Link Wray was an early innovator and one of the original -- and best -- rock and roll guitarists. Along with His Ray Men he managed to put a couple of landmark instrumental hits in the top forty in the late 1950's, and his contributions to rock and roll music went far beyond that.
Frederick Lincoln Wray Jr. was born in 1929 in Dunn, North Carolina, although some sources say he was born in 1930 or 1935. His heritage was part Shawnee Indian. He grew up poor. Wray played the guitar as a youngster and joined the armed forces, serving in the Korean War in the early 1950's. Most of the music that he heard on the radio around this time was either country hits by artists such as Hank Williams, or singers along the lines of Johnnie Ray and Perry Como. But the music he wanted to do was far different, and he would use his guitar to help achieve the sound that he wanted. Wray lost a lung to tuberculosis in 1955, which limited his ability as a vocalist.
Link and his brothers Vernon and Doug formed a group and went to Norfolk, Virginia. They went by various names, including Lucky Wray and the Lucky Pine Wranglers (or Lazy Pine Wranglers), the Ranch Gang Band, the Palamino Ranch Gang, and the Palomino Ranch Hands. "Lucky" was a name he had picked up from his occasional forays into gambling. "Lucky" Wray first recorded on the Starday label in 1956.
Wray and his group added bass player Shorty Horton and began playing in clubs in the Washington, D.C. area. They became acquainted with local disc jockey/television host Milt Grant. At a session one day, using a pencil, Wray punched holes in the speaker of his amplifier, and thereby invented what guitar players know today as fuzz-tone. He used simple chord progressions on his guitar, was one of the first guitarists to experiment with feedback, and became known for his "power chord." Link improvised and came up with a slow, ominous music piece. Asked to perform an instrumental on Grant's television show, the group blew viewers away with a new, dynamic sound. They came to the attention of Cadence Records owner Archie Bleyer, who had been working with groups such as the Chordettes and the Everly Brothers, artists who had a completely different sound than Link Wray. Bleyer's daughter heard the arrangement by Wray's group and was struck by it, commenting that it reminded her of the rumble scenes in West Side Story. The instrumental song was issued as Rumble, by Link Wray and His Ray Men.
In other parts of the United States and Europe, youngsters with names such as Steve Van Zandt, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Pete Townshend were listening to Rumble on their radios. Rumble is a seminal recording that would influence many rock guitar players in the years to come. The record climbed to number sixteen on the charts in the summer of 1958, although some radio stations refused to play it (even though it is an instrumental recording), citing implications of gang wars. The flip side of Rumble was similar but a little more uptempo, and The Swag became popular also.
Bleyer began to think about marketing his new find as a country group -- which they were not -- along the lines of the Everly Brothers. Moving to the Epic label, the following year Link Wray and His Ray Men issued what was to be their second and last top forty hit, another instrumental titled Raw-Hide. This one really rocked. Writing credits for Rumble, The Swag, and Raw-Hide went to Link Wray and Milt Grant. They were all simple, somewhat primitive, yet powerful recordings.
Often performing in a black leather jacket with somewhat of an Elvis-like sneer on his face, Link became popular with some of the youth of the day. He and his group briefly had their own record label, Rumble Records, and began recording with Swan in the 1960's, doing instrumentals or songs with vocals handled by Link's brother Vernon. The most notable recording from these years would be Jack The Ripper, which was later used on the soundtrack for the 1983 Richard Gere film Breathless. Later his music would appear in movies such as Pulp Fiction, Independence Day and Desperado.
Wray enjoyed his style of music and performed in some bars and other venues in the 1970's. In 1977 he recorded two albums with rockabilly artist Robert Gordon. Wray always enjoyed recording on makeshift equipment at home, which he continued to do for many years. He married a Danish woman, Olive Povlsen, and moved to Denmark in 1978; he performed at concerts in various locations around Scandanavia. Link's brother Vernon died in 1979. Link Wray passed away at his home in Copenhagen on November 5, 2005.
Link Wray has had a very strong influence on many artists and styles of music as diverse as Bob Dylan, the Who, and heavy metal music, extending far beyond the days of his success in the late 1950's. He is one of the original innovators of rock and roll music, which would certainly be different today had he not been recording when he did. Link Wray and His Ray Men continue to be identified most closely with their legendary recordings of Rumble and Raw-Hide.
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