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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)

It wasn't just Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck finding inspiration in "Rumble." Wray inspired a couple of Woodrow Wilson High School students: The Triumphs formed when Casady was 14 and Jorma Kaukonen just a few years older. With singer and drummer Ron MacDonald, they started playing local CYO dances before landing jobs in such downtown clubs as the Rendezvous at 10th and E streets, where they frequently shared the bill with the Raymen.

Casady says that in the late '50s, electric guitar was just beginning to play a more prominent role in rock.

"Link Wray was different because he started to use a little more distortion and got a raunchy sound that was really captivating," Casady explains. "As a 14-year-old, I could play this stuff; it didn't require the kind of technical [picking and fingering ] approach that had come up out of rockabilly. You began to experiment with amplifier sounds, whereas before an amplifier was set to get a clear, more bell-like sound. Here you were pushing the volume, and those tubes were burning and glowing, getting more loudness and power out of the instrument."

Kaukonen can't make it Sunday, but Casady says he is looking forward to playing with MacDonald, "the fantastic [saxophonist] Joe Stanley" and Sneed, an '80s-era Rayman who has played in MacDonald's Nightwatch band for years.

Gordon, who grew up in Bethesda, first heard Wray and the Raymen in the late '50s as the house band on Channel 5's dance-oriented "Milt Grant Show" and first saw him perform in 1961 at Glen Echo Park. Gordon, a onetime member of New York punk band the Tuff Darts, launched the first major rockabilly revival with the two Private Stock albums he made with Wray -- 1977's "Robert Gordon With Link Wray" and 1978's "Fresh Fish Special." It was the idea of label head Richard Gottehrer to team Gordon and Wray, and, Gordon says, they "hit it off immediately, and it felt pretty natural. Those records still sound pretty good." The latter album included "Fire," whose author, Gordon pal Springsteen, played piano on the recording. (The Pointer Sisters' hit version came later.)

Eddie Angel, who produced Gordon's new album, says he first heard of Wray in 1973, his name "sounding futuristic and at the same time like a car -- like Buck Rogers in a Lincoln!" But Angel didn't become a Wray addict until he moved to Washington in 1980 to play with Tex Rubinowitz's Bad Boys. According to Angel, "before every show, Tex played a tape of Link's early stuff while we were setting up, and he eventually suggested working up some instrumentals," including Wray's "Rawhide," "Run Chicken Run" and "Jack the Ripper." In that era, bands performing rock instrumentals was rare.

"Through Tex, Link became my favorite guitar player, and there was obviously some sort of karmic connection," Angel says. Relocating to Nashville in the '90s, he met up with Danny Amis of the Raybeats and formed Los Straitjackets, the wild and woolly surf rockers known for playing in wrestling masks and probably the closest thing to the classic Raymen sound. Los Straitjackets opened a half-dozen Wray shows in the '90s, which Angel describes as "the thrill of a lifetime. . . . I got to hear a lot of great stories from Link and once got to do an encore with Link and Tony Andreason," the lead guitarist of the Trashmen, whose "Surfin' Bird" was as much a wild, bare-bones rock 'n' roll classic as "Rumble."

On Sunday, Angel will back Ray Wallace and Gordon, reunite with Switchblade and do his own set with help from Casady and Fig. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun, and in the true spirit of Link Wray, some things are going to be god awful and some things are going to be great ."

A Tribute to Link Wray Sunday at El Boqueron II in Rockville Sound: Wray's pioneering experiments with power chords, fuzztone, tremolo and distortion provided the basic building blocks of modern rock guitar.

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