The name Link Wray may not be the first to pop up on a list of iconic blues artists, but make no mistake: Wray’s music and influence led many a rock and roller to the blues over the years.
Fred Lincoln-Wray, Jr. was born on May 2, 1929 in Dunn, North Carolina. A blues guitar player named Hambone is the first time Link has said he came upon the sweet sounds of the blues. Hambone was playing bottleneck slide and Link instantly fell in love with the sound.
Link soon got a guitar, and his family relocated to Portsmouth, Virginia in the late 1940s. With his brothers Doug and Vernon, he assembled his first band, primarily playing country and western swing. The band quickly developed a huge following in the area and went by various names including The Lazy Pine Wranglers and Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands. However, the U.S. Army came calling during WWII, so Link put his music career on hold; he contracted tuberculosis while in the military and ended up losing a lung due to the illness. Amazingly, Link started singing more although everyone from doctors to friends said he probably would not be able to sing very long, for obvious reasons, but the straining, rough sound Link produced by singing with a handicap gave him a distinctive voice that ultimately became his trademark. Elvis Presley and rock and roll had hit the scene—the beat of which was very similar to what Link and his band played. They upped the ante, playing more rock-type songs since the so-called new music was what they had been doing anyway.
Playing around the DC area, Link Wray & The Wraymen soon met Milt Grant who hosted a weekly show in DC. At one of Grant’s record shops in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the legend has it that someone yelled out for the band to play a stroll. Link has often said he did not know a stroll but Doug started playing a beat on the drums and Link improvised and jumped in with what is now credited as the birth of the power chord with iconic instrumental “Rumble.”
The instrumental has gone on to influence countless rock and roll legends. From Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page to Jeff Beck and Neil Young, everyone who is anyone has claimed that “Rumble” made them want to grab a guitar. The song was banned in many areas upon its release in 1958 due to its title and people accusing it of inciting violence! Link Wray kept the classic instrumentals coming and “Jack the Ripper” and “Rawhide” helped land him and the band on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. They continued to play around the DC area and in the early 1970’s Link signed with Polydor Records. Among the releases was the classic back to the roots LP simply titled Link Wray.
Link never became a household name and I believe he was okay with that. He was happy playing music on his own terms, just doing what he loved and that certainly showed in his live performances. As the late 70s came, Link hooked up with Rockabilly performer Robert Gordon for two albums, Fresh Fish Special and Robert Gordon with Link Wray. These definitely brought Link more into the spotlight and won him a wider audience. As the 1980s dawned, Link moved overseas to Denmark and continued performing nonstop.
Soon Hollywood came calling and discovered that Link Wray’s music was perfectly suited for many soundtracks. During the 1990s it was featured in Pulp Fiction, Desperado, Independence Day, and many others—winning him yet another audience. It was during this time Link returned to the States once more and toured consistently. I was lucky enough to see the man numerous times during the 90s and also met him on several occasions. Despite his image, I found him to be very humble and down-to-earth. He always took time to hang out with everyone that came out to see him, and told me he believed they were his true friends. Being that he was in his seventies, I went to the first show expecting to see a legend very mellow and just playing low-key. I would have been okay with; I just wanted to see the man. Like many others I was surprised and blown away, as Link’s shows were all about loud, guitar-cranking rock and roll. His live shows had more energy than most performers a quarter of his age. It was simply amazing.
Link continued to tour, playing wherever and whenever he could. Again, the limelight and fame were not important to him and he always followed his heart and the music. In 2005, Link’s health began to decline. Those who were at the final shows say the energy level was off the charts.
That same year, on November 5, Link Wray passed away in Denmark. He often credited Hambone and his early teaching of the blues as the backbone to everything that he did. Throughout the years he covered classic tunes by blues artists like Jimmy Reed and always spoke of his love for the music. There is no doubt that many people who were originally drawn to rock and roll through Link and his iconic guitar instrumentals ultimately discovered the blues as well by doing their homework. (The author is certainly one of those.) Link Wray lives on anytime someone hits a power chord, or anytime a young kid plugs an amplifier in. He was the original master of loud.