Wray's 'Rumble' Still Reverberating
RE: Show - Friday, January 26, 2007
Birchmere Music Hall, Alexandria, VA
The groundbreaking guitarist who died in late 2005 and was best known for
his instrumental hit "Rumble" gets the tribute treatment at this show
featuring a rare performance by rockabilly legends the Collins Kids.
Also scheduled to perform are Deke Dickerson, Link Wray's Raymen, Eddie
Angel & The Neanderthals, The Fleabops, Chick Hall, Daryl Davis, Shayne
Wray, The Fenderbenders, Pedro Sera & The Lock 5 with Marti Brom, Louie
Newmyer and Jimmy Lee Young.
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.
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."
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."
Posted 1/13/07 courtesy Richard Harrington, Washington Post Staff Writer
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