Guitarist, singer, songwriter
Link Wray’s instrumental hit “Rumble” helped influence the course of rock music. With its distorted guitar tone and swaggering groove, the track inspired numerous musicians, from 1960s blues-rockers to indie and “grunge” devotees of the 1990s. Indeed, claimed Chris Gill in Guitar Player, “Any young rebel who’s ever donned an electric guitar, a leather jacket, and an attitude is following in Wray’s footsteps.” Though “Rumble” would remain the pinnacle of his career both commercially and artistically, Wray continued to stretch out as a player, singer, and songwriter during the subsequent decades, making records well into his sixties.
He was born Lincoln Wray in Dunn, North Carolina; a number of sources list 1935 as his birthdate, but others claim he was born five years earlier. “My mother was a preacher and my father was a preacher,” goes a quote from Wray in the liner notes to a 1995 Polydor CD anthology. “We was raised on gospel music and black blues. That’s where I come from.” His older brother Vernon received a guitar one year as a gift, but it was Link who played it most of the time. The family moved to Virginia during the 1940s, and their economic fortunes improved; eventually Link, Vernon, and Doug Wray decided to form a band.
Originally calling themselves Lucky Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers—and then Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands—they began as a western swing band, with Link slinging smooth guitar leads in the style of jazz legend Les Paul over cowboy songs inspired by Hank Williams and other country stalwarts. Wray has said that he was strongly influenced by such blues heavyweights as Leadbelly and Elmore James, however, and that even during the late 1940s his band was playing rock and roll.
Wray served for four years in the military, and during the Korean War he contracted tuberculosis, which necessitated the removal of one of his lungs. He was discharged from the service and moved to Washington, D.C., where he and his brothers started making records. Wray also worked as a session guitarist on a number of recordings by other artists. Vernon Wray took the stage name Ray Vernon and became the group’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist; his chances for pop stardom looked good until wholesome crooner Pat Boone scored a hit with “Remember You’re Mine,” which was to be Ray’s smash debut. He eventually dropped out of performing and managed the group. Link was encouraged to become a full-time studio player, but he stayed in Washington. He and his brothers, along with bassist Shorty Horton, continued to play locally and record demos.
For the Record…
Born Lincoln Wray, May 2, 1935 (some sources say 1930), in Dunn, NC; parents were preachers; married four times; several children.
Recording and performing artist, c. late 1940s—. Recorded single “Rumble” for Cadence label, 1958; released debut album Link Wray & the Wray men on Edsel label, 1960; recorded through 1960s for various labels, including Edsel, Epic, and Swan; signed with Polydor and recorded album Link Wray, 1971; produced album for group Eggs Over Easy, 1972; recorded album Beans and Fatback for Virgin, 1973; recorded solo and with various other artists during 1970s and 1980s; moved to Denmark and released album Indian Child for Sony Denmark, 1993; early recordings reissued by Rhino, Norton, and Polydor and featured on soundtracks for films Pulp Fiction and Desperado, 1993-95. Military service: Served four years in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Korean War.
Addresses: Home —Denmark. Record company — Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025; and Norton Records, P.O. Box 646, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10003. Publicist— Fine Media Consultants, Inc., 26 West 17th St., 6th Floor, New York, NY 10011.
At a “record hop” dance in Fredericksburg, Virginia, hosted by popular local deejay Milt Grant, Wray and his group were asked to play a stroll—a popular proto-rock style—but Linkdidn’t know how. “My brother Doug said, 1 know the stroll beat. Just start playing something on the guitar, ’” he recalled in Guitar Player. “So God zapped it. Blowm, blowm, blowm.’ I just started playing it.” The sounds Wray imitated in this interview were the opening chords of what would become “Rumble,” an epochal recording that—like so much innovation—happened mostly by chance.
With their mutated stroll at the Fredericksburg performance, the band knew they were onto something. But reproducing the grungy tone Wray had achieved live was a challenge in the studio. “I told Ray, ’It ain’t makin’ it. It’s too clean! In Fredericksburg the f—in’ Sears and Roebuck amplifiers were jumping up and down, burnin’ up with sound, ’” he noted in the Guitar Player interview with Gill. “At the hop, Ray had stuck the microphone in front of the amplifier and it was just pouncing all over the place. Nobody stuck a microphone in front of the amplifiers in those days.” Distortion wasn’t yet a valued quality in most rock records, so Wray couldn’t simply step on a pedal to get the dirty sound he wanted. Necessity being the proverbial mother of invention, he elected to stab a pen repeatedly into the tweeter of his amp speaker. “Ray said, ‘You’re just screwing up your amplifier, ’” the guitarist recollected. “I said, ‘Who cares as long as we get a f—in’ sound, man!’”
The sound he got became legendary. “Opening with two of the snarliest-sounding chords rock ’n’ roll had heard up to that point,” wrote Cub Koda in the notes accompanying a 1993 Rhino Records anthology named after the song, “the track settles into a lazy blues groove with a pronounced kick from Doug Wray’s bass drum.” The guitar sound is what lent the record its unsettling power, however, with its mixture of cranked-up tremolo (vibration, tremors) and fuzz. Guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend, whose group the Who was one of the most celebrated in rock, has said that “Rumble” first inspired him to pick up a guitar. “I remember being made very uneasy the first time I heard it,” he recollected in liner notes first published with a 1974 Wray album, “and yet excited by the savage guitar sound.” Other rock trail-blazers of the 1960s, including Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and jazz-rock innovator Jeff Beck, have all sworn allegiance to Wray’s guitar excursions.
Wray’s original sound wasn’t what Cadence Records head Archie Bleyer was looking for; he was ready to pass on the song until his excited daughter told him that its swaggering style reminded her of the rumble scenes in the hit musical West Side Story Titled “Rumble” for this reason, it became a national hit and launched Link Wray and the Wraymen. The track’s attitude and title caused controversy, and Cadence took heat from cultural conservatives at the time for promoting gang warfare. The Wraymen recorded several other successful instrumental tracks, though they never quite matched the success of “Rumble.” They moved through a number of labels, from the major Epic to such indies as Swan and Mala. Link stepped up to the microphone periodically, belting out blues in a ragged, soulful voice. By the 1960s, however, the group’s sound was rapidly being eclipsed by psychedelia and even by the heavy blues-rock Wray’s dirty power chords had helped inspire.
His first comeback came in the early 1970s, when he signed to the Polydor label and began recording mellower country and blues-inspired rock. His playing during this period, most of it on acoustic guitar and dobro, showcases a range unimagined by fans of his unhinged electric work. He returned to a harder sound, however, with the 1974 release The Link Wray Rumble, which saw him surrounded by ace session players and a relatively slick production. Even so, his madly distorted guitar sound was impossible to domesticate. Despite Polydor’s best intentions, Wray never achieved superstardom. He hooked up with roots-rock enthusiast Robert Gordon for a few albums during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then he vanished from view for several years.
Wray turned up in Denmark, where he married a woman some 25 years his junior (his fourth wife, by most counts) and had a son. The year 1993 saw the release of his first studio album in many years, Indian Child. Recorded digitally in Denmark, it displayed Wray’s eclecticism and roots. “Everything came off so fantastic on this record,” he enthused in Guitar Player. “When I was writing these songs, the words came so fast I couldn’t hardly write them down. It was like God was pouring them in my head.”
In the meantime, the full importance of Wray’s contribution to rock was at last coming to light with the release of CD compilations of his early work and the appearance of seminal instrumental on the soundtracks to the hit films Pulp Fiction and Desperado. Cult bands like Southern Culture on the Skids were crediting Wray as a primary inspiration. Reviewing Rhino’s Rumble: The Best of Link Wrayior Guitar Player, Gill noted that some of the collection’s pieces “make today’s punks sound like candidates for social security.” California deejay Myke Destiny, meanwhile, cited a popular aphorism in the Mercury News: “What [classical composer Ludwig von] Beethoven did in four notes, Wray did in three.”
“Rumble,” Cadence, 1958.
“Rawhide,” Epic, 1959.
Link Wray & the Wraymen, Edsel, 1960.
Jack the Ripper, Swan, 1963.
Link Wray Polydor, 1971.
Be What You Want To, Polydor, 1973.
Beans and Fatback, Virgin, 1973.
The Link Wray Rumble, Polydor, 1974.
Interstate 10, Caroline, 1975.
Stuck in Gear, Virgin, 1976.
Bullshot, Visa, 1979.
Good Rockin’ Tonight, Visa, 1985.
Original Rumble, Ace, 1989.
Walkin’with Link, Epic, 1992.
Rumble: The Best of Link Wray Rhino, 1993.
Indian Child, Sony (Denmark), 1993.
Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years, Polydor, 1995.
Mr. Guitar, Norton, 1995.
Also appeared on albums by Eggs Over Easy, RobertGordon, and others. Recordings featured on soundtracks for the films Desperado, 1993, and Pulp Fiction, 1995.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, SC), August 12, 1994, p. 1F.
Guitar Player, November 1993, p. 19; December 1995.
Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1993.
Mercury News (San Jose, CA), August 26, 1994.
Playboy, October 1993.
Additional information for this profile was taken from the liner notes to Rumble: The Best of Link Wray and Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years and from the Internet All-Music Guide.
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