Link Wray, the original master blaster of rock’n’roll guitar, has died at home in Copenhagen aged 76. Wray enjoyed little mainstream success yet his primal music guaranteed him a cult following that kept him working right into 2005. Indeed, the last fifteen years have found Wray enjoying a considerably higher profile than at any time since his initial hits with such films as Pulp Fiction and Independence Day employing his music. Wray’s talent was a limited one but in his ability to employ distortion and push the electric guitar places it had never been before he must be acknowledged as a 20th Century innovator. His best recordings retain their original menace and raw power and his influence on rock music cannot be underestimated: The Who’s Pete Townsend proclaimed “he is the king; if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and Rumble I would have never picked up a guitar.”
Wray was born in Dunn, North Carolina, of semi-literate Shawnee Indian parents. His father suffered from shell shock due to serving in World War One. The Wrays’ lived an itinerant life, often sleeping rough, earning a meagre living through farm work and street preaching. “Elvis, he grew up white-man poor. I was growing up Shawnee poor,” Wray told an interviewer. Link recalled the Klu Klux Klan being active in North Carolina and the family lived in fear of them.
Wray started playing guitar as a child. Serving in the Korean War he contacted tuberculosis and had a lung removed. With his brothers Vernon and Doug he recorded country songs as The Palomino Ranch Hands in 1955. Changing to The Ray-Men, the brothers jumped aboard the rock’n’roll juggernaut then underway. Wray claimed his lack of musical ability forced him to invent sounds. He effectively did this by punching holes in his amplifier and then running a major chord up and down the fret board so creating the thundering sound known as the ‘power chord’. “I was looking for something Chet Atkins wasn’t doing, that all the jazz kings wasn’t doing. I was looking for my own sound,” he said.
In 1958, Cadence, a small Washington DC record label were passed a primitive instrumental cut by Wray. The label’s owner Archie Bleyer initially declined to issue the recording until he found his teenage daughter expressing enthusiasm for it, saying the music reminded her of the rumble scenes in West Side Story. Bleyer named the instrumental Rumble and the record became a controversial US hit – several radio stations banned it for fear of it inciting teenage violence. Bleyer panicked and told Wray he had to clean up his act. Instead Wray signed to Epic Records where he scored with the instrumental Rawhide. Epic also tried to clean up Wray so forcing him to cut standards when Wray’s appeal was purely down to his creating the crudest sounding music ever recorded.
Wray and brothers left Epic and briefly formed Rumble Records which issued only three 45s including an instrumental called Jack The Ripper. Philadelphia’s Swan Records picked up Jack The Ripper so giving Wray his final US hit. The years at Swan found Wray at his most productive as the label allowed him the freedom to cut his instrumentals unhindered by executive decisions. He turned the family chicken coop into a crude recording studio and cut wild, experimental guitar instrumentals while continuing to play in many of the US’s grimmest bars and clubs. Yet the British Invasion meant the likes of The Beatles rendered Wray obsolete. The fact that John Lennon and many other young British guitarists loved Wray’s recordings was an irony that passed Wray by at the time.
Wray’s career fortunes waxed and waned throughout the 1970s. Many celebrated rock musicians championed Wray as an unsung pioneer. He was brought to England to record for Virgin Records then cut two high-profile albums with retro-rockabilly singer Robert Gordon. If Wray never enjoyed mainstream success at least his talent was acknowledged and Europe gave him a new and loyal audience. In 1979 Wray married Olive Julie Povlsen, a Danish student of Native American culture, and in 1980 they settled in Copenhagen. Povlsen began managing Wray in 1981. The 1980s rockabilly revival raised his profile while the inclusion of Jack The Ripper in Richard Gere’s hit 1983 film Breathless proved how cinematic his music was. He is survived by his wife and son.
Frederick Lincoln Wray Jr, musician, May 2nd, 1929 November 5. 2005