It will surely come as no surprise that Quentin Tarantino picked up on Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ and ‘Ace of Spades’ for the movie ‘Pulp Fiction’. The brooding guitar man; born in North Carolina in 1929, as Fred Lincoln Wray Jnr, hails from pulp territory, the mythic Americana of rock n’ roll. Wray’s mother from whom he inherited his striking appearance was a Shawnee Indian, Pop was a street corner preacher and grandpa did some jail time. It’s hard to know where legend overlaps fact in the Wray mythology but the poverty of his early years was all too real. Talking of his contemporary, Elvis, over in Tupelo, Wray quipped ‘He grew up white man poor, I was growing up Shawnee poor.’
Over the course of his long life, Wray had four wives who begat him four sons and five daughters with names steeped in black leather lore, including Link Elvis Wray, Mona Kay Wray and Ramona Wray. One of Link’s key strengths was his pared down aesthetic s – from his playing, a culmination of reflex, strength and rhythm, to song titles such as ‘Radar’, ‘The Swag’ and the ‘The Outlaw’, which had the immediacy of signposts. It’s been said that Link invented the power chord but this righteous accolade doesn’t convey the distorted, stripped down excitement of his craft. As an 8 year old, young Link was taught the basics of guitar by an elderly black circus worker called Hambone. The circus used to pitch up across the street from the Wray family home. One can only wonder if the combination of Hambone’s brief tutelage somehow fused with the heady atmosphere of the circus, the screams, the thrills and the sudden dips into danger, creating a spark that Link was to carry for the rest of his life.
The flash point was ‘Rumble’, released in 1958. Link was never better than when he tapped into delinquent themes. It doesn’t matter whether this was innate or via creative osmosis, the result was the same; the stark distillation of rebellion. It got you in the hips and the soul. Despite being banned on several US radio stations for fear of stirring up youthful unrest and boosting gang membership, ‘Rumble’ went on to to be a million seller. However, Cadence Records, who had signed Link and his brothers, Vernon and Doug, a.k.a ‘The W/Ray Men’, chickened out of releasing any further rabble rousing tracks. When the label suggested that Link tone it down, The Wray’s took a stroll to Epic and continued a run of exhilarating instrumentals including ‘Rawhide’, ‘Comanche’ and ‘Slinky.’
Whilst having contracted tuberculosis when serving in the Korean war affected Wray’s vocals, his guitar playing mostly did the singing for him but he wasn’t always volatile, ‘Lillian’ and ‘Alone’ revealing the heart beneath the tough exterior. Fiercely independent, when the rock n’ roll boom burst, Wray fashioned a 3 track home studio from a chicken shack and largely extricated himself from the music business although he would continue to record and play, stating ‘Money don’t rule me, record companies don’t own me.’ Nothing owned Link Wray but he owned rock n roll. Though the era of monochrome had ended, Link cast a long shadow, drawing admiration from the likes of Neil Young, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend who noted of Wray ‘He is the king, if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble’, I would never have picked up a guitar.’
Though often marginalised throughout his career, Wray was like the night, an unquantifiable influence on successive generations of guitarists who sought to scorch rather than soothe. In the late ‘90’s I caught him in London playing to a hazardously packed house. Wray, who had effortlessly surpassed the boundaries of age, conveyed the vicarious dexterity of his craft with a pagan assurance. It was a joyful event, the audience a breathless crush of leather and crinoline, as Link performed the majority of tracks that comprise this here platter. In November, 2005, Bob Dylan was just about to step out on stage at the Royal Hall Albert, when he learned that Link had struck his final chord. In tribute to the great man, Dylan commenced his set with ‘Rumble.’