Music News

The Missing Link

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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.'"

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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