Guitarist and activist Wayne Kramer, best known as a founder of the iconic Detroit hard-rock band MC5, died in a Los Angeles hospital on February 2. He was 75 and battled pancreatic cancer.
A Detroit native, Kramer nurtured his musical aspirations by absorbing influences from Motown and the early days of rock and roll, then formed MC5 in 1963 with school friend Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson. They created loud, guitar-driven music that became a keystone of the “Detroit rock and roll sound” along with the Amboy Dukes, Grand Funk Railroad, the Rationals, Stooges, SRC, and the Bob Seger System.
“The scene was a firestorm of outrageous, energized bands and music,” said fellow Detroit native Ted Nugent. “Wayne and I both took guitar lessons from Joe Podorsek and our influences were identical from the beginning. He often told me he admired the tightness and the musical integrity of my band, Amboy Dukes. Our bands played on the same bill hundreds of times. ”
Carrying “protest music” to an extreme, the MC5 aligned with John Sinclair and his White Panther Party. Their 1969 live debut album, Kick Out the Jams, was a milestone since cited as seminal hard rock, heavy metal, and proto-punk (“Pop ’N Hiss,” May ’19).
With MC5, Kramer mostly played a Strat painted in an American-flag motif and modified with a humbucker mounted in its middle position that Kramer used to get his lead tone because it was louder and hotter. He also used plexiglas Ampeg/Dan Armstrong guitars, including a rare black example; 1970 concert footage from Wayne State University shows a quintessential performance of “Rambling Rose,” Kramer strutting and bashing the instrument while singing in a raspy falsetto.
Following MC5’s dissolution, Kramer stayed active in music through the early ’70s. In ’75, a drug conviction sent him to federal prison.
“Prior to his unfortunate incarceration, we staged these very exciting ‘Guitar Battles’ where we would jam furiously with the incredible Mike Pinera and Frank Marino,” said Nugent. “Though promoted as a battle, we considered it a friendly opportunity to share guitar and musical ideas with a punch of exciting entertainment.”
Following his release in ’79, Kramer continued to perform, touring as a solo artist then as a member of trios, quartets, and larger groups, including a guest appearance on the first album by the Detroit band Was (Not Was).
In 2009, Kramer co-founded Jail Guitar Doors USA, which has donated instruments to inmates at more than 200 jails and prisons. Among the musicians who helped perform benefits for the organization were Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and the Cult’s Billy Duffy.
In 2011, Fender introduced the Wayne Kramer signature model Strat, a hardtail with middle humbucker, flag graphics and a neck plate engraved with “This Tool Kills Hate.”
In ’18, Kramer organized an MC50 world tour to commemorate the half-century anniversary of Kick Out The Jams. The other guitarist was Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, who credited Kramer’s initiative for pulling him out of a funk following the death of vocalist/guitar Chris Cornell. That year also saw the release of Kramer’s autobiography, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities.
“Brother Wayne Kramer was the greatest man I’ve ever known,” Morello said on Instagram. “Whenever any charity or union or human rights activist event was coming up Wayne would always heed the call. ALWAYS. From our ‘Frostbite And Freedom’ performances during the Madison union uprising to Wayne ‘Chainsaw’ Kramer knee deep in fire ants in the 9th Ward in New Orleans post-Katrina reclaiming living spaces for those affected. Helping folks get sober. Helping ex-cons find a job. Helping at risk youth start careers in music. Wayne was a guardian angel to so many… Whenever and wherever any of us kick out the jams, Brother Wayne will be right there with us.”
In his later years, Kramer attained sobriety and was gratified to have become a husband and father.
“Though we all righteously celebrate the musical genius of Wayne Kramer, I would like everyone to know that he was a great man, a great husband, a great father, a great friend, and a great American, rock solid in the asset column of life, with an incredible work ethic and sense of community, kindness, generosity, and honesty,” said Nugent. “He was funny and wonderfully ‘Detroit cocky.’ Even though we strongly disagreed on certain political considerations, we enjoyed many gentlemanly, civil, and respectful conversations without ever raising our voices or descending into negativity or mean-spiritedness. I was very fortunate to have him as a friend.”