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-ass 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