Link Wray, the electric guitar innovator who is often credited as the father of the power chord, died earlier this month at his home in Copenhagen, apparently of natural causes. He was seventy-six.
He may have died quietly, but Wray’s life was notable for its enthusiastic devotion to volume. “Rumble,” the guitarist’s 1958 signature song, had the unique distinction of being widely banned by radio stations across America despite the fact that it had no words.
As legend has it, Wray poked a pencil through the cone of his amplifier to achieve the song’s groundbreaking fuzz tone. Its ragged, ominous chords, overdriven and dragged to a crawl, sounded like an invitation to a knife fight. At a time of national hysteria over juvenile delinquency, many cultural scolds took the song’s implied threat literally.
Wray’s early, highly stylized instrumental swagger, further evidenced in follow-up hits such as “Raw-Hide” and “Jack the Ripper,” would prove to be a great inspiration for some of the most potent guitarists of the classic rock era, including Pete Townshend, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan, another teenage fan, opened his show in London Sunday night by playing “Rumble” in tribute.
Link Wray was born Frederick Lincoln Wray Jr. in Dunn, North Carolina, on May 2, 1929. He claimed to have learned to play guitar at the age of eight from a traveling circus performer named Hambone. After serving in the Army and contracting tuberculosis, which led to the loss of a lung, Wray played in a succession of groups with names such as the Lazy Pine Wranglers and Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands, often with his brothers Vern and Doug and a cousin, Shorty Horton.
By the mid-1950s the Wraymen, as they were then known (sometimes billed as the Raymen), were regular guests on Milt Grant’s Washington, D.C., dance program. When one fan asked the band to play a stroll, Wray, unfamiliar with the term, improvised on the spot. The prowling riff he came up with got such a positive response that Grant took a demo to Archie Bleyer at Cadence, the label then nurturing the Everly Brothers. “Rumble,” despite the radio bans, eventually reached Number Sixteen on the national pop charts.
Subsequent labels cast about wildly in trying to duplicate the success of “Rumble” and “Raw-Hide,” which reached Number Twenty-three in 1959. “They had me in the studio with Mitch Miller,” Wray said in 1998, at the outset of one of his frequent comeback tours. “I did ‘Clair de Lune.’ They wanted me to do ‘Zorba the Greek.’ Can you imagine Link Wray doing ‘Zorba the Greek’?” With his brother Doug, he formed his own label, Rumble Records, selling copies of “Jack the Ripper” out of the trunk of his car until the song was picked up by the Swan label. By the mid-Sixties he’d announced his retirement from music, declaring his intention to become a farmer.
But Wray, who proudly described himself as three-quarters Shawnee Indian, set up a crude three-track recording studio in a chicken coop on his property in rural Maryland. In 1971, Polydor released a self-titled album from those gutbucket sessions to critical acclaim, if disappointing sales. (Link Wray and two subsequent albums were recently reissued on a two-CD set called Wray’s Three Track Shack.) Featuring swampy guitar, gospel-style choruses and Wray’s own soulful singing, the albums marked a surprising new phase; there are appealing, Americana-style echoes of the Band, Van Morrison’s pastoral period and the Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main Street.
The resurrection took Wray for a time to San Francisco, where he often performed with survivors of the Summer of Love. Later in the 1970s, he worked with the rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon; a late Nineties comeback tour found him backed by the eccentric San Francisco band Dieselhed.
Over the years Wray’s early instrumentals have become natural favorites of soundtrack producers, appearing in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, the 1983 remake of Breathless, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and many other films. A flurry of soundtrack activity in the mid-Nineties helped convince the guitarist — then resettled with his wife, Olive, and son, Oliver Christian, on a remote island in Denmark — to return once again to the stage.
“I like to get personal with the kids with my rock & roll,” he said at the time.
After performing forty North American dates this year to celebrate the release of Wray’s Three Track Shack, Wray died at his home in Copenhagen on November 5th. He was buried in a private family ceremony on November 18th.