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Link Wray & His Ray Men

Link Wray may never get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but his contribution to the language of rockin' guitar would still be a major one, even if he had never walked into another studio after cutting "Rumble." Quite simply, Link Wray invented the power chord, the major modus operandi of modern rock guitarists. Listen to any of the tracks he recorded between that landmark instrumental in 1958 through his Swan recordings in the early '60s and you'll hear the blueprints for heavy metal, thrash, you name it. Though rock historians always like to draw a nice, clean line between the distorted electric guitar work that fuels early blues records to the late-'60s Hendrix-Clapton-Beck-Page-Townshend mob, with no stops in between, a quick spin of any of the sides Wray recorded during his golden decade punches holes in that theory right quick. If a direct line can be traced forward from a black blues musician crankin' up his amp and playing with a ton of violence and aggression to a young white guy doing a mutated form of same, the line points straight to Link Wray, no contest. Pete Townshend summed it up for more guitarists than he probably realized when he said, "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and "'Rumble,'" I would have never picked up a guitar."

Everything that was handed down to today's current crop of headbangers from the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Who can be traced back to the guy from Dunn, North Carolina, who started out in 1955 recording for Starday as a member of Lucky Wray & the Palomino Ranch Hands. You see, back in the early '50s, it was a different ball game altogether. Rock & roll hadn't become a national event in the United States yet, and if you were young and white and wanted to be in the music business, you had two avenues for possible career moves. You could be a pop-mush crooner like Perry Como or a hillbilly singer like the late Hank Williams, and that was about it. With country music all around him as a youth in North Carolina, the choice was obvious; Wray joined forces with his brothers Vernon and Doug, forming Lucky Wray & the Lazy Pine Wranglers, later changing the band name to the spiffier-sounding Palomino Ranch Hands. By the end of 1955, they had relocated outside of Washington, D.C., and added Shorty Horton on bass. With Link, Horton, and brothers Doug and Vernon ("Lucky," named after his gambling fortunes) handling drums and lead vocals respectively, they fell in with some local songwriters, and the results made it to vinyl as an EP on the local Kay label, with the rest of the sides being leased to Starday Records down in Texas.

But by 1958, the music had changed, and so had Wray's life. With a lung missing from a bout with tuberculosis during his stint in the Korean War, Link was advised by his doctor to let brother Vernon do all the vocalizing. So Link started stretching out more and more on the guitar, coming up with one instrumental after another. By this time, the band had sweated down to a trio, and changed its name to the Ray Men. After a brief flirtation as a teen idol -- changing his name to Ray Vernon -- the third Wray brother became the group's producer/manager. Armed with a 1953 Gibson Les Paul, a dinky Premier amp, an Elvis sneer, and a black leather jacket, Link started playing the local record hops around the D.C. area with disc jockey Milt Grant, who became his de facto manager. One night during a typical set, says Link, "They wanted me to play a stroll. I didn't know any, so I made one up. I made up "'Rumble.'"

"Rumble" was originally issued on Archie Bleyer's Cadence label back in 1958, and Bleyer was ready to pass on it when his daughter expressed excitement for the primitive instrumental, saying it reminded her of the rumble scenes in West Side Story. Bleyer renamed it (what its original title was back then, if any, is now lost to the mists of time), and "Rumble" jumped to number 16 on the national charts, despite the fact that it was banned from the radio in several markets (including New York City), becoming Wray's signature tune to this day. But despite the success and notoriety of "Rumble," it turned out to be Wray's only release on Cadence. Bleyer, under attack for putting out a record that was "promoting teenage gang warfare," wanted to clean Link and the boys up a bit, sending them down to Nashville to cut their next session with the Everly Brothers' production team calling the shots. The Wrays didn't see it that way, so they immediately struck a deal with Epic Records. Link's follow-up to "Rumble" was the pounding, uptempo "Rawhide." The Les Paul had been swapped for a Danelectro Longhorn model (with the longest neck ever manufactured on a production line guitar), its "lipstick tube" pickups making every note of Link's power chords sound like he was strumming with a tin can lid for a pick. The beat and sheer blister of it all was enough to get it up to number 23 on the national charts, and every kid who wore a black leather jacket and owned a hot rod had to have it.

But a pattern was emerging that would continue throughout much of Wray's early career; the powers that be figured that if they could tone him down and dress him up, they'd sell way more records in the bargain. What all these producers and record execs failed to realize was the simplest of truths: if Duane Eddy twanged away for white, teenage America, Link Wray played for juvenile delinquent hoods, plain and simple. By the end of 1960, Wray found himself in the mucho-confining position of recording with full orchestras, doing dreck like "Danny Boy" and "Claire de Lune." But when these gems failed to chart as well, relations with Epic came to a close, and by years' end, Link and Vern formed their own label, Rumble Records.

Rumble's three lone issues included the original version of Wray's next big hit, "Jack the Ripper." If "Rumble" sounded like gang warfare, then "Jack the Ripper" sounded like a high-speed car chase, which is exactly what it became the movie soundtrack for in the Richard Gere version of Breathless. Link's amp was recorded at the end of a hotel staircase for maximum echo effect, while he pumped riffs through it that would become the seeds of a million metal songs. After kicking up noise locally for a couple of years, it was going through another period of disc jockey spins when Swan Records of Philadelphia picked it up and got it nationwide attention. Certainly Wray was at his most prolific during his tenure with Swan, and label president Bernie Binnick gave Link and Vernon pretty much free rein to do what they wanted. Turning the family chicken coop into a crude, three-track studio, the Wray family spent the next decade recording and experimenting with sounds and styles.

At least now they could succeed -- or fail -- on their own terms. Most of these sides were leased out as one-shot deals to a zillion microscopic labels under a variety of names like the Moon Men, the Spiders, the Fender Benders, etc. What fueled this period of maximum creativity is open to debate. A lot of it had to do with the fact that Link and the boys honed their particular brand of rockin' mayhem working some of the grimiest joints on the face of the planet when these tracks were cut. When Swan label chief Binnick was questioned as to how he could issue such wild-a** material, he would smile, throw his hands up in the air and say, "What can you do with an animal like that?"

As the new decade dawned, Link Wray's sound and image were updated for the hippie marketplace. Wray's career fortunes waxed and waned throughout the '70s, a muddle of albums in a laid-back style doing little to enhance his reputation. After a stint backing '70s rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, Wray went solo again, taking most of Gordon's band (including drummer Anton Fig) with him. But if the studio sides were a bit uneven, he still could pack a wallop live, and his rare forays on the stages of the world spread the message that rock & roll's original wild guitar man still had plenty of gas left in the tank.

Wray married and moved to Denmark in 1980, recording the stray album for the foreign market, and throughout the 1990s he was still capable of strapping on a guitar and making it sound nastier than anyone in his sixties had a right to. And his back catalog got a lot attention in the '90s when the grunge revolution hit, with several young, hip guitarists citing Wray as an influence, and his early work continued to be reissued under various imprints. He recorded two new albums for Ace Records, Shadowman in 1997 and Barbed Wire in 2000 and toured up until his death in Copenhagen on November 5, 2005. ~ Cub Koda & Steve Leggett, Rovi
full bio

Comments

I have to agree with bobonit. Holy shitsnacks!! He's right though.... Wow
Link Wray is a god on the guitar, most definitely should be recognized as one of the greats in the HOF!
Pulp Fiction
I can't believe they put clowns like Hall & Oates, Nirvana and the biggest group of poseurs in history, Kiss, in the R&R HOF and not Link Wray
sad that ll cool j is in the HOF but not link wray
Link wray n gang truly have a great sound
jamie.m.hope n
I like it I've heard it somewhere
jwchild1
I think it is kinda of cool to see who the insperation for the Dusk till Dawn hit by Tito and the Transulas... . I think it was Link Wray....sure seems like his lead for them. They play the same music.
RIP Link! Lived a long life of rock and roll!
The whole concept of a R&R HOF is a complete joke. It's nothing more than a Hard Rock Cafe...with a steep admission fee...sans the $18 burger. The HOF was Cleveland's idea to try to increase tourism. Nice try. The fact that Donna Summer (the Queen of Disco) is on the ballot gives you an idea of what knuckleheads are running the show there. That's like having Peyton Manning on the ballot of the NBA HOF. Back to Link Wray...this man created the wah-wah sound by jamming a pencil into his amp. No o
krh01230
In '63 the kid down the street was showing off his guitar and then he put on an old LP by this guy, Link Wray: it explained a lot about what I was starting to hear and what was to be.
i dont know who makes the choice...but he should be in r & r hall of fame
Wow - I think I am getting closer to the source of metal
New inspiration. I dig it!
Love the feedback, he was the birth father of aggressive guitar.
love this artist!!! handsome man!!
Listen to those Power Chords! This guy was playing this stuff in the 50's! Link was a true Rebel - RIP.
Link Wray = last big thing prior to hendrix. viva la Rock & Roll
ibelieveinsa s q u a t c h
Shredder!
rockthblock
all titles from this disc coming up w/ the wrong names.
Switchblade is really High Wall. etc.
look it up!
I've been a student of rock'n'roll for more than a decade now and no one ever told me about this guy? Sacrilege.
found some awesome new music!
Hey Charles, don't feel too bad about not knowing of Link- except for "Rumble", his music didn't get a lot of airplay, even on KRLA, which you remember if you were around Newport in the day (I did my growing up in Santa Monica and Ventura County). Those were shining times, weren't they?
He is a master of the riff, This song is in alot of war flicks
webmaster017 9
Never heard of him and glad for the lesson about his impact. I grew up in the 60s, went numerous times to the old Rendevous Ballroom in Newport Beach to listen to Dick Dale & the Deltones, etc. so don't consider myself unknowledgea b l e about the era. Lot I don't know, for sure. I made a station for him and his music is, indeed, outstanding.
Mr.mikevotaw - I was before surf, too, so let's be clear- Link set the standard for everyone who ever fancied themselves guitar rockers, surf or otherwise, and the fact that he's not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is nothing short of criminal, wouldn't you agree? I don't know who makes the nominations or does the voting, but if they don't think Link belongs in the hall, then they wouldn't know talent if it bit them on their backsides.
what about THE SHADOWS?
Ryantkg - He was BEFORE surf!
No question, the King of the Surf Guitar... He's the Rodney Dangerfield of music... no respect. I'd give my eye teeth to jam with Link.
no school like to cool for school

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