November 5, 2005 – Frederick Lincoln ‘Link’ Wray was born in Dunn, North Carolina on May 2nd, 1929. Link’s family was very poor. As Link has said, “Elvis came from welfare, I came from below welfare.” Link’s mom was Shawnee Indian and his interest in music began when Link was 8. He was sitting in the porch trying to play guitar when an old black guitar player named HAMBONE walked by and taught him the sound of the blues. Link has said when HAMBONE started playing bottleneck slide guitar, he was hooked. He knew what he wanted to do. At age 13, Link’s family moved to Portsmouth Virginia.
Link’s first band was in the late 40’s with his brothers Vernon and Doug, playing Western Swing. As Link put it, “rock and roll before it was rock and roll.” Vernon (“Lucky”) Wray was the lead singer. This band also included Wray’s good friend (and later Ray Man) Brantley “Shorty” Horton, as well as Dixie Neal (some articles spell his name Neale). The band became popular in town, backing many Country and Western artists of the day who came through town playing the various fairs and daily AM radio shows. The band was known by Lucky Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers, and later – Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands. Band names seemed to change according to the venues they played.
Link’s music career was interrupted when he was called up to serve two years in the US Army during the Korean War. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis, which was not discovered until a couple years later. This illness cost him a lung. Link has often said at this time he was in the “death house” and if it were not for his Guardian Angel, he would have been dead.
In 1955, the Wray’s moved to the Washington DC. Longtime country and western artists, they fast became influenced with the Big Beat. Link, hampered a bit in singing by his one lung, became the anchor of the band through his heavy guitar work. With Doug’s heavy drumming, they were on to something new. They were regulars among the DC club circuit, playing such clubs as Strick’s, Ray’s Bar and Grill, Benny’s Rocket Room and the Ozark Club.
Like many DC artists of the day, Link and his brothers were taken under the wing of Milt Grant, DC’s version of Dick Clark. Milt hosted the weekly “MILT GRANT SHOW”, a record hop shown on WTTG, Channel 5 in DC. Around this time, Vernon had a singing career of his own under the stage name Ray Vernon. He also began a recording studio in DC, and his involvement in performing with the Ray Men took a back seat to production work and artist management. The band now consisted of Link, his brother Doug on drums, and Shorty Horton on bass. The Ray Men became the house band on the Milt Grant Show, backing many national rock and roll artists of the day.
It was at a Milt Grant Record Hop in Fredericksburg Virginia when the most famous instrumental in rock and roll was first heard.
The legend goes that the Ray Men were backing up The Diamonds for one of Grant’s Record Hops, at the Fredericksburg Arena, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Link has said, when the band was onstage, Grant asked them to play a stroll. (“The Stroll” was one of The Diamonds’ hits.) Link said, “I don’t know no stroll,” but Doug started playing a stroll beat on the drums. According to Link, he said it was then that his “Jesus God” zapped “Rumble” into his head. The crowd went wild and the band played the instrumental four times that night.
How’d The Diamonds do that night? Didn’t matter. The kids went crazy over the new song Link and the boys just played.
Link became noted for pioneering a new sound for electric guitars, as heard in this hit ’58 instrumental “Rumble”, which pioneered an overdriven distorted electric guitar sound. He is also credited for having invented the power chord, the major sound of any modern rock guitarist.
Realizing that they were on to something, Vernon had the Ray Men attempt to put the song down on tape. They originally named it ODDBALL. But, in the studio, Link just couldn’t get that “dirty sound” he’d gotten onstage when Vernon mic’s the amps. So, he took a pencil and punched holes in his amps’ tweeters. The Fuzztone was born!
Grant took the demo to Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records. He hated it.
His teenage daughter on the other hand, loved it. Bleyer renamed the song RUMBLE, as his daughter said it reminded her of West Side Story. It was banned in several cities on the East Coast such as New York and Boston, as it was deemed to “suggestive.” (pretty amazing for a song with NO words!) It sold 4 million copies.
Link and the Ray Men recorded many other instrumental hits, including “Rawhide” in 1959 and “Jack the Ripper” (which was released on Link and Vernon’s own RUMBLE RECORDS in 1961 and then nationally on Swan in 1963). These recordings led to more appearances on TV with Dick Clark. Other classics such as Ace of Spades, Run Chicken Run, and others were released, but none were as commercially successful as Rumble.
In the early 60’s Link still played regularly in Washington DC at Vinnie’s, the 1023 Club in Southeast and many others. He was also touring heavily during this time up and down the East Coast, and playing the Ivy League Colleges.
Link frequented several Southern Maryland roadhouses such as the Wigwam, 301 Restaurant and the Stardust in Waldorf. Slot machines were legal in Southern Maryland at that time (there were more there than in Vegas at the time!), making the Ray Men very much in-demand at these places. One interesting gig included backing Southern Maryland rockabilly Vince Maloy at a wedding reception at the Brandywine Firehouse in Brandywine, Maryland.
In the mid-60’s Link retreated to the family farm off Livingston Road in Accokeek Maryland. He continued to play local DC and Southern Maryland taverns and bars and release self produced and recorded 45’s and a few LPs under a variety of names.
Link, still with Doug, as well as Ed Cynar (who replaced Shorty on bass in 1964), Chuck Bennett, Jack Van Horn and others including Elwood Brown,, Johnny Sneed, Max Navarro and more, still cranked out many hours of music, recording at Vernon’s home off Livingston Road in Accokeek when Vernon moved his studio from Washington DC. Vernon Wray Recording was a hotbed of activity not only for the Ray Men, but countless other bands. Vernon was fast becoming the Sam Phillips of Washington DC.
Most of Link’s classic hits were recorded at Accokeek during the early 1960’s. The studio started off in the basement of Vernon’s home until it got too loud for his wife to handle. The studio moved into a building across the street and finally to a “shack out back” on Vernon’s property, dubbed WRAY’S SHACK THREE TRACKS.
In 1970, Link was “rediscovered” and signed to a 3 record deal with Polydor. Link released a “back to the roots” recording, playing from the heart and with whatever could be found around the house. They used everything from their own feet to stomp a beat on the floor to a tin can full of nails. This resulted in the critically acclaimed self titled LP, LINK WRAY.
Shortly thereafter Link and Vernon moved out west to become one with the earth. Realizing what a special place the Shack was, Vernon cut off the back wall and took it to Arizona. It was used as a cornerstone of sorts…to reconstruct that “shack out back”, where it continued as an active place or recording by the Wray Brothers, Kris Kristofferson and others, all the way up to the late 1970’s. It has also been long rumored that when Vernon sold the Wray home, he took reels and reels of unreleased tape and buried them on the property.
Brother Doug stayed behind and became a successful businessman in Waldorf Maryland, while still playing frequent solo gigs at local clubs.
Link later moved to the San Francisco area. Link went on to release two more albums for Polydor, the country rock themed BE WHAT YOU WANT TO featuring Jerry Garcia, Commander Cody, David Bromberg, Boz Scaggs and others. He then went back to his rock and roll roots with THE LINK WRAY RUMBLE.
Moving on to the later part of the 1970’s, Link teamed up with DC hometown boy Robert Gordon for two rockabilly releases, FRESH FISH SPECIAL and ROBERT GORDON W/LINK WRAY.
By the late 70’s, Link had the urge to strike out on his own again. He released BULLSHOT on Visa Records. This was to be Link’s last US release of new material until 1997.
In the early 80’s Link moved overseas to Denmark. He never stopped recording. It was during this time that Link recorded his first live LP, LINK WRAY LIVE AT THE PARADISO. It was not available in the US, forcing state side Link fans to scour the import record shops.
Link returned to the states for a two month tour in January and February of 1985. This resulted in the overseas LP LIVE IN ’85. This tour also saw link’s last gig in the DC area at the Wax Museum. The tour culminated with an appearance on MTV’s GUITAR GREATS special. Two songs were broadcast, RUMBLE and the vocal TRY TO FIND YOUR LOVE, which later appeared on the 1993 Denmark release INDIAN CHILD.
During the early 1990’s, Link finally started to receive his long overdue recognition in the US as a true rock and roll legend. His music has been featured in such big budget movies as BREATHLESS, DESPERADO, INDEPENDENCE DAY, 12 MONKEYS, THIS BOY’S LIFE and PULP FICTION, BLOW, as well as the low budget classic JOHNNY SUEDE starring Brad Pitt. His music has also been featured in several commercials as well. Most recently, FIRE AND BRIMSTONE was treated to a bluegrass style cover by Nick Cave and featured in 2012’s LAWLESS.
Link seemed to be more active in 1996-1997 than he’d been since tearing up the East Coast in the 1960’s. 1996’s UK gigs showed up on WALKING DOWN A STREET CALLED LOVE as well as RUMBLEMAN, the first time Link sat down for a lengthy interview. During a 1997 two week tour in Australia, TV appearances were made. (anyone got a copy?). Link also released SHADOWMAN, his best recordings in decades. Link returned to the states to support SHADOWMAN. This tour also marked his last appearance on national TV, playing RUMBLE on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
To ring in the new century, Link released BARBED WIRE, his final release of new recordings. It ended up being one of Link’s most interesting releases in his long career. BARBED WIRE consisted of outtakes from the SHADOWMAN sessions, as well as several songs with Link “unplugged” – just Link playing an acoustic guitar and singing…almost half a century after his TB doc said he’d never sing again.
With the new record, Link toured the US in September of 2000. This was followed by a week in Spain with Deke Dickerson. The Fall of 2000 was to have seen Link was to have returned to the states for a few gigs at the Continental Club, followed by a reunion with Robert Gordon in New York. These gigs were cancelled for health reasons. Later details – and photos attest – that Link had come through a very serious illness.
In July of 2002, Link returned to the states for a month long tour. Your webmaster had the honor of catching him on his tour opener in Columbus Ohio on July 3, 2002. (only a 1000 mile round trip in two days!). Link had scheduled a few gigs on the West Coast with Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys, but these were also cancelled due to reported eye surgery for Link.
In the early months of 2003, 74 year old Link was at it again, with a six week tour of the US. Link is accompanied on this tour by the Seattle band THE JET CITY FIX. Two of the band’s members back Link on his set. Link looks better than ever, and many concert goers report that with the new back-up band he’s got an even heavier sound. This energizes Link and he plays better than ever.
The recognition of Link’s contribution to rock and roll continued through 2004. GUITAR ACE, a Link Wray tribute CD is released. SLINKY, a great double CD set of Link’s Epic years and a UK release of BE WHAT YOU WANT TO on CD comes out as well. Link was also inducted into the Washington (DC) Area Music Association Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and the Southern Music Legends Hall of Fame.
In 2005 Link completed a two leg US tour – the East Coast in April and May and a week along the West Coast and Canada in July. During these tours word was received that Link Wray was in very poor health, having to be carried to stage on occasion. Link Wray should have gone out like Les Paul, playing a local club and having fans make the pilgrimage to see him – not spending hundreds of miles between gigs in the back of a rental van. Local club, or on the road, Link Wray went out how he wanted to – playing his wild rock and roll for the fans.
Rolling Stone included Link at No. 45 on their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. He was a great inspiration to Jeff Beck, Duff McKagan, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Marc Bolan, Pete Townsend, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others.
Wray’s first three marriages—to Elizabeth Canady Wray, Katherine Tidwell Wray, and Sharon Wray—each ended in divorce. Although Wray had eight children with his first three wives, he had little contact with any of them after relocating to Denmark in the early 1980s.
Wray moved to Denmark, where he spent his last years. He died of heart failure, aged 76, in 2005, at his home in Copenhagen.
Interesting side note: Anton Fig who played drums in the CBS Orchestra for all the years David Letterman hosted the Late Show, and who is now the drummer for guitar monster Joe Bonamassa, was a member of Link Wary’s band in the 1980s.