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Link Wray continues to 'Rumble'
Mr. Wray was born in Dunn, N.C., to semiliterate street preachers. He hit it big in the late 1950s and is now being rediscovered. His music has appeared in movies such as "Pulp Fiction," "Independence Day" and "Desperado." A petition drive is under way to get him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar," Pete Townshend of the Who wrote on one of Mr. Wray's albums. Neil Young once said: "If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Raymen." At around 3:15 a.m. on this night, a handful of devotees surrounded Mr. Wray after the show. He signed a broken drum. The back of a man's shirt. He reminisced with a fellow who had been at Edgewood Studios on Vermont Avenue in the District in summer 1958, when Mr. Wray coolly laid down "Rawhide." "Sixteen-year-old kids, they come with little bands, you know, and they come with tears in their eyes," Mr. Wray says. "I feel like I'm in church. That's the truth. And I feel so blessed, even though I'm not a rich rock star. I don't want to be a rich rock star."
Mr. Wray's lucky day came when he recorded "Rumble." The story goes like this: He punched holes in his amplifiers to get a grumbling, mean sound. The kids loved it. Some disc jockeys in big cities banned the song; the instrumental was too suggestive of teen violence. "It was the day for me," Mr. Wray says, slumped in a chair on the Shim Sham's upstairs balcony. Overhead, rain clouds raced in low off the Gulf of Mexico. "'Rumble' came out on St. Patrick's Day and it went right out in the charts with a bullet, played on the Dick Clark show — a syndicated show — so when he played something, it meant something," he says. "Rumble" sold 4 million copies. That year, dressed distinctively in black, Mr. Wray was in demand, playing to screaming teenagers well past midnight. He was creating his own style. The world changed for a man born poor. "I'm half Shawnee Indian, born to a Shawnee mother. I had a dad, and he was in the First World War and he lost his hair and he lost his teeth, and he was shell-shocked, and I had to go to work when I was 10 years old to help feed the family. This was Dunn, North Carolina, in a different era, you know; during the Ku Klux Klan days, you know — really bad in the South," Mr. Wray says.
Mr. Wray was born in 1929, the same year the stock market crashed. "They told my mother when I was born that they'd have to kill me to save her life. And she said, 'Please don't kill my baby,' so they pulled me out of my mother with prongs," he says. "So it made me a slow learner, because they pulled me out with prongs. I am a slow learner: I wanted to be Chet Atkins, I wanted to be Tal Farlow, I wanted to be those cats, jazz cats. Like I told Frank Zappa, 'It took me a long time to learn my guitar.' He said, 'Well, Link, it came to me quite easily.' 'That's because you got a brain, I don't have one.' You know, I was telling him my story." Mr. Wray claims that because he was too slow to be a wiz on guitar, he had to invent sounds. "I was looking for something that Chet Atkins wasn't doing, that all the jazz kings wasn't doing, that all the country pickers wasn't doing. I was looking for my own sound," he says. He was one of the first guitarists to take a major chord and run it up and down the fret board, creating the thundering sound known as the power chord — a favorite among today's hard-rock players.
Mr. Wray contracted tuberculosis while serving in the Korean War. His left lung was removed and his singing career was compromised, so he focused even more on electric guitars — preferably off-brand ones. His two brothers, Vernon and Doug, were also musicians. The three went on the country circuit as "Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands." Later, when "Rumble" became a hit, they became "Link Wray and the Raymen," or Wraymen, as it was sometimes spelled. Much later, the brothers' relationship soured. Mr. Wray says that Vernon Wray, acting as manager, became bitter over his brother's fame, stole the rights to "Rumble" and other classics, and destroyed the master tapes of many of the early songs. Vernon Wray died in 1979. To this day, Mr. Wray says, he gets no money for many of his old songs.
Back in 1957, when Elvis Presley was upending a music world dominated by jazz and country, the 28-year-old Mr. Wray was caught up in the rock craze. He started going places no one else was — into a thrashing, weird, rumbling sound. "He came up with a sound that was totally different. And people like myself who were teenagers were taken aback by that and you just wanted to hear it over and over — it had a hook to it," says Bobby Morris, a Pensacola, Fla.-based rock historian specializing in the 1950s. In the 1960s, Mr. Wray went out of style, playing in underground clubs, hillbilly joints and the occasional acoustical set in Greenwich Village with Bob Dylan. He said the entertainment business was "always grabbing for you, to control you."
In 1978, he moved to Denmark and married Olive Julie Povlsen. They are raising a 19-year-old son, Oliver Christian, in a three-story house on an island where Hans Christian Andersen once lived. During his years away from the spotlight, he was rediscovered by new generations, from the Cramps to the Sex Pistols. This summer he has performed in the United States again, and is planning a West Coast tour this fall. "I may live in Denmark," he shouted in the middle of his set at the Shim Sham. "But I'm 100 percent American."