray, and their son.


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