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Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Link Wray
Link Wray may not be a household name. He may may not even be well-known among "serious" rock fans. He is seldom played on the radio anymore, only had two top-40 hits in his prime, and quite possibly will never be elected to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Nontheless, Link Wray's contribution to rock was a significant one, and one that continues to endure to this day. On his biggest hit, "Rumble", an instrumental which reached #16 in 1958, he singlehandedly popularized the power chord; a staple of rock music that sustained the careers of everyone from the Kinks and The Who through Cream and heavy metal. Wray gets credit for the power chord's very invention; modern rock guitar would be inconceivable without it.
This crucial contribution to rock's evolution is often overlooked; most analysis of rock's evolution draws a tidy line from blues to heavy metal. Wray wasn't a blues artist; he was firmly rock 'n' roll, in the traditional 1950's sense. However, the mutation of blues makes a stop at Wray before travelling across the ocean to the blues-influenced British Invasion guitarists. Pete Townshend credits Link Wray and "Rumble" with inspiring him to play guitar in the first place.
Part Native American, the son of preachers in the Holiness Church, Fred Lincoln Wray Jr.'s career dates back to the very end of the pre-rock era, making his emergence roughly simultaneous with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. His earliest recordings are from 1955, as a member of Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands, who recorded a few sides for Starday records, located in Texas. Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands were originally based in Wray's home state of North Carolina (Wray's birthyear has been reported as both 1929 and 1935 in the town of Dunn, NC; the former date is probably more accurate). The band was a hellbent country outfit, not unlike any number of rough pre-rockabilly outfits, and included his brother Vernon "Lucky" Wray on vocals, brother Doug Wray on drums, Shorty Horton on bass, and Link on guitar. With the help of some local songwriters they put together a solid set of hillbilly proto-rock which gained them enough local notice that by the end of 1955 they relocated to Washington DC; their first EP was released on the local Key label.
Vern "Lucky" Wray got some recognition as a singer, and subsequently recorded some solo sides for Cameo records; undaunted, Link, Doug, and Shorty contined to rattle the walls with their unkempt hillbilly country, often working on instrumental tunes in the absence of Vern. Link had contracted tuberculosis in the Korean War which had cost him a lung; on his doctor's orders, he avoided singing much, despite an adequate voice, and instead focused on finding voice through his guitar playing. It was during 1956-1957, with Vern often unavailable for singing duties, that Link Wray's signature style of playing developed.
In the nutshell, Link Wray's guitar style was deceptively simple, but unique in its day. Rather than strumming rhythm or playing a lead line on his '53 Gibson Les Paul, he favored a slow drag across the strings, run through a loud, distorted Premier amplifier, emphasizing each note in elementary chord progressions. This primal sound drove the kids crazy; Wray, sensing this, tried to get an even dirtier sound by punching holes in his amp, which distorted his chords even more.
During this period of time, the band re-tooled their image considerably. Vern Wray, his solo career not developing, returned to the band as manager and producer, changing his name to Ray Vernon. The remaining trio renamed themselves in space age fashion Link Wray and the Ray-Men. The band, and Link in particular, began dressing like hoodlums, with black leather jackets, menacing shades, surly sneers, and plenty of hair grease. By 1957, they were playing record hops in the DC area in the company of local deejay Milt Grant, who eventually took over managerial duties from brother Vern.
As legend has it, Wray's signature tune, "Rumble" was largely constructed on the spur of the moment, mid-set, when audience members requested he play a stroll. Having none prepared, he improvised, birthing the first classic power chord in rock history.
The still-unnamed primitive and raw fuzz-toned tune was initially rejected for release by Archie Blayer, owner of Cadence records, but when his daughter went crazy for it, saying it reminded her of a rumble, it was given a shot and its title. It was promptly banned in a lot of radio markets, including New York City, on the grounds that it might spur violence. While this fear was dubious; as an instrumental it didn't condone anything, and any "rumble" vibes were wholly atmospheric rather than specific, it did label Link Wray and the Ray-Men as a juvenile delinquent band. This earned them street credibility and respect from jd's across the country; despite the bans, "Rumble" peaked at #16 on the national charts in 1958. It remains the song Wray is best remembered for.
"Rumble" put Wray on the map in a big way, and established him as a bigger threat than Elvis or Chuck Berry, who were innocent and good-timey in comparison. However, despite the single's success (it also charted in England), the Ray-Men quickly found themselves at odds with Cadence records. Cadence, home to the Everly Brothers, was concerned about the band's rough image, and wanted to clean them up and tone them down. They were dispatched to Nashville to record their follow-up with the Everly Brothers' production team. The Ray-Men would have nothing of it; having found their sound and their audience, the last thing they wanted was to become a safe, inoffensive pop band like the Everlys. They ditched Cadence in favor of the larger Epic records, who were willing to let them do their own thing.
Wray replaced his Les Paul with a Danelectro Longhorn, known for having the longest neck of any regular production guitar; its fat pickups gave Wray's power chords an even dirtier, more metallic sound. The first single (and follow-up to "Rumble") was "Rawhide", a pumping, pounding, uptempo rocker, drenched in Wray's deliberate power chords. It peaked at #23 in late 1958, giving Wray and the Ray-Men their second top-40 of the year. Once again, their chief audience was the leather jacket juvenile delinquent crowd; once again, the band and label had to contend with scattered radio bans around the country.
And once again, their label wanted to clean them up, remold Wray in an image not dissimilar to Duane Eddy, whose twanging guitar was a safer diversion popular with middle class white teenagers. What they ignored was that Wray's menace was his biggest draw; juvenile delinquents or not, the band's fans were a sizable lot, and the Ray-Men were assured of sales as long as they were left alone to do what they did best.
Unable to duck out of their Epic contract as they had with Cadence, the band had to play ball. Epic put Wray in front of an orchestra, forcing him to record moldy, maudlin oldies like "Danny Boy" and "Claire De Lune" in 1960. Needless to say, the hoods who rumbled to his big hits had no use for "Danny Boy", and the sales dried up instantly. Epic soured on the whole project and cut them loose. Not wanting to go through it again, Link and Vern decided to set up their own label, Rumble Records, at the end of 1960.
Rumble Records never really worked out; record distribution turned out to be a tougher job than the Wrays had expected. Nontheless, the Ray-Men recorded three seminal singles in entirely their own way for the label. Not only did each solidify Wray's reputation as a one of a kind guitarist, king of the big riff, they also demonstrated advanced studio trickery that wouldn't become commonplace until the mid 1960's. "Jack The Ripper" was recorded by placing Wray's amp at the bottom of a hotel staircase, giving it a full, organic echo; its insistent tempo evoked a car chase more than a rumble. It didn't sell in large numbers because of Rumble Records' distribution problems, but it did reach elements of its target audience, who welcomed Wray's return to what he did best.
Swan records, based in Philadelphia, eventually picked up the song after it had gotten some airplay in 1961-1962, and released it themselves in 1963, when it received enough attention to peak at #63, not bad for a two-year-old re-release.
Swan signed Link and Vern and finally granted them license to do what they wanted; as fears of a juvenile delinquent explosion subsided in the early 60's, and as Wray's reputation as a guitarist grew, Swan permitted them to experiment with styles and sounds on their own terms. The Wrays spent a decade experimenting with a three-track studio they built in a chicken coop on the family's farm, and for the first couple of years, Swan dutifully released the recordings they made.
Many of these experiments were classic, others were turkeys, but all of them displayed a willful disregard for any current trends of the day; all were created with the Wrays following their muses. As musicians, Wray and his brothers continued to improve, playing countless sets at dives and gin mills; their output for Swan was prolific, and recorded under a variety of names, including the Moon Men and The Spiders. Swan president Bernie Binnick often gave the impression of not quite understanding Wray's appeal, but affably let him go on, figuring that interfering with his odd experiments would not necessarily result in more sales.
However, as the 60's wore on, the sales were no longer there. In 1965, Wray briefly stopped releasing records, although he continued to experiment in his chicken coop. His contract with Swan expired, and the late 60's saw Wray labelless and toiling in relative obscurity.
It seemed for a while that Wray was finished; the 50's long gone, popular music tastes had turned to heavier rock, progressive rock, heavy metal, psychedelic rock. However, in 1971 Wray made an unexpected return to record making, with an album for Polydor entitled simply Link Wray. Recorded mostly on his chicken coop 3-track the album saw Wray abandoning his trademark instrumentals for an album of roots rock featuring his own one-lunged vocals. The results are mixed, but ultimately winning; the album comes across as rootsy as The Band, but Wray's vocals and guitar style give the album a strange, tough, steely, punky appeal; it almost recalls the crackpot music of Hasil Adkins, but in a heavier, less rockabilly vein, more disciplined vein. The album peaked at a modest #186, Wray's only charting album of his career, but it was enough to return him to cult artist status, where he has remained ever since.
He returned to the road shortly after, backing rockabilly Robert Gordon (later of Tuff Darts) alongside drummer Anton Fig, and then returned to solo work, bringing Fig with him. His late 70's records are uneven affairs (although he did chart once more with "Red Hot", which reached #83 in 1977), but as a live performer Wray continued to smoke, playing the honky tonks with a mean intensity that took the "Rumble" sound and grew it up, taking his guitar from the realm of teen hoodlums and making it into rugged and rough get-ready-to-brawl barroom music.
He never really slowed down again until he was in his 70's, and even still, at 76, he is capable of igniting fire. Wray lives in semi-retirement in Denmark, his
wife's birthplace, but still trucks out his old guitar on occasion, displaying a power and finesse few players a third of his age can muster. He may well be better appreciated in Europe than he is in America; for many European rock fans, Link Wray represents America, and all the menace and leer rock 'n' roll once stood for. However, he is an American national treasure; if the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame was really about rock 'n' roll, they'd induct him right now, while he's still alive to accept the honor. Because without him, there might've been no Pete Townshend. Or Kinks, or Yardbirds, or Led Zeppelin.
Weekly Artist Overview usually appears Monday night/Tuesday AM.
Listen to Link Wray: Rumble (1958)