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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