If you try to draw a line from the first bluesman who cranked up his guitar amp to create a distorted sound .... all the way to the Hendrix/Page/Townshend rock guitarists .... that line must pass thru Link Wray who - if he never recorded another song than Rumble fifty years ago - would have a place in music history. And while he never scaled those heights again: he had a career worth noting.
Frederick Lincoln Wray (who had part Shawnee ancestry) was born in Dunn, North Carolina in 1929, with his family eventually settling in Maryland. Link served in the Korean War where he suffered from tuberculosis (eventually losing a lung). He concentrated on his guitar work and formed Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands, a western-swing band in the mid-1950's.
This later evolved into the Ray Men when they became the house band on a Washington, D.C. TV show. Backing others (such as Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson) they became a more instrumental band (as Link's vocal abilities were limited due to the loss of that lung).
Then while backing-up The Diamonds in 1958, Link Wray improvised a 12-bar blues instrumental titled "Oddball" which had a distorted sound when Wray poked holes in his amplifier's speakers (much as Ike Turner's dropped-and-damaged amp delivered a sound on Rocket 88 he came to believe was advantageous). It was an audience hit, yet Cadence Records producer Archie Bleyer was unimpressed.
But his daughter loved it, telling Bleyer it reminded her of the rumble scenes in "West Side Story" and the song was renamed Rumble - which, while primitive: doesn't sound dated over fifty years later, and guitarists from Jimmy Page to Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix all cited the song as an influence. The Who's Pete Townshend went further: stating in liner notes (for a 1970 Link Wray album) that, but for that tune: "I would never have picked up a guitar". Some radio stations banned it (as 'encouraging teen violence') .. which only increased record sales.
Link and the Ray Men followed it up over the next few years with "Rawhide" and "Jack the Ripper" but then settled into an on-again-off-again remainder of his career. One reason is that record companies thought that - if they could dress him up and not be a juvenile delinquent poster child - he'd sell more records. Yet Link Wray was not cut out for playing "Claire de Lune"(!) as he did in 1960, and eventually Swan Records gave him room to stretch out. There were also periods of retirement, as well.
I recall him teaming up with rockabilly singer Robert Gordon throughout the 1970's and he eventually married and relocated to Denmark, as his audience as a solo performer increasingly shifted across the Atlantic. One band-member for a time in the 1980's was Anton Fig, who later joined Paul Shaffer's "Late Show" band. His last album was Barbed Wire from 2000 and his music was featured on such films as "Pulp Fiction", "Breathless" and John Waters' "Pink Flamingos".
Link Wray died in Copenhagen, Denmark in November, 2005 at the age of 76. Former Maryland Governor Erlich declared January 15, 2006 as Link Wray Day, and he was voted #45 on the Greatest Guitarists of All Time by Rolling Stone.
Wray has also been inducted into two Halls of Fame: those for Native American Music ... and for Rockabilly after his death. Rhino has a compilation album of note, and as long as guitarists want a sound that is anything-but-clean: the music of Link Wray will have a place.
If you haven't had a listen to Rumble in some time: then below you can see why this song made his career.
You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out the saints are comin' through
And it's all over now, Baby Blue
The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it's all over now, Baby Blue
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