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Birth of an icon

My buddy Würm hipped me to a thing that had passed right on by Ye Olde Hoste somehow, namely that yesterday was the peerless Link Wray’s birthday. Even though you might think you don’t know who he is, in which case I can but pity you, I assure you that you almost certainly do—especially if you’ve ever seen a Tarantino flick. Background:

Wray was born on May 2, 1929, in Dunn, North Carolina, to Fred Lincoln Wray, Sr., who was born in Indiana, and his wife, Lillian Mae Wray (née Coats), born in North Carolina, whom her son identified as being Shawnee. The 1930 and 1940 censuses identify both parents as being white. As a child, he and his family were among those persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan. His mother would often turn off lights, put blankets on windows when the KKK burned crosses. They would often hide in barns, under beds, and holes underground. Wray would later say “The cops, the sheriff, the drugstore owner—they were all Ku Klux Klan. They put the masks on and, if you did something wrong, they’d tie you to a tree and whip you or kill you.” Three songs Wray performed during his career were named for indigenous peoples: “Shawnee”, “Apache”, and “Comanche”.

His two brothers, Vernon (born January 7, 1924 – died March 25, 1979) and Doug (born July 4, 1933 – died 1984), were his earliest bandmates.

Wray served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War (1950–53). He contracted tuberculosis, which hospitalized him for a year. His stay concluded with the removal of a lung, which doctors predicted would mean he would never be able to sing again.

To be brutally honest, except for certain values of the word, poor old Link never could sing in the first place. Sorry, but it’s true.

Building on the distorted electric guitar sound of early records, Wray’s first hit was the 1958 instrumental “Rumble”. It popularized “the power chord, the major modus operandi of modern rock guitarists,” facilitating the emergence of “punk and heavy rock”. The record was first released on Cadence Records (catalog number 1347) as by “Link Wray & His Ray Men”. “Rumble” was banned in New York and Boston for fear it would incite teenage gang violence, “rumble” being slang for a gang fight.

Legend has it that the familiar Link Wray crackling, distortion-rich guitar tone was originally achieved when Link came up with the bright idea of addressing his deep dissatisfaction with the amp he was using at the time by punching multiple holes in its speaker, using a standard No 2 pencil. Be that as it may (or may not), the origins of all hard-rock guitar can be found in the unique sound pioneered by Link Wray.

Years ago I did a post here telling the story of the blessed night I played with Link on the stage of Charlotte’s now-deceased Double Door Inn back in, oh, about 1997 or thereabouts. Unfortunately, the CF archives now being permanently hosed due to the infamous 2020 Rooskie hack, that post is no longer extant, but believe me it was a heck of a story. Yes, there are pictures, but for some reason I can’t find ’em on the hard drive right now, so in lieu of that you’ll have to make do with a video which…um, does NOT include myself and Link Wray onstage together At. ALL.

Link did plenty of great songs, but the one I always liked best was “Jack The Ripper,” which was re-recorded and re-worked under several other names in the fine old blues-rockabilly tradition. Here’s the BPs version, recorded by my then-girlfriend at Smokeout East.

The Playboys opened our shows with that number for several years. It was a perfect stage-setter for some truly rowdy goings-on as the evening progressed, let me tell ya, instigating who knows how many packed dance floors, bared boobies, or drunken brawls.

My guest appearance with him was supposed to last only a cpl-three songs, but as each one ended he’d turn to me with a huge grin and yell, “How about this one, know this one at all?”, either calling the song’s name or strumming the first few chords for me. Of course I knew all of ’em, and thus ended up onstage with him for more than 45 minutes, almost his entire set. He seemed stunned by how familiar with his work I was when we were hanging out together in the dressing room later, even after I told him I’d been a huge fan of his for literally decades by then.

Link Wray departed this vale of tears in 2005, leaving us all the poorer for his loss. On November 5th, to be exact, which as my friend Würm informed me happens to be his own birthday. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have spent what time I did with him. He was gracious, friendly, warm, and entirely humble, thanking me again and again for how “you young guys have kept my music alive.” I responded by thanking him for not suing us, since the Playboys had included at least one cover of a Link Wray tune on every CD we did and never coughed up one thin dime for the privilege. He shrugged my confession off with a laugh and another huge grin.

Link Wray was an incredibly modest and unassuming man despite his incalculable influence, making it seem almost as if he was completely unaware of the impact he’d had or the inspiration he’d been for legions of rock and roll guitarists around the world. He had some tough rows to hoe and suffered some serious setbacks in his life, only to attain greater heights of success and fame than ever before in his last years. He was and shall remain an icon of rock and roll guitar, and rightly so. I liked him. I was honored and thrilled to get to play with him. I will never, ever forget him, and neither should you.

May God forever bless and keep you, Link.

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