January 23, 2011

Shawnee Wray brothers inspired musicians

Link Wray and his Ray Men, Power Chord Pioneers

By Kara BriggsLink Wray and his Ray Men broke into American pop music in 1958 with a loud guitar riff later characterized as the power chord, and a song that made some radio disc jockeys fearful of violence.

But the Wrays, Vernon, Link and Doug, were no 1950s-era gang members. They were three brothers who were journeymen musicians by the time they reached their early 20s. As babies, they learned to sing along with their Shawnee Indian mother while she picked cotton and they picked up the guitar one afternoon from a worker in a traveling carnival who spied the three boys in a North Carolina yard trying to play the instrument.

In the mid-1940s the brothers played country and western before slipping into 1950s pop in the Perry Como mold. Then Link Wray cut loose on a demo, a recording that was headed for the wastebasket when a record executive’s daughter chanced to play it. The song “Rumble” that she deemed to be right out of “West Side Story” has captivated generations of rock stars, movie directors and music lovers. Its signature power chord is credited as a progenitor of classic rock, punk and heavy metal.

Link Wray and his Ray Men were featured in the 2010 exhibition “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Pop Culture” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
And:Many rock superstars credit Link Wray and his distorted guitar with inspiring them, including Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, the Kinks, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. Sherry Wray is most excited about a new generation of Native American artists, including 36-year-old Mohawk rock musician Derek Miller, who reminds her of her uncle Link as a young man. Sherry Wray met Miller at the opening of “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.”

During an outdoor concert last summer at the museum, Miller told the audience, “Without Doug, 'Rumble' would not have happened. It’s his stroll beat that sparked the whole thing. The Wray brothers shaped the voice of America!”
Comment:  For more on the exhibit, see Inside Up Where We Belong and Up Where We Belong at NMAI.

Below:  "Doug Wray (left), Vernon Wray (center) and Link Wray in his Army uniform (right)."

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