Link Wray (Wikimedia Commons / Anthony Pepitone)
Guitarist Link Wray was born May 2, 1929. We look back on the life and career of the distortion and the power chord pioneer they called "the Rumble Man."
Born in 1929 in Dunn, N.C., Fred Lincoln Ray Jr. was part Shawnee Indian, a heritage he later rarely failed to mention in interviews. "I don't mean this to sound racist," he told the Associated Press in 2002, "but Elvis grew up white-man poor. I grew up Shawnee poor." His father – a semiliterate, disabled World War I veteran, pipefitter and occasional street preacher – had difficulty finding work and the family relocated often, moving from North Carolina to Virginia to Washington D.C. and later Maryland. Wray sometimes had to sleep in barns and was working by the time he was 10.
But something happened when he was 8 that would change his life forever – he met a musician known as Hambone who was traveling with the Barnum & Bailey circus. Hambone tuned up a cheap Maybelle acoustic guitar owned by Link's brother Vernon and played some bottleneck slide on it. Wray fell in love with the sound and became hooked on guitar.
By the time he was 14, he was playing in a five-piece jazz combo and listening to acts like Chet Atkins, Grady Martin and the country-jazz sounds coming out of Nashville. But his own playing lacked the virtuosity of those acts, and he increasingly felt himself drawn to the rawer, more plaintive sounds of Hank Williams.
The Korean War would put his musical ambitions on hold, though, as Wray served with the U.S. Army in Korea and later Germany. He contracted tuberculosis and would eventually have to have one of his lungs removed. The operation forced him to concentrate his musical efforts even more sharply on the guitar, as doctors told him singing was now out of the question.
Returning from service, Wray and his brothers Doug and Vernon would form Lucky Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers. They were hired as a house band for Milt Grant's House Party, a local D.C. television show inspired by American Bandstand. It was there that Wray made the sonic breakthrough that would define his career.
Show host Milton Grant suggested the band play "The Stroll," a song that had been a hit for The Diamonds. Wray wasn't familiar with the tune, so started playing a three-chord, droning 11-bar blues. His brother Vernon, rather than sing, placed the microphone next to Link's amplifier, overwhelming the P.A. and producing a heavy, distorted sound. The audience went nuts and they ended up playing the song at least four more times that night.
Grant smelled a hit and took the band into a studio to record the tune (known at that stage as "Oddball"). But Wray at first had trouble reproducing the fuzzed out tone he'd achieved live. Inspiration struck, and he gouged out his amp speakers with a pen. Thus was born the first recording featuring intentionally distorted guitar.
Labels didn't know what to make of the raw, gritty sound, but eventually Cadence Records put it out as "Rumble" on St. Patrick's Day, 1958. The song was an instant hit in the U.S. and Europe, despite some radio stations banning it because they felt it would fan the flames of juvenile delinquency – quite a feat for a song that didn't even have words.
Much of the reaction likely had to do with the menacing image Wray would cultivate – the black leather jacket, the sunglasses, the greased pompadour. Few of his fans probably realized he was a devout Christian, an exercise fanatic and lifelong vegetarian (then again, he was also known for carrying a switchblade).
Between 1958 and 1961, he'd have a few minor hits – "Raw-Hide" and "Jack the Ripper" – but would also fall victim to record company producers trying to clean up and dilute his sound, or coming up with dimwitted ideas like pairing him with the Mitch Miller orchestra to cover "Clair De Lune."
He left Epic Records and wound up recording for Swan Records, a label started by his brother Vernon in Washington D.C. Playing as Link Wray and the Ray Men, they became regulars at some of D.C.'s scariest biker and hillbilly bars. Swan Records went out of business in 1977 and the next year, Wray moved to Tucson, Ariz.
Like many artists of the early rock 'n' roll era, Wray was not financially savvy, a situation which would lead to a falling out with his manager-brother before Vernon committed suicide in 1979. Later that year Wray moved to Copenhagen with Olive Julie Pavlsen, a Danish student of Native American culture who would become his fourth wife.
Wray toured and recorded intermittently for the rest of his life – retaining more popularity in Europe than in America – and his music would become a film soundtrack staple in the 1990s, appearing in Pulp Fiction, Twelve Monkeys, Desperado and Independence Day. And despite still not being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he's been cited as an influence by many of the big rock guitarists who experienced their heyday in the late 1960s and early '70s – artists like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Jimmie Page and Eric Clapton.
Wray was still taking his music on the road just months before his death Nov. 5, 2005. He was 76.