Link Wray

Guitarist whose instrumental track 'Rumble' was banned as subversive by US radio stations
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's hard to imagine an instrumental being banned as too subversive, but that is what happened to Link Wray's "Rumble" in 1958. Its tough, muscular sound captured the tension of a gang fight and many US radio stations refused to play it or even mention its title. Wray's opening chord sets the scene for 150 echo-drenched seconds of feedback and distorted guitar.

"Rumble" was a record like no other and years ahead of its time. Although it was only a minor hit, Bob Dylan went to see Link Wray playing live in 1958 and Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix both acknowledged Wray's influence. Pete Townshend of the Who praised "Rumble", saying, "It made me very uneasy the first time I heard it and yet I was excited by the savage guitar sound." Neil Young commented, "If I could return in time and see one band live, it would be Link Wray and the Ray Men."

Frederick Lincoln Wray was born in Dunn, North Carolina in 1929. He inherited the dark looks of his mother, a Shawnee Indian, and by all accounts, it was an unusual family: according to Wray, his grandfather was imprisoned at the age of 96 for not supporting his family and lived on to be 113. Both of Link Wray's parents were preachers and they often held meetings on the streets. Link was a sickly child and a bout of measles damaged both his hearing and his sight.

In 1944 his father and his elder brother, Vernon, went to work in the dockyards in Portsmouth, Virginia and they sent for the rest of the family three years later. Vernon formed a western swing band with his youngest brother, Doug, playing drums and a cousin, Brentley "Shorty" Horton, on double-bass, and the DJ Sheriff Tex Davis, who later discovered Gene Vincent, featured them on radio shows. Although Link Wray played with them from time to time, he was conscripted into the US army in 1951 and was sent to Germany and then Korea. When he returned to the States in 1953, he ordered a Gibson Les Paul guitar. It was then he developed his own style, playing louder than most because of his impaired hearing.

The family group obtained bookings performing cowboy songs as the Palomino Ranch Gang. When they did some bookings in Washington, a local singer Dick Williams asked them to cut some demonstration records of new songs. The rockabilly track "I Sez Baby" shows that Wray was uncomfortable as a vocalist, performing with a gruff howl. He said later, "The only reason I was doing instrumentals was because I couldn't sing." He was also having problems with his lungs. In the army, he had been told this was nothing to worry about, but now he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His left lung was removed and he was in hospital for most of 1956.

When the band was playing at a dance in Fredericksberg, Virginia in 1958, the DJ Milt Grant asked them to play "The Stroll" by the Diamonds. Grant hummed the tune and they performed an approximation to this. As they were playing, someone thrust the microphone in front of Wray's amplifier and the dancers became intrigued with the weird sound. The group developed the result into the instrumental "Oddball".

Capitol and Decca Records both turned down "Oddball", but Archie Bleyer, the owner of Cadence Records, wanting to please the influential Grant, said he would consider it. He thought it was out of tune and awful, but his daughter played it to her teenage friends. They begged Bleyer to release it and, in a reference to West Side Story, renamed it "Rumble". Bleyer was uncomfortable at having the record on his label and his promotional ad in Billboard even says, "Rumble, Schmumble, who cares, as long as it's a hit?" The controversy over the record only infuriated Bleyer more and despite "Rumble" being a hit, he refused to release any more records by "that Indian in Washington".

Epic Records thought that Link Wray and the Ray Men (Horton and Doug Wray) might rival Duane Eddy and the Rebels, and Wray copied that style for "Dixie Doodle". The label allowed him to develop his frenzied R&B style provided he also recorded orchestrated versions of "Clair De Lune" and "Danny Boy". His best moment was his 1959 instrumental hit, "Rawhide", on which he was already improvising with his new Danelectro Longhorn guitar.

By 1960 Wray was singing on his records, with an unusual cracked voice. It enhanced his image of jet black hair, black sunglasses, black leather jacket and black trousers, not to mention an Indian headband. Wray put his mark on other people's records as well: he played guitar for Bunker Hill (in reality the gospel singer David Walker) on his Top Forty record "Hide and Go Seek" and it is Wray's scream on it that listeners remember.

Epic turned down another example of feedback madness, Wray's "Jack the Ripper", and he released it instead through Swan Records. He recorded for Swan from 1963 to 1967, by then being marketed as a surf guitarist. By and large, though, Wray was left to his own devices and the many singles include "The Sweeper", "Good Rockin' Tonight" and a jokey cover of the "Batman Theme".

Disillusioned with the business, Wray retired to the family farm in Accokeek, Maryland, where he converted a chicken shack into a small studio. He made the album Link Wray (1971), on which he wrote about his frustrations. The Neville Brothers have recorded two tracks from it, "Fallin' Rain" and "Fire and Brimstone".

Another home-made album, Beans and Fatback, was licensed to Virgin by his management in 1973 without Wray's knowledge and although he did not blame Virgin, he refused to promote it. He signed with Polydor and made Be What You Want To (1973) in San Franscisco with Jerry Garcia and Commander Cody. The Link Wray Rumble (1974) features Boz Scaggs and the Tower of Power horn section and "I Got To Ramble" is dedicated to the memory of Duane Allman. Having no ill will towards Virgin, Wray made another album, Stuck In Gear (1976), for them at Ridge Farm, near Dorking in Surrey. He described it as the work of "two Scots, one Irishman and an Indian".

In 1977 the new wave rockabilly singer Robert Gordon teamed with Wray for the albums Robert Gordon with Link Wray (1977) and Fresh Fish Special (1978). They are good albums, but their live shows, including some in the UK, were more exciting. Wray went for a heavier sound on Bullshot (1979), although it included a quiet revival of Elvis Presley's "Don't". Live at the Paradiso, Amsterdam, recorded in 1979 but released in 1982, shows how powerful he could be on stage. It included a cover of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" and on the title track of Apache (1990), he performed his own distorted take on the Shadows' hit. By then, Wray had settled with his fourth wife in Copenhagen and his career had a boost in 1994 when "Rumble" and "Ace of Spades" were included on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction.

In the late 1990s Link Wray appeared to a young audience at Dingwall's in London. He performed instrumentals for an hour and when asked for an encore, he played another 45 minutes of the same songs. Already 70 and wearing a black singlet and black trousers, he was the coolest person in the place.

Spencer Leigh

Comments