The wheel of justice turns slowly and sometimes not at all. We all have to put up with Trump in the White House. The Yankees are in first place. And Chris Pratt has somehow locked into three major movie franchises. But I can put up with all that irksome nonsense if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors Link Wray next year.
If you don’t know Link Wray, go out now and buy the compilation, Rumble! The Best of Link Wray issued by the ever reliable Rhino label, in 1993. Hearing its swaggering guitar sounds, you’ll wonder, like I did, if Quentin Tarantino bought a copy around that time. Tarantino featured two of Wray’s songs in Pulp Fiction, scoring the -50s-themed Jack Rabbit Slims diner scene with Link’s “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades. For many, it was the first time they heard “Rumble,” even if they didn’t know what it was. Once you hear it, you don’t forget it.
Any rock band, and especially rockabilly band, worth a damn can play “Rumble.” The original is known not for its virtuosity, but its tone, its technique, its raw power. Nervous ‘50s squares even banned the song, despite the fact that it has no lyrics—apparently Eisenhower America was rife with bloody, Sharks and Jets-type encounters.
Oddly, the song “Rumble” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a single but Wray the man was not. At least not yet. That needs to change. Pete Townshend called Wray “the king,” and cited him as his inspiration to pick up a guitar. Neil Young said that were he able to time travel and see one band live, it would be Link and his band the Ray Men.
Later pictures make the pompadoured, sunglass-sporting Wray look like something that landed from outer space. But his true origins were in the postwar South. Wray was born in 1929 in Dunn, North Carolina, to parents of Shawnee ancestry. Back then, white people not only created separate bathrooms for white and black folks, the facilities for American Indians were also segregated. So much for southern hospitality.
As was true of so many rockabilly stars, Wray served in the military during the Korean War. Despite the racist culture he grew up in, Link succeeded as a musician in the Jim Crow South—probably because he could pass for white. In 1958 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Wray came up with his unique guitar sound for “Rumble” after accidentally puncturing a speaker.
“Rumble” was a Top 40 hit for Wray, and he continued to make exciting music long after. I’m no Wray fanatic—not yet anyway—but I’m slowly going deeper into his catalog. It’s not easy. Beyond the compilations, you won’t find Wray’s albums in used CD or record bins—not for cheap anyway. Thankfully, he is seeing a resurgence on vinyl, helped by Record Store Day each spring. Ray is one of the few artists who can get me to pay full price for a new vinyl copy.
My Link Wray collection is modest, but it has seen considerable use. Link Wray & the Wraymen (1960) shows Wray in his early glory. The album cobbled together several years of singles with titles like “Caroline,” “Radar” and “Comanche.” Wray was exceptional not only in his unique, hard rock sound—long before people used the term “hard rock”—but that he could express himself through instrumentals only—at least in the early years.
A later album, 1973’s Beans & Fatback, offers a more diversified sound. Link goes acoustic on some tracks. Overall, the album has a rootsier, bluesier, more southern feel than his early material. He also sings more than I had ever heard him do before. He sounds a bit like Mick Jagger, and Beans & Fatback has the feel of the Stones’s stripped down, acoustic Beggar’s Banquet.
Fans—and Neil Young among them—might wish they had seen Wray live, but listening to Link live at the Paradiso in Amsterdam is pretty close. It documents an August, 1979 show featuring Wray in all his greasy-haired, leather clad glory. He was joined by drummer Anton Fig (of the David Letterman show fame) and bassist Jimmy Lowell. Wray was no newbie by the late 1970s, but he plays with an abandon worthy of the best rock music of the period. It’s Link Wray’s Live at Leeds. The master of the power chord ably closed a fantastic decade for rock music.
Recently, Wray has been the subject of a documentary about Native Americans, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Wray’s screen time is limited, but, as always, makes quite an impression. Wray could easily be the subject of a documentary. Fans could also benefit from a comprehensive biography of the man.
Why does Wray continue to not get the credit he deserves? He has been on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot before, but has not won enough votes for induction. Even so, the Hall has seen fit to induct historic and influential—though little known artists—such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Let’s hope the Hall treats Link the same way very soon.
If not, there might be a rumble.