Music News

The Missing Link

Link Wray is American to the bone. "I'm half Shawnee Indian, you know," he declares, his heavily accented voice imprinted with the unmistakable twang associated with his hometown of Dunn, North Carolina. But even though his guitar playing on his trademark Fifties instrumental, "Rumble," laid the groundwork for hard rock, heavy metal, punk, grunge and heaven knows what other forms of music that have blossomed in these United States during the past forty years or so, he no longer lives in the land of his birth. He's resided in Copenhagen, Denmark, since 1980, and last stood on a U.S. stage in 1985, when he appeared on Guitar Greats, an MTV special that also featured Johnny Winter, Steve Cropper, Dickie Betts, David Gilmore and Journey's Neil Schon. But if you think Wray fled to the Old Country after discovering that people there have more respect for roots music than do the folks for whom such sounds are essential components of their cultural heritage, think again. He's in Copenhagen for two reasons--his wife, Olive Julie, and his fourteen-year old son, Oliver.

"The whole thing started 'cause of Olive Julie," he says in an exuberant torrent of syllables that tumble over each other at a terrific rate. "I came over here to play a festival, you know, 'cause all the Americans come over here and play festivals every year. So I played the festival and I met her, and we sort of, like, got together, if you know what I mean. And then I moved to L.A. up on Hollywood Boulevard for one year, but Olive Julie had to go back to Copenhagen to go to her university. Because she's a university student, you know--she goes to Copenhagen University and studies Mayan cultures, Aztec cultures, stuff like that. So I figured, let's move to Denmark, because I can play the whole world from there. And I'm glad I did, 'cause Denmark is a beautiful, clean little country, and everything is so close here. The buses and the trains are so good, I don't even own a car anymore. Really--I don't."

Apparently, Olive Julie is in no rush to graduate: Seventeen years after Wray trailed her to Scandinavia, she's still working toward a degree at Copenhagen U. Oliver's pursuing his education, too--and because of concerns about his well-being, Wray prefers to keep a low profile in Copenhagen. "I don't play here 'cause of him goin' to school," he concedes. "I don't want everybody to come up to him at school and say, 'Your dad's a rock-and-roller. He wears a leather jacket and shades.' I just want him to live a normal Danish life. And you know what? He don't even like rock and roll--and he don't like my music much, either." He erupts into laughter. "He likes that techno music. Him and them schoolkids--they're all into that techno music."

As for Wray, he has no interest in jumping on the techno bandwagon. "You know, I like to feel what I'm playin'," he says, "and that techno music don't have no feelin' at all. It's all computers, you know. It's brain music, it's not music from the heart, and that makes all the difference--to me, anyhow. But my kid, well, he just loves that techno music. Or that's what he tells me. Maybe them kids at school brainwashed him to like it; maybe he just does it to get along with them. But I respect him to like that techno music, just like he respects the way I play and everything. And, you know, he's only fourteen. Maybe he'll come around one of these days."

And why shouldn't he? While many vintage cuts that have been annointed as classics by the rock intelligentsia sound like period pieces to anyone who comes to them secondhand, Wray's work has proven cross-generational appeal. The creative forces behind two of the bigger movie blockbusters of the Nineties, Pulp Fiction and Independence Day, didn't employ Wray's songs as background music in their opuses because of nostalgia value. They used them for the same reason that director John Waters placed a Wray scorcher at the top of the reissued soundtrack to his Seventies cult flick Pink Flamingos--because the passage of time has only enhanced their cool, dark, thoroughly menacing qualities. Wray has never enjoyed enormous mainstream popularity: Two of the best collections of his efforts, Epic/Legacy's 1992 release Walkin' With Link and Polydor's 1995 set Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years, have just one modest Top 40 success between them--1959's "Raw-Hide," on Walkin'. But listen to the vast majority of his full-lengths--even Shadowman, a new offering just issued by a small London imprint, Ace Records--and you'll hear music that stubbornly, adamantly refuses to date. In Wray's words, "I'm 68 fuckin' years old, man, but my music feels like it's twenty."

Actually, Wray's age has been a matter of some dispute. The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll claims that Frederick Lincoln Wray Jr. made his debut on May 2, 1935, but the man himself says his first appearance took place six years earlier. Much of the confusion over such details can be traced to the backwoods conditions in which the Wrays lived. The family didn't have electricity in their home until they moved into a Portsmouth, Virginia, trailer in 1944.

The Wray clan was a product of this colorful environment. Legend has it that Link's grandfather, who passed away at the tender age of 113, was briefly imprisoned for failing to support his family when he was 96. As for Wray's father, F.L. Wray Sr., he made his living with his hands--he was a pipefitter--but his true love was preaching. He and his wife, Lillie Mae, held revival meetings in the great outdoors near their primitive abode, and as soon as they were able, Link, his older brother Vernon and his younger brother Doug added musical accompaniment to their fiery sermons. But the gospel tunes Link played to the penitents who turned to F.L. and Lillie Mae for guidance did not make nearly as crucial an impact upon him as did the gutbucket blues that echoed through the North Carolina hills back then. The latter style was raw, edgy and downright nasty at times--just like Link Wray.

During the mid-Forties, the Wray brothers formed a Western swing combo, Lucky Wray and his Palomino Ranch Hands, and began gigging at joints up and down the East Coast. That came to an end in 1949, when Link was drafted. He spent the next four years overseas, first in Korea and later in Germany, where he contracted tuberculosis. His poor health resulted in a discharge, and by 1956, the disease was so far advanced that only the removal of a lung brought it to a halt. Wray vividly recalls the experience.

"I'm not a religious man--I don't believe in organized religion or any of that," he insists. "But I'm very, very spiritual, and I'm glad, 'cause the doctors were sayin', 'Well, he's gonna be dead tomorrow.' 'Cause every time I breathed, I breathed up blood, see? I would be going rrrrrrr, rrrrrrr, and up the blood would come. But then this beautiful guardian angel took me out of that fuckin' death house.

"You know them sparklers that light up? That was what the angel looked like--a sparkler in the form of a big, big, big, huge man. I couldn't see his face, but it was all lit up. And I was lyin' there in bed, holdin' my cross in a dark room when all of a sudden he was there. And he was over the bed for three minutes, five minutes, and then he just disappeared. And after that, I started gettin' better. The doctors told me I'd never be able to sing again, bein' as I only had one lung, but once the angel come to me, I started bein' able to sing no matter what they said, and I was plunkin' on my gee-tar better, too."

Wray pauses for a nanosecond before abruptly shifting gears. "When my son was ten years old, he asked me a question," he reveals. "He asked me, 'Daddy, does God love rock and roll?' And, well, I said, 'He took me off my deathbed and he gave me "Rumble." So, yeah, I think God loves rock and roll.'"

After recovering from surgery, Wray played guitar behind his oldest sibling, who had landed a recording contract with a Philadelphia label, Cameo, under the name Ray Vernon. A year later, in 1957, he put together an instrumental combo, Link Wray and the Raymen, with Doug and their cousin, bassist Shorty Horton. They toiled in relative obscurity until "Rumble," a number he and Doug created almost by accident.

"I played at this here hot-rod show in 1957, back when the Diamonds had their number-one hit, 'The Stroll,'" he says. "And this here local disc jockey said, 'Link, get on that stage and play me a stroll.' And I said, 'I don't know no fuckin' stroll.' But my brother Doug said, 'I know the beat--just start playin' somethin,' and I'll play the stroll beat.' So I said, 'Okay,' and started going GRRRRRMMM, GRRRRRMMM, GRRRRRMMM with my guitar, and he started playin' the drums, and all the fuckin' kids started hollerin' and screamin' at me, and they forgot all about the Diamonds. Doug was fuckin' laughin' so hard, 'cause the kids didn't even care about who was on stage until I started playin' 'Rumble,' and then they all went wild--you know, insane. So I said, 'Ah, maybe I've got somethin' here.'"

To lay down "Rumble," Wray and his Raymen went to a tiny Washington, D.C., studio "that didn't even record music," Wray says. "It was one of them studios where the congressmen and senators and the people in the government made their speeches. But it was really cheap--$57." He guffaws. "But when I went in there, I couldn't get the same sound I got live. I told the engineer, I said, 'Just turn the machine on, and I'll start playin'.' So he put a mike on my amplifier, a mike on Doug's toms, and Shorty had a stand-up bass that had a hole in it from a fight in a club, and the engineer put a mike in there, too. And then he got a level and we played 'Rumble.' But when I listened to it afterward, I said, 'It's too fuckin' clean.' And they said, 'What do you want to do about it?' So I said, 'Fuck, man,' and I started punchin' holes in the tweeters. My amplifier had a fifteen-inch speaker in the bottom and two ten-inch speakers in each side, and I started punchin' holes in all of them and told the engineer to mike it. My brother said, 'You're destroyin' your amp, Link,' but I said, 'Who gives a shit as long as we get a good sound?'--that was my attitude. So I done it, and the third take became a four-million seller."

Just as notably, "Rumble" inspired a slew of rock's most noteworthy musicians. Pete Townshend once claimed that the single was the sole reason that he picked up his first guitar--and that had he not heard it, the Who would not have existed. And writer Colin Escott, who penned the notes for Guitar Preacher, which collects tracks from five out-of-print Wray albums (Link Wray, Beans and Fatback, Mordicai Jones, Be What You Want To and The Link Wray Rumble), points out that Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page all raved about the tune--and that Paul McCartney so loved it that he kept a copy of it taped to his record player. "I'm totally shocked that it's still around," Wray admits. "When it left the charts, I said, 'That's the end of that.' I never knew that song was gonna last so fuckin' long."

Unfortunately, lightning didn't strike twice. After "Raw-Hide," Wray never again enjoyed a genuine smash. Many of the instrumental tracks he made for Epic during the Sixties were tremendously exciting, and his vocals on the Jimmy Reed composition "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby" (backed with an equally frenzied version of Ray Charles's "Mary Anne") are the stuff of genius. But with early-Sixties rock radio dominated by the likes of Pat Boone and Fabian, Wray's barely controlled hysteria was too big a risk for most programmers to take. After 1963's "Jack the Ripper" came and went, Wray all but disappeared. He was signed to Polydor in the late Sixties mostly on the strength of the compliments paid him by the era's guitar gods, but none of the records he made did any business--not even 1973's Be What You Want To and 1974's The Link Wray Rumble, which featured guest appearances from the elite of the era's San Francisco music scene.

"That was 'cause I had a big record company then, and they wanted to put all them big superstars on it so they could sell records," Wray recalls. "And none of them people wanted to get paid for doin' it. Like Jerry Garcia, he said, 'I love Link Wray. I just come to play, I don't even give a shit about gettin' paid.' And it was the same with John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service, Boz Scaggs, Commander Cody and all them guys who was on those records. They just come out and supported me and said, 'We really love your music, Link. We was listenin' to you when we was learnin' to play gee-tar.' And the record company ate that up."

The public, however, did not, and Wray was eventually dropped by Polydor. He resurfaced in the late Seventies backing up Robert Gordon, a vocalist who attempted to merge rockabilly and punk, to middling results. His 1980 move to Denmark coincided with a quiet period for Wray, but things began to change in the late Eighties, when Ace, which had already reissued much of his back catalogue, put out a couple of new offerings, Live in '85 and Rumble Man. "Apache" and "Wild Side of the City Lights," featured on those discs, eventually wound up on the soundtrack for Johnny Suede, one of Brad Pitt's first star vehicles. This coup signaled the beginning of Hollywood's renewed appreciation for one of rock's most literally unsung heros.

Shadowman, Wray's latest, is exactly what you'd expect from this unreconstructed rebel: It's noisy, sloppy and suitably gruff. "Rumble on the Docks," "Moped Baby" and covers of the Elvis Presley chestnut "Heartbreak Hotel" and John Fogerty's "Run Through the Jungle" won't make anyone forget about Wray's previous peaks, but they make it clear that he has no intention of going quietly into the night. "Maybe this is my problem, but I don't try to look at today's market and figure out what's goin' to sell and what ain't goin' to sell," he says. "See, I'm on this little ol' label that lets me do what I want to do. They don't stand over me with some big producer and say, 'No, you've got to do it this way or that way.' I just go in there and create my own feelin's and put them on tape. And I've got a great band. Eric Geevers plays the bass and Robbie Louwers, this kid from the Hague, plays really wild drums behind me. He's a street kid, and I think he's even been in jail two or three times, but then he quit the life of crime and started playin' drums."

Neither Geevers nor Louwers will join Wray during his upcoming swing through America; instead he'll be accompanied by Dieselhed, a Bay Area act that he has never heard. ("I'm gonna rehearse with them three days before we go out and play," he allows. "From what I heard about them, I should like them just fine.") As he tells it, his reasons for touring America again have more to do with business than with his desire to play in the States. "I didn't have no record to push, which isn't a problem in Europe--they'll book you anyway," he asserts. "But in America, they don't want to take a chance on bringin' you and payin' for plane fare and hotel and all that if you don't have a record to support. And now I do."

Most artists would have some trepidation about playing in their native country for the first time in a dozen years, but not Wray; he's raring to go, in part because of his enthusiasm for domestic rockers. He admits to being unfamiliar with the Reverend Horton Heat and other acts whose work bears obvious Wray stamps, but he calls Nirvana "Link Wray with words," and adds, "I love all them young groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They're keepin' the gee-tar alive. You've heard of No Doubt, right? With this young chick singin' and these guys playin' bass and drums? They're fuckin' fantastic, aren't they?" A pause. "Well, I think they are," he says.

Wray feels the same about life in general. Most entertainers known more as influences than stars in their own right nurse a certain bitterness about this situation since, to put it frankly, being an influence doesn't pay worth a damn. But if Wray is frustrated, his unhappiness is buried so deep that it may never get out. "I don't play music for the money--that's why I'm not a millionaire," he says. "When I go on these tours, I know I have to make the money to pay my house rent and to buy the food and clothes for my son so that he can have a safe life here in Denmark.

"When I'm home, I don't contact nobody. I don't even have a telephone. This telephone I'm talkin' to you on belongs to my manager, 'cause I don't want to be contacted by the outside world. When I'm at home, I want to sit and watch my tee-vee and be a daddy to my son and a husband to my wife and write my songs and have my privacy. But when I'm on stage, I'm open to the world. And if you come to the show, you better bring your ear-plugs. 'Cause it's gonna be loud."\

Link Wray, with Dieselhed. 8 p.m. Saturday, June 28, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $14-$15, 830-

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts