“I don’t play to old people,” he sneered during a tour to promote 1997’s Shadowman. “There’s no f**king difference between me and Nirvana. I don’t crawl onstage—I’m running. The music I play may be 30 years old, but the spirit is fresh, and the sound is as raw as ever.”
Wray—who was three-quarters Shawnee Indian—was born in Dunn, North Carolina, and learned to play guitar at eight, from an African-American circus performer named Hambone who saw him banging around on an old guitar on his family’s porch. Hungry for knowledge, it’s said that a 15-year-old Wray paid Tex Ritter $20 a night to sit in with the country star’s band. In the late ’40s, Wray joined with his brothers Doug and Vernon to play western swing under some pretty hilarious band names. Military service interrupted the boys’ musical career, but, by the mid ’50s, they were back exploring the “big beat” style in various Washington, D.C. club venues. It was local deejay Milt Grant who first discovered Wray and his brothers—now playing as the “Wraymen” with Doug on drums, Vernon filling in on whatever was needed, and long-time family friend Shorty Horton on bass—and invited them to become the house band for his various record hops and on The Milt Grant Show (a Dick Clark-like television show for the D.C. area).
It was at a 1958 record hop in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Wray spontaneously conjured “Rumble”—the instrumental that debuted the power chord, and caused buttoned-down Eisenhower-era WASPs to fear distorted
guitars and ban the “gang-oriented” single from airplay. Ultimately, the thunderous platter sold millions of copies. The story of the blissfully ferocious three chords that comprise the main riff of “Rumble” has been told many times in GP (most recently in the June ’04 issue), and while the song did establish Wray’s place in the rock and roll universe, the guitarist was pretty much cheated out of the riches by the usual ’50s record-biz shenanigans.
But while Wray’s commercial standing fluctuated wildly after charting another million seller with “Rawhide” in 1959, he never appeared desperate or needy—he just played his guitar, recorded his tracks, and let the world do what it did. He did bail out on the U.S. in 1980,
marrying Olive Povlsen—a Danish student of Native American culture—and settling in Copenhagen. They had a son, Oliver, in 1983. When Wray passed away on November 5, 2005—after a final summer tour—his family was at his side. It was apparently a very quiet and deservedly peaceful death for such a boisterous spirit. (For more on Wray’s life and times, click to the excellent Web site, wraysshack3tracks.com.)