Wray's 'Rumble' Still Reverberating

Guitarist Link Wray inspired Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen and others.
Guitarist Link Wray inspired Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen and others. (Norton Records)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

Back in 1958, Link Wray and the Raymen's "Rumble" introduced the power chord, fuzztone and the notion of electric guitar as a dangerous weapon. The single became both a cornerstone of modern rock guitar and a footnote in rock history. Recorded just a block from The Washington Post by a band that had evolved its sound in rough-and-tumble downtown bars, "Rumble" reached only No. 16. Its resurgence and a minor Wray revival in the mid-'90s were mostly due to it and other edgy Wray instrumentals appearing in such films as "Pulp Fiction," "Desperado" and "Independence Day."

"Rumble" proved a huge influence on a generation of rock guitarists. The Who's Pete Townshend famously noted that if it hadn't been for "Rumble," he never would have picked up a guitar. Young Paul McCartney kept a copy taped to the side of his 45 record player, and John Lennon, who would later include "Rumble" on a jukebox he traveled with, once called Wray and Gene Vincent "the two greatest unknowns of rock 'n' roll."

Unknown, or little known, but not forgotten. In late November, when word finally came of Wray's death at age 76 at his longtime home in Denmark, Bruce Springsteen opened the last two shows of his solo acoustic tour with "Rumble." Springsteen, who'd given the song "Fire" to singer Robert Gordon and Wray during their late '70s partnership, walked onstage at Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J., with his electric guitar, said, "This is for Link Wray" and delivered a blistering "Rumble," ending by placing the guitar on a stand until its reverberating sound faded.

Concurrently in England, Bob Dylan opened his shows with "Rumble." Back in 1958, 16-year-old Dylan, then Robert Zimmerman, had front-row seats to see Wray in a Duluth, Minn., concert with Duane Eddy, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Dylan, who once called "Rumble" "the best instrumental ever," visited with Wray and Gordon backstage after a 1978 London show, waiting in line to pay his respects along with drunk and disorderly Sex Pistol Sid Vicious.

"It's true," recalls Gordon, whose old bass player, Tony Garnier, has been Dylan's musical director for the past 16 years. Gordon broke the news of Wray's death to Garnier, inspiring Dylan and his band to "Rumble" at their next four concerts. Gordon will be part of the Link Wray Tribute at Rockville's El Boqueron II on Sunday (Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has declared Sunday "Link Wray Day.") Gordon will be backed by "Late Show With David Letterman" drummer Anton Fig (who played with Wray and Gordon in the late '70s and early '80s), bassist Billy Hancock and guitarist Eddie Angel, the leader of rock instrumental band Los Straitjackets and probably the closest living incarnation of Wray.

Also performing: bassist Jack Casady & the Triumphs (the Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna founder is reuniting his high school-era band for the first time in 45 years, when they used to open for Wray and the Raymen); garage rockers the A-Bones, led by vocalist Billy Miller and drummer Miriam Linna, who are also behind pop culture journal Kicks and Norton Records, which has reissued lots of Wray rarities; and a reunited Switchblade.

More than three dozen Wray children and grandchildren will be on hand for only the second time his eight children from three American marriages have come together. (The first time was at Wray's Dec. 10 memorial service in Frederick; the North Carolina-born Wray lived in the District and Southern Maryland from the mid-'50s to the late '70s.) Both events have helped provide closure for a family that had little contact with Wray in the two decades after he married his Danish girlfriend, Olive Julie Povlsen. The American family members didn't learn of Wray's Nov. 5 passing for two weeks and were not invited to, or even told about, his funeral in Denmark.

"I have no doubt that he loved all of us, but Dad did what he did because of who he was with," says daughter Rhonda Wray, who as a 9-year-old sang backup on "Wild Party" from Wray's 1979 "Bullshot" album. The last time she spoke to her father was a phone conversation in 1997 after her son was born. (Wray's grandson Chris Webb will perform at the tribute with latter-day Raymen Richie Mitchell, Ed Cynar and Johnny Sneed. Tickets for the tribute are available at Joe's Record Paradise in Rockville or at the door.)

"Rumble," legend tells, was originally improvised at a Fredericksburg sock hop where the original Raymen were backing the Diamonds, who had had a dance hit with "The Stroll." Wray didn't know the song and, when he was asked to play it, followed a stroll-like beat laid down by drummer and brother Doug Wray and bassist and cousin Shorty Horton, turning some basic riffs the band had been using into a slowly unfurling, menacing guitar sound so dangerously cool the crowd demanded it three more times.

That night witnessed the birth of the power chord and the power trio.

When Wray went into U.S. Recording Studios at Vermont Avenue and L Street NW, he had trouble replicating the sound. In a 1997 interview, Wray explained that "onstage, I'd been playing it real loud through these small, 60-watt Sears and Roebuck amplifiers, and the kids were hollering and screaming for it. But in the studio, the sound was too clean, too country. So I started experimenting, and I punched holes in the speakers with a pencil, trying to re-create that dirty, fuzzy sound I was getting onstage. And on the third take, there it was, just like magic."

That day witnessed the recording debut of fuzztone, feedback and distortion -- pillars of modern rock guitar and future seeds of hard rock, punk rock and, some have suggested, heavy metal, though Wray himself dismissed that particular connection. For Wray, there would be other, smaller hits (1959's "Rawhide," 1963's "Jack the Ripper") before the mid-'60s British invasion rendered his style of rough-hewn instrumental rock obsolete. In the '70s and again in the '80s, Wray would be "rediscovered" as celebrated rock musicians championed him as an unsung pioneer.

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