He may not have been the greatest guitar player, technically speaking, but Link Wray’s talent as an innovator makes him one of rock’s most influential figures. What Wray was doing to the sound of the electric guitar in the late Fifties, introducing distortion and the power chord into the language of rock’n’roll, inspired a generation.
Wray’s early years were tough. Born on 2 May 1929 in Dunn, North Carolina, Fred Lincoln ‘Link’ Wray Jr was part Native American – reputedly half Shawnee, born to a Shawnee mother – at a time when this was frowned upon. His parents were semi-literate street preachers and his father had been shellshocked in the First World War. Growing up in the South could be frightening and the family regularly had to hide from Ku Klux Klan raids. A brush with the German measles left young Link with poor eyesight and hard of hearing. When he was drafted for the Korean War, he contracted tuberculosis and had to have his left lung removed. It’s a wonder he managed to launch a career at all!
When he was eight he met a black circus performer called Hambone who taught him the rudiments of the guitar, a few chords and how to use a slide. After he was discharged from the Army, he came home to Portsmouth, Virginia where his family had moved, bought his first guitar, a Gibson Les Paul, and formed a country band, Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands, with brothers Vernon and Doug.
In January 1958 Link and his band were playing dance nights in Fredericksburg, Virginia and were egged on to come up with a number in the vein of ‘The Stroll’, a hit for local combo the Diamonds. What Wray came up with broke all the rules – a raw, bluesy, overdriven instrumental. Originally called ‘Oddball’, the number went down a storm with the crowd and resident DJ Milt Grant took the band under his wing. Early attempts to get the excitement of the track onto tape failed and in a fit of frustration, Link started to move microphones and amplifiers around, puncturing his own amp’s speaker with a pencil to stumble on the now fabled ‘fuzz tone’ beloved of guitarists the world over.
But the record labels weren’t biting and ‘Oddball’ was turned down by the likes of Capitol and Decca. Archie Bleyer at Cadence Records wasn’t enthused either, but his stepdaughter and her friends loved it and suggested the song be re-named ‘Rumble’ because it reminded her ofWest Side Story, the play about rival gangs who used the term as slang for a fight.
Bleyer decided to issue ‘Rumble’ as a 45 in April 1958, but this snarling classic became the first instrumental song ever to get banned on account of its ‘potential to incite gang violence and juvenile delinquency’. It nevertheless rocketed to the Number 16 slot and remained in the US charts for 10 weeks, selling over a million copies, backed by the equally compelling ‘The Swag’.
When Bleyer attempted to clean up his sound, Link quit Cadence and signed to Epic. More superb, highly original instrumentals followed and are featured here for your pleasure. On numbers like follow-up 45, ‘Raw-hide’ (featuring his brand new Danelectro Longhorn guitar) and later singles like ‘Jack The Ripper’ (US chart placings Numbers 23 and 64 respectively) Link experimented further with rougher and more aggressive tones. To record ‘Jack The Ripper’ he placed his amp in a hotel stairwell to get creepy reverb effects.
Link and his band released debut LP ‘Link Wray And The Ray Men’ in late 1959, many of whose tracks are compiled here. And though the craze for guitar instrumentals faded, Link returned to the Top 40 on the single ‘Hide And Go Seek’ by Bunker Hill in 1962; it’s Link’s bloodcurdling scream most remember it for!
Disillusioned by the music business, he retired to the family farm but kept recording. In the Eighties various classic Wray recordings started to crop up on movie soundtracks, notably ‘Jack The Ripper’ on the Richard Gere movie Breathless, while Quentin Tarantino’s cult hit Pulp Fiction included both ’Rumble’ and ‘Ace Of Spades’. Collaborations with nouveau rockabilly star Robert Gordon also kept him the in public eye.
Link passed away in his adopted home of Copenhagen in November 2005, in demand as a live act to the very end. Rolling Stone listed him at 67 in their 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, citing him as the man behind ‘the most important D chord in history’. His influence cannot be underestimated on later acts as diverse as Adam and the Ants and the White Stripes, as well as British Invasion bands like the The Kinks and The Who.
Pete Townshend of the Who said: ‘If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and “Rumble” I would never have picked up the guitar’. With testimonies like that, Link’s place in the rock’n’roll pantheon is assured.
Sleeve notes by Nigel Cross