"Money don't rule me, record companies don't rule me…"
With his black hair jacked into a fierce pompadour, his black tinted shades and his black leather jacket, Link Wray was the very image of a rock and roll hoodlum. Once he plugged in and cranked up the amp until the tubes glowed orange, he would slip a wicked grin and then attack the guitar with vicious, slashing strokes sending a sonic punch to the solar plexus of anyone and everyone within ear shot; the sort of audio attack that can send a cold shiver to the core.
He was an innovator and a stand out from that brief period of rock and rolls waste-land. During the late 50's and early 60's, rock music had essentially boiled down to teen idols, pop crooners and rockabilly-twangers. But locally at various dance halls and parties, the instrumentalists were setting their world on fire with a heavy, thunderous fuzzed up tone punctuated with hyper-melody lines that would scream and dart like a lizards tongue.
Frederick Lincoln 'Link' Wray, was born on May 2, 1929, in Dunn, North Carolina to Lillie M. Coats and Frederick Lincoln Wray, both preachers. "We was raised on gospel music and black blues. That's where I came from …" Wray said in his liner notes to his 1995 Polydor anthology. One year, Link's brother received a guitar as a Christmas gift but it was Link that played with it most of the time. At eight years old, Wray first heard the slide guitar at a travelling carnival being played by a performer known only as 'Hambone'. It was a moment that captured the imagination of the boy, inadvertently setting him on a course as a musician. Shortly afterwards, his family relocated to Norfolk, Virginia where Wray's father had found work in the ship yards.
Link and his brothers, Vernon and Doug decided to form a band calling themselves Lucky Wray and The Lazy Pine Wranglers, changing it shortly thereafter to Lucky Wray and The Palomino Ranch Hands. At this point, Wray was playing in a more jazzy style, lending a Les Paul type of arrangement over the typical cowboy songs and rockabilly fare of the time. The band wasn't in existence too long when Wray was pulled into the Army to serve a four year hitch in Korea during the conflict.
Wray returned home from the war missing a lung from having contracted tuberculosis. Doctors had advised Wray that he should not sing again. Rather than become discouraged, Wray began to stretch out on the guitar, applying more experimentation and expression to his playing. With the band re-formed, they relocated outside of Washington, D.C. and added Shorty Horton on bass. The band managed one EP with that particular line up that died quickly without making much noise. Eventually the band cut their numbers down to just three with Link out front pounding out guitar instrumentals to much local acclaim.
Again the band changed their name, this time becoming Link Wray and The Ray Men. In 1958, Link and the band began to play local dances and sock hops around the D.C. area with their defacto manager, local disc jockey Milt Grant. One night during a set, Link is quoted as saying 'They wanted me to play a stroll. I didn't know any so I made one up. I made up Rumble.'
The story of Link Wray's Rumble is one that seems to grow with time. But according to Wray in an interview with Guitar Player magazine, the story goes like this. "My brother Doug said 'I know the stroll beat. Just start playing something on the guitar. So God zapped it. BLOWM, blown, blowmn..., I just started playing it." The crowd went crazy. But reproducing the sound in the studio was much trickier. Despite all efforts, Wray was unable to get the same down and dirty grungy tone that he had at the dance.
"At the hop, Ray had stuck the microphone in front of the amplifiers and it was pouncing all over the place. Nobody stuck microphones in front of amplifiers in those days." But Wray was intent of capturing that ugly tone on record and necessity being the mother of invention, Wray opted to take a pen and repeatedly stab the tweeter in his amplifier. "Ray said, 'You're just screwing up your amplifier man.' I said 'Who cares as long as we get a (expletive deleted) sound!"
Originally 'Rumble' was released on Archie Bleyers Cadence label in 1958. Interestingly, Bleyer was prepared to pass on the disc but had a change of heart when his daughter expressed excitement over the track claiming that it reminded her of the gang fight scenes in the popular Broadway play, West Side Story. (Originally, Wray called the tune 'Oddball' but with Bleyers daughters input, the band quickly changed the name to 'Rumble'). The raw instrumental jumped quickly to #16 on the national charts and became a must have single. Amazingly though was the fact that the record managed to make the chart at all considering that many markets decided to ban to record fearing that it's primitive and sneering thrum would incite teen violence. It became the only recording that Wray did for Cadence. Bleyer took a beating in the press for 'inciting teen age violence' with the recording. His response? He opted to try and clean up Wray and his band by sending them to Nashville to record their follow up under the keen pop eye of the Everly Brothers producers.
Wray had other ideas and immediately put a kibosh on the plans by inking a deal with Epic Records. Wray swapped out his Les Paul for a Danelectro Longhorn (a model with the longest neck ever made on a production model guitar). With its lipstick pickup, it lent a massive grunt and groan to Wrays power chords and simple yet searing melodies. The follow up , 'Rawhide' reached #23 on the charts and quickly established itself as an anthem for every 'greaser' running a V-8 in the late 50's.
But even Epic failed to understand Wray and what he intended to do and took the same tact that Bleyer had tried. The label cleaned him up and had him record such songs as 'Danny Boy' and 'Clare de Lune', often with a full orchestra. To be expected, the records tanked. Wray had enough with major labels, jumped ship and formed his own label, Rumble Records.
On his own label, Wray recorded his third hit, 'Jack The Ripper'. To achieve the ache and echo, Wray played the track in a hallway of his makeshift studio with his amp strategically located in the hallway stairwell. It was a monstrous local hit for Wray and the boys but it was not until a Philadelphia disc jockey picked up on the single and worked it into the rotation, that the single hit the national air on Swan Records.
Swan president Bernie Binnick signed Wray quickly but only after giving him the promise of allowing him free reign over his recordings. Wray and the band turned the family chicken coop into a rough three track studio. The band set about recording a myriad of tracks that were released on a host of tiny labels and often under just as many different band names. Most of these recordings, many of which are somewhat difficult to find now, were honed while Wray and Ray Men were working some of the seediest joints in the country. The material that was released was a mixture of his skills and his environment. Link Wray had his sound and he wasn't about to give up any time soon.
But as the blues-rock, power chord heavy rock and roll began to take hold in the 60's and into the 70's, Wrays brand of hellfire and brimstone 50's instrumental music began to fade out of popularity. He continued to record off and on throughout the 70's and into the 80's including a period of time in the mid to late-70's where he toured and recorded with punk / rockabilly guitarist Robert Gordon. Although the recordings he made during this period were off-kilter and somewhat uneven, Wray continued to stun crowds with his nasty guitar style when playing live.
As you might expect, early rock and rolls wild man was never much for family life having been married and divorced three times before meeting and marrying his fourth wife and moving to Denmark in 1980. Like so many American musicians before him, Wray found a willing and excited audience in Europe. Wray saw an increased interest in his catalogue when 'Rumble' was included in the soundtrack to the hit film 'Pulp Fiction' and a host of grunge musicians in the 90's cited him as a major influence. They weren't the only musicians who have stated how vital Wray was to their own development as guitar players. The Who's Pete Townsend that it was hearing 'Rumble' that caused him to decide to play the guitar in the first place. Other, even more diverse artists cite Wray as a guitarist who brought music to life; Lonnie Mack, The Stooges, The Ventures, Brownsville Station and The Trashmen to name but a few.
Wray recorded a few stray sides while living over-seas but continued to tour heavily until his death in Copenhagen on November 5th, 2005.
He's been called everything from the father of heavy metal, the progenitor of the power chord, a proto-punk, a retro rock and roll greaser, a throw back to an over-grown delinquent. But call him what you will, you really need to add 'legend' to the front of it. Even if it were unintentional, Link Wray altered the development of rock music while it was still in its wobbly-kneed, toddler stage.
Even now, when you hear the savage pounding of 'Rumble' or 'Raw Hide', it's difficult fight the urge want to comb your hair back into a greased up DA, jam your comb into the rear pocket of your too snug Levi's and tear off down the road in a screaming hunk of American metal.
It's Rock and Roll, Link Wray style; dripping with Brylcreem and high test. It's thunder you can feel in your spine.