It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Link Wray was the most influential Rock guitarist of all. OK, he may not have actually invented the noble Power Chord, but he was almost certainly the first guitarist to successfully harness distortion, and in tracks like ‘Rumble’, ‘Raw-Hide’, ‘Slinky’, ‘Jack The Ripper’ and ‘Ace Of Spades’, he effectively slapped down the blueprint for much of the no-prisoners-taken, cranked-up-loud-enough-to-make-your-ears-bleed, guitar-propelled pyrotechnics which would follow over the ensuing decades. Link’s own chilling records have appeared in iconic movies like Pulp Fiction, Breathless, Independence Day, Pink Flamingos, Roadracers, Desperado, Blow, Streets Of Fire, 12 Monkeys, etc, and several generations of Rock luminaries, from Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend, through Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Iggy Pop, to The Cramps, Jack Rose and JD McPherson, have acknowledged his crucial role. And yet, believe it or not, Link has never been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (proof, were it required, that Americans really don’t have a clue about Rock & Roll!!!)
However, in addition to those sides which bore his own name, Link played as a sideman on countless 50s/early 60s sessions, with/for his brothers and a host of friends - many of which are now long forgotten obscurities, of interest only because of his involvement. Disc 1 of this compilation presents Link’s own releases between 1958-62, delivered in his fiercely unmistakeable style; Disc 2 presents a goodly selection of Link’s session work from 1956-62, including his own first 45 (which, stylistically, couldn’t be further removed from the hairy-chested ‘Rumble’), alongside a couple of dozen or so ‘guest appearances’ and even a couple of ‘solo’ 45s, which actually came out credited to older brother Vern.
Born Fred (not Frederick, as some biogs insist) Lincoln Wray Jr on May 2nd 1929, into abject poverty in Dunn, North Carolina, his story is inextricably linked to older brother Vernon Aubrey and younger brother Douglas Leon. Link’s parents were sharecroppers - their mother was a purebred Shawnee Indian - and until he was fourteen years of age, when the family relocated to a housing project in Portsmouth, Virginia, he lived in a shack without electricity or gas. By this stage, Link was already playing guitar; he’d been given an old acoustic as a child, and one magical afternoon he’d been shown how to tune it and taught a few chords, by an old travelling black minstrel called Hambone.
By the late 40s he and his brothers had formed a Western Swing band - Vern playing rhythm guitar and singing, Doug playing drums - and Link upped his game considerably when he got his first electric guitar in 1949. His musical career was interrupted, however, when he was conscripted in 1951; he spent two years overseas, initially in West Germany and then Korea, where he contracted TB. Unfortunately this went undiagnosed at the time, his condition steadily worsened, and it would be another couple of years before he received treatment. By then he was in extremely poor shape. He eventually collapsed - coughing up blood, suffering from double pneumonia - and would spend much of the latter few months of 1956 and the first half of 1957 in hospital, during the course of which he had his left lung removed.
Meanwhile, the Wray brothers had relocated to Washington D.C. in 1955, where the band had begun to build a reputation. By now they were a quintet, featuring Dixie Neale on pedal steel and Shorty Horton on doghouse bass, and their name varied, sometimes from gig to gig - Lucky Wray & The Lazy Pine Wranglers, Lucky Wray & The Palomino Ranch Hands (‘Lucky’ was Vernon, a nickname he’d acquired via his gambling successes). They became sufficiently popular that they were soon installed as the house band on The Milt Grant Show, a record hop TV show hosted by Grant, the self-styled DC answer to Dick Clark, where they got to back many touring R&R stars.
As the band’s de facto leader, Vern talked up the ante, attracted much of the attention, and scored himself a couple of record deals. He cut a trio of Hillbilly singles for Starday as Lucky Wray, which created sufficient a buzz that Cameo signed him, relaunching him as a Rock’n’Roller, Ray Vernon (Link played guitar on all these sides). ‘Evil Angel’ was a significant regional hit (some sources suggest it sold a couple of hundred thousand copies) and initially it seemed that Vern might be the brother who would make it big. But by now he was becoming increasingly involved in both the business side of the industry - an astute businessman, he’d realised the benefits of owning copyrights to songs and recordings early on - and in particular, studio/production work (indeed, he’d already built his own primitive recording studio). Vern would produce virtually all the Wrays’ various records through to the late 60s, including Link’s meisterworks and his own sporadic releases.
Following his surgery, Link had given up any real thoughts of singing and was largely concentrating on playing guitar - although ironically, his first recordings had been vocals, viz: a couple of neo-Rockabilly numbers, ‘I Sez Baby’ and ‘Johnny Bom-Bonny’. These appeared on an obscure EP, on the even more obscure Kay label (Bob Dean & Cindy With The Kountry Kings occupied the other side of the EP - the songs were all recorded at the same session), although the unissued ‘Hillbilly Wolf’, recorded around the same time, was a far stronger track.
However, Link had been developing an instrumental number - like all strokes of true genius, out of necessity. It seems that one night the band had been asked to play ‘The Stroll’, which they didn’t know, so Link improvised and out came a clangy guitar instro, all slashing power chords and attitude. They played it a few times at various gigs, dances - even on The Milt Grant Show - and it gradually became the lynchpin of their live set. They eventually tried to cut a demo of the number, which at this stage they called ‘Odball’, but they couldn’t get the same ‘dirty’ sound in the studio that they did onstage. By all accounts Link took a pen, punched a couple of holes in his amp’s tweeters, and that seemed to do the trick.
The demo was offered around to various record companies, but they were all frightened off by its feral, uncommercial feel and there were no takers. Eventually, Milt Grant gave a copy to Archie Bleyer, head of Cadence Records, who absolutely hated it - but his teenaged daughter loved it, and as she’d already been proved right about The Everly Brothers, he decided to go with her judgment. She also commented that it reminded her of West Side Story, to which end Bleyer came up with a far stronger title, ‘Rumble’.
Released in early ’58 (b/w ‘The Swag’) it made an immediate impact, and while it climbed no higher than #16 on Billboard, it spent more than three months on the chart and very quickly sold upwards of a couple of million copies. However, as unlikely as it may seem, although it was an instro - i.e. there were no words - it proved to be a highly controversial record, and some radio stations banned it, claiming that it was likely to incite violence and gang warfare. Eventually, the ultra-conservative Archie Bleyer also bought into the negative publicity and (bearing in mind he hadn’t liked the disc in the first place) decided that he couldn’t afford to be perceived as a bad influence on America’s teenagers(!) He promptly dropped Link from the label, refusing to release either his proposed follow-up single (‘Raw-Hide’/‘Pancho Villa’) or the Rumble LP - despite the fact that the tracks had all been recorded, at Bleyer’s own expense.
Link subsequently re-cut several of the numbers and went in search of another record deal - after all, coming off the back of a multi-million selling record, you’d expect someone to be interested. But he quickly discovered that - essentially, by association with ‘Rumble’s negative publicity - other record companies were wary of him and assumed that if Cadence had dropped him, then he must be trouble. But eventually, Milt Grant was able to persuade Columbia Records that they could market Link as a rival to Duane Eddy, and they duly signed him to their Epic subsidiary (they also signed Doug to a solo contract, although that deal would yield just one release, ‘School Girl’/‘Goose Bumps’).
To back up his claim, Milt - who, as Link’s co-manager (Vern was the other half of the team) - convinced him to cobble together a Duane soundalike, comprising elements of ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘Dixie’ (Milt also cut himself in as co-writer on most of Link’s numbers, occasionally under his ‘M. Cooper’ nom-de-plume). Link called the resultant hybrid - which he didn’t much like - ‘Dixie Doodle’. It was nonetheless issued as his first Epic 45 in January ’59, with his re-recording of ‘Raw-Hide’ on the flip - but to the record company’s consternation it was the flip that took off. It transpired that when promo copies went out, deejays were expecting something that bore some semblance to ‘Rumble’; ‘Dixie Doodle’ certainly wasn’t it and they duly flipped the disc, finding the infinitely more malevolent-sounding ‘Raw-Hide’.
Something of another ‘stealth’ hit, although it climbed no higher than #23 in a 14-week stay on the Top 100 it sold well in excess of a million copies. But Link’s relationship with the label was never comfortable; they wanted to market him as a watered-down Duane Eddy and were always trying to persuade him to ‘clean up’ his sound. They also failed to put sufficient promotional muscle behind his subsequent releases and he never managed another major hit on Epic, despite enjoying regional success with sides like ‘Comanche’ (although Link preferred the flip, ‘Lillian’, an homage to his mother), ‘Slinky’ and ‘Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’ (the latter, a rare, gritty vocal).
Even the excellent Link Wray & The Raymen LP - which included his first three Epic 45s alongside a handful of new sides, including ‘Right Turn’, ‘Ramble’ (basically ‘Rumble’, revisited!), ‘Radar’ and ‘Studio Blues’ - had suffered lack of adequate promotion upon its February 1960 release, and so when Epic turned down ‘Jack The Ripper’ the following year, it was pretty much the last straw. Although Link was still contracted to them he decided to go ahead and release ‘The Ripper’ (b/w ‘The Stranger’) on Rumble Records, a new label set up jointly with Milt and Vern. It came out roughly around the same time as his last Epic 45, ‘Tijuana’/ ‘El Toro’, and comprehensively outsold it, becoming a fair-sized hit along the North-Eastern seaboard (it would in turn be reissued a couple of years hence, on the Swan label, when it would restore Link to the Top 100).
Meanwhile, Vern had been busy cutting other sessions, many of which Link played on, leasing the masters to various labels - e.g. Bert & Ray’s instrumental ‘Night Life’/‘Slow Drag’ (on Alpine) (‘Bert’ was Link, Ray was Ray Scearse), The Ponies on Okeh (Link played on the instro flip, ‘Stupid Pony’), whilst yet another instro, ‘Roughshod’/‘Vendetta’, on the Scottie label, although credited to Ray Vernon, actually featured Link & The Raymen (by now, The Raymen were augmented by either Chuck Bennett or Bobby Howard on keyboards, depending on who was available, and ‘Switchy’ on sax). A joint production deal with Marvin Rainwater led to a couple of great 45s, ‘I Can’t Forget’/‘Boo Hoo’ and ‘Tough Top Cat’/‘Honky Tonk In Your Heart’ on the Warwick label, whilst a stray Wray Brothers release, ‘You’re Sweeter Than Sugar’/‘99 Years To Go’, crept out on the Infinity label.
In early 1962, after his Epic deal had expired, Link released ‘Big City Stomp’/‘Poppin’ Popeye’ on Trans Atlas, a subsidiary of Warwick. Shortly afterwards, Link, Vern and Milt created another custom label, Vermillion, on which they pressed up a few thousand copies of an LP which they titled Great Guitar Hits By Link Wray. Manufactured largely to sell at gigs, it included earlier sides like ‘Rumble’, ‘Raw-Hide’, ‘Lillian’ and ‘Jack The Ripper’, alongside a re-cut of ‘Poppin’ Popeye’, retitled ‘Ace Of Spades’, and a handful of new recordings, most notably ‘Run Chicken Run’, some of which - ‘Pancho Villa’, ‘The Black Widow’, ‘Dance Contest’ - were recycled tunes from Link’s ill-fated Cadence LP, four years earlier.
Ironically, the team’s biggest success that year was with one of Vern’s productions, a wild R&B dance record, ‘Hide And Go Seek’, a two-parter, credited to the fictitious Bunker Hill. Hill was in fact Gospel singer (and occasional professional boxer) David Walker, of The Mighty Clouds Of Joy, moonlighting under a pseudonym to try and protect his true identity (by all accounts the Mighty Clouds found out and fired him, anyway!) Released on the Mala label in the early Summer, it was something of a slow burner, making the charts in September, eventually climbing to #33 Pop and #27 R&B. The similarly-styled ‘Red Ridin’ Hood & The Wolf’ was released in its wake, but failed to register.
Meanwhile, Link’s own final release of 1962 had - predictably, perhaps - come out bearing his older brother’s name. Released on the Mala label that Fall, ‘Big City After Dark’ (b/w ‘Hold It’) was an absolute killer. The topside was classic Link Wray; if they’d put it out under his name, it would surely have been a hit!
Thanks and acknowledgments to Tony Wilkinson, Pam Wilkinson, Trev Faull and Sam Szczepanski
This compilation is dedicated to the late Tony Wilkinson, whose original concept it was.