LINK WRAY

Rock guitarist Link Wray was born on May 2nd in North Carolina. In his 1958 instrumental hit "Rumble," Wray invented the power chord, the basis of modern rock guitar-playing from thrash to heavy metal. He is the missing link in the history of rock guitar in that he is not often given credit for being the connection between early blues guitarists and the late '60s gods (Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, etc.).

Wray began his career in the early '50s as a member of Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands, a band that he formed with his brothers Vernon and Doug. They moved from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., where they recorded an EP.

Soon after, Wray began concentrating on guitar, since an earlier bout with tuberculosis began to make singing increasingly difficult. He then developed his guitar style: a slow drag across distorted strings in a simple chord progression. This led to his recording of "Rumble," which cracked the U.S. top 20, despite being banned by some rdio stations because its title connoted gang violence. The Wrays then signed to Epic Records after disagreeing with their original label, Cadence, which wanted to tone down the tough image they began to have from "Rumble." The Wrays' next single, the pounding "Rawhide," went to #23 and was a hit among leather-jacketed, motorcycle-loving male youths. Link Wray was becoming the hero of juvenile elinquents and this scared record companies, who forced him to record non-rock songs such as "Danny Boy" with orchestras.

The Wrays tried forming their own record company, Rumble Records, which produced their next big hit, "Jack The Ripper." The song was later used in the '80s remake of the film "Breathless," starring Richard Gere. The company was short-lived and the Wrays found themselves at U.K.-based Swan Records, where they were given free rein to create what they wanted. What followed was a decade of improvised, guitar-heavy records issued under strange names such as the Moon Men and the Spiders. The 70s were filled with ups and downs for Link Wray. In 1971, his self-titled solo album was critically lauded but didn't sell, and none of his other releases made a splash. He spent some time backing Robert Gordon -- the singer for New York punkers the Tuff Darts -- on a rockabilly project and also recorded several albums in the '80s that relied heavily on drum machines. He attracted attention with rare live appearances in which he proved that he could still wow 'em with the guitar style he pioneered.

The Original Man in Black: Link Wray still rumbles

By CAIN BURDEAU, Associated Press Writer - August, 2002

NEW ORLEANS - The power chord. Distortion. The raw and the rumble. The man in black at midnight. A wall of noises, never-ending riffs, the echo of the whammy bar. This is Link Wray. Frederick Lincoln Wray Jr., the 73-year-old Shawnee Indian, a pioneer of punk and heavy metal, or just that dirty guitar sound.

On a recent rainy night in the French Quarter, the rail-thin Wray played a two-hour show at the Shim Sham Club that included his greats: 1958's "Rumble," 1959's "Rawhide," 1963's "Jack the Ripper." Stooped at about 5 feet 7 inches (1.7 meters), his cataract-dimmed eyes hidden behind shades, he was a haunt from the honky tonk joints of the 1950s, the ghosts of Elvis Presley and James Dean clinging to him. Born in Dunn, North Carolina, to semiliterate street preachers, Wray hit it big in the late '50s and is now being rediscovered. His music has appeared in movies like "Pulp Fiction," "Independence Day" and "Desperado." A petition drive is underway to get him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar'," Pete Townsend of The Who wrote on one of Wray's albums. Neil Young once said: "If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Raymen."

"Sixteen-year-old kids, they come with little bands, you know, and they come with tears in their eyes," Wray said. "I feel like I'm in church. That's the truth. And I feel so blessed, even though I'm not a rich rock star. I don't want to be a rich rock star." Wray's lucky day came when he recorded "Rumble." The story goes like this: He punched holes in his amplifiers to get a grumbling, mean sound. The kids loved it. Some deejays in big cities banned the song; the instrumental was too suggestive of teen violence. '"Rumble' came out on St. Patrick's Day and it went out right in the charts with a bullet, played on the Dick Clark show - a syndicated sow - so when he played something, it meant something," he said. "Rumble" sold 4 million copies. That year, dressed distinctively in black, Wray was in demand, playing to screaming teenagers well past midnight. He was creating his own style. And the world changed for a man born poor. "I'm half Shawnee Indian, born to a Shawnee mother. I had a Shawnee dad, and he was in the First World War and he lost his hair and he lost his teeth, and he was shell-shocked, and I had to go to work when I was 10 years old to help feed the family. This was Dunn, North Carolina, in a different era, you know, during the Ku Klux Klan days, you know - really bad in the South," Wray said.

His family slept on the floor of barns under the protection of Cherokees. Ate whatever - usually little. Shook with fear at KKK raids. "Elvis, he grew up" - he paused - "I don't want to sound racist when I say this: He grew up white-man poor. I was growing up Shawnee poor." Wray was born in 1929, the same year the stck market crashed. "They told my mother when I was born that they'd have to kill me to save her life. And she said, 'Please don't kill my baby,' so they pulled me out of my mother with prongs," he said. "So it made me a slow learner, because they pulled me out with prongs. I am a slow learner: I wanted to be Chet Atkins, I wanted to be Tal Farlow, I wanted to be those cats, jazz cats. Like I told Frank Zappa, 'It took me a long time to learn my guitar.' He said, 'Well, Link, it came to me quite easily.' 'That's because you got a brain, I don't have one.' You know, I was telling him my story."

Wray claims that because he was too slow to be a wiz on guitar, he had to invent sounds. "I was looking for something that Chet Atkins wasn't doing, that all the jazz kings wasn't doing, that all the country pickers wasn't doing. I was looking for my own sound," he said. He was one of the first guitarists to take a major chord and run it up and down the fret board, creating the thundering sound known a the power chord - a favorite among today's hard-rock players. Early on, he learned from Hambone, a black musician brought up by the Barnum and Bailey Circus, who saw the 8-year-old Wray struggling with a Maybell acoustic guitar. Hambone tuned the guitar up and whipped out a bottleneck. "And I'm going, 'Wow.' I just loved that sound he was getting," Wray recalled. Later, when his father found work in a Navy yard and the family moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, he paid dlrs 20 to the Phelps Brothers, the big country act there, to play with them.

Wray contracted tuberculosis while serving in the Korean War. His left lung was removed and his singing career was compromised, so he focused even more on electric guitars - preferably off-brand ones. His two brothers, Vernon and Doug, were also musicians. The three went on the country circuit as "Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands." Later, when "Rumble" became a hit, they became "Link Wray and the Raymen," or Wraymen, as it was sometimes selled. Much later, the brothers' relationship soured. Link said that Vernon, acting as manager, became bitter over his brother's fame, stole the rights to "Rumble" and other classics, and destroyed the master tapes of many of the early songs. Vernon died in 1979. To this day, Link said, he gets no money for many of his old songs.

Back in 1957, when Presley was upending a music world dominated by jazz and country, the 28-year-old Wray was caught up in the rock craze. And he started going places no one else was - into a thrashing, weird, rumbling sound. "He came up with a sound that was totally different. And people like myself who were teenagers were taken aback by that and you just wanted to hear it over and over - it had a hook to it," said Bobby Morris, a Pensacola, Florida-based rock historian specializing in the 1950s.

"It aggravated me for years and years that no one recognized Link as the pioneer of all these wild rock groups like Kiss, AC/DC, Metallica ( news - web sites). All thoe people owe their loud driving music to him....' In the '60s, Wray went out of style, playing in underground clubs, hillbilly joints and the occasional acoustical set in Greenwich Village with Bob Dylan. He said the entertainment business was "always grabbing for you, to control you." "I was a little hippie, without the drugs, you know, because I'm very religious," Wray said. And then in 1978, he moved to Denmark and married Olive Julie Povlsen. They're raising a 19-year-old son, Oliver Christian, in a three-story house on an island where Hans Christian Andersen once lived. "You know, when I'm home I don't go out of the house. Television's my world," Wray said. During his years away from the spotlight, he was rediscovered by new generations, from The Cramps to the Sex Pistols. "I may live in Denmark," he shouted in the middle of his set at the Shim Sham. "But I'm 100 percent American!"

Link Wray at the Crystal Ballroom, May 20, 1999

Alan Scally - ayjay@justice.com - January 20, 2004

Well, Link Wray strutted last night across the stage at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon but it was really 1950 Oklahoma and he got out of his 1937 Ford coupe and walked boot heels crunch crunch across the gravel parking lot of the DariFreez, brushing past the football players staring at him and his black leather jacket, greased-back hair and at the Cherokee girl-child at his side--Hank Williams and John Lee Hooker, wind storm off the prairie, fire wrapped inside the wind he rides, hard chords of eternal defiance ringing out across endless wheat field and down lonesome highways, across cities and through silent farmhouses where a men sit and watch the darkness sink into the earth like a bitter flood; Link Wray struts like a black leather rooster, shakes his guitar like an angry lover as the notes fly away like buffalo stampeding across green spring grasses of empty Kansas forever land; Link Wray raged last night with all the defiance and laughter and love and power he carried within im - a legend surely as Crazy Horse, a force of nature like a tornado, a howling prophet man shouting blind in a dust bowl sun of tribulation and triumph to come.

I saw Link Wray, I saw America, I saw the beautiful back-road land we turned away from because we're afraid of our dreams - our dreams came back last night, bulletproof and wary, shining in all the beat glory and visionary wildness of an electrical, storm in July over Omaha, followed by a double rainbow over the Missouri River. Ride, ride, ride across the land, shattered guitar explosion ripping out of the radio as the prophet man rages on, full-force rock n roll; proving why the American night holds no secrets only dreams, nightmares and visions.

Greaser hair hanging in a ponytail to his waist, Indian chief painted on back of leather jacket, eternal shades, taunting grin, the coolest baddest bad-boy of forever came to town and we had a rumble in the high school parking lot. The prodigal son came home and killed the fatted calf hi own bad self, then stole his daddy's gold and had a party for the temple prostitutes and his wastrel friends while playing rock n' roll on King David's harp. So Link Wray was here and yeah there is hope, yeah we can dream and if we listen hard we can hear the mocking laughter of angels leaving heaven to ride motorcycles toward an always infinite horizon to a small town where rattlesnakes sleep inside a jukebox that plays blues, Hank Williams, Elvis and the screaming guitar of a boy who stabbed his amplifier with a pencil and wrote his name in the storm clouds over a Wyoming highway. Link Wray strutted for us. He done good. He done America proud.

Alan Scally, ayjay@justice.com

 
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