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Link Wray: He's Old, He's Cool, He's Rumblin' Into Town!
By Ron Bally - June 1997
ROCK-AND-ROLL history will be made on Tuesday, June 24, 1997, at Tucson's Club Congress. That evening, guitar-strangler extraordinaire Link Wray will perform his first show ever in Arizona.
"I've never played in Tucson," he confirms via an overseas phone hookup from Tampere, Finland. "I don't think I've ever played a show in Arizona at all."
In fact, Link's last U.S. tour occurred in 1984, when he did several shows as part of MTV's Guitar Greats extravaganza, which also featured Johnny Winter, David Gilmour, Neal Schon, Dave Edmunds and Steve Cropper. Currently finishing up a mini-Scandinavian tour, he was to fly to Houston to kick-off a 19-city North American stint on June 17.
In 1957, Link Wray single-handedly invented the heavy metal power chord with one strum of the D string on his battered Danelectro fuzztone guitar. It opened the vibrato-laced "Rumble," bringing the electric guitar to the forefront of rock and roll, and influencing everyone from Bob Dylan to Pete Townsend. Any serious rock-and-roll string mauler who's ever picked up a guitar has been influenced by Link Wray. "With 'Rumble,' the guitar arrived as an instrument of pure menace," confirms Colin Escott in his liner notes to the two-CD retrospective Link Wray--Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years. To say Link Wray is the most important and influential rock guitarist of the past 40 years is an understatement.
The distortion-ravaged Rumble, released on the Cadence label (original home of the Everly Brothers), reached No. 16 on the Billboard charts and sold a cool million-and-a-half copies, despite being banned in many markets (including New York City!) for its "suggestive" undercurrent--what criteria do you use to ban an instrumental, anyway?
Folklore provides these accounts of its origin. According to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patrica Romanowski, Washington, D.C., disc jockey and TV personality Milt Grant asked Wray to play a stroll number during one of his weekly record hops. Link utilized a series of riffs the band had been playing, and he put them together as a slow stroll. The result was a slowly-building, over-amped, chorded guitar classic which was both threatening and overpowering. This was no jailhouse rock, this was gang warfare.
Cadence owner Archie Bleyer, however, was not very enthusiastic about the demo of this raw and primitive instrumental. In fact, he hated it. After Bleyer's teenage step-daughter expressed overwhelming excitement and insistence on its release, Bleyer relented, and that's how it got released. She said it "reminded her of the rumble scenes in West Side Story," noted rock scribe Cub Koda in his liner notes to Rumble! The Best Of Link Wray.
Bleyer received so much flak for promoting so-called juvenile delinquency, he quickly tried to drastically change Link's sound by teaming him with the Everly Brothers' lightweight producers. Koda also claimed Link and his band, the Raymen, attempted with "Rumble" to approximate the effect of a fight that occurred in a dance hall where they were performing.
Link punctured several holes in his Premier amp's speakers with a pencil, which added the sizzling fuzztone sound on top of a snarling, ominous mid-tempo treble riff, preceding the "heavy metal thunder" of Steppenwolf and countless other dinosaur rockers by more than a decade. (Keep yer ears open for his scorching, feedback-driven live version of "Born To Be Wild.")
But Link dismisses the connection between Rumble and the development of heavy metal. "Heavy metal is just another accent of rock and roll," he states flatly. "It's just another way of putting the beat down." He believes Rumble has more in common with the hard rock/grunge vibes of the Who, Nirvana and Pearl Jam than those within the ranks of the heavy metal militia. "I'm just happy that people love my music," Link says. "It (the heavy metal comparison) just shocks me, but I love it."
LINK BRIEFLY LIVED in Arizona from 1972 to 1973, in a trailer just 12 miles outside Tucson near Old Tucson Studios, with his third wife, Sharon, and their family. The move was anticipated in "Walkin' In The Arizona Sun," a song Link had given to his mandolinist-pianist, Bobby Howard, and included on Howard's Mordicai Jones album. He also recorded a reflective, sappy ballad, a fond tribute of sorts to the Old Pueblo, called "Tucson, Arizona" on his Be What You Want To album, with pedal steel support from Jerry Garcia. It was a far cry from the sinister sonic overload, and brooding, hypnotic effect of Rumble.
In the late '70s, with renewed interest in rockabilly, in part fueled by the rising popularity of punk and garage music, as well as neo-rockabilly artists like Robert Gordon and the Stray Cats, Link's career was revitalized once again. He released a couple albums on his own, and teamed-up with Gordon in 1977 and '78 for two more albums and several highly successful tours.
Since 1980 he's been living in Denmark with his fourth wife, Olive, and son Oliver. "I live a private, secluded life in Denmark," he says. "I don't even have a telephone. Nobody knows where I live, and if anybody wants to get in touch with me, they have to go through my management company."
Link may live a hermit-like existence, but he constantly gigs around Europe. He does, however, refrain from playing in his adopted Denmark. "I don't want to mess up his (Oliver's) schooling," he reasons. "I don't want his schoolmates to point fingers at him and say he's got a rock-and-roll daddy."
He released an album, Indian Child, on Sony's Danish subsidiary in 1993, and he's resurfaced again this year with two releases of savage six-string manipulation: Shadowman (Ace UK import) and Walking Down A Street Called Love, a domestic release on the Cleopatra label featuring scorching 1996 live versions of many hits and covers.
Also quite recently, Link's string-bending alter ego, surf guitar legend Dick Dale, saw his career resurrected virtually overnight with the inclusion of his "Misirilou" as the thoroughly memorable opening theme to Quentin Tarantino's 1994 cult flick, Pulp Fiction. But many are unaware that Link's crunchy instrumental "Ace Of Spades" is playing in the background during the scene where Vincent (John Travolta) and Mia (Uma Thurman) are inanely conversing in a "car booth" at the nauseatingly '50s-saturated Jack Rabbit Slim's nightclub. Moments before the infamous twist contest, "Ace Of Spades" segues directly into the hypnotic, aural throb of "Rumble." Neither song was included on the multi-million-selling soundtrack. Hey Quentin, what the hell were you thinking? Dale received all the attention and accolades, and Link settled for a few extra bucks on his royalty checks.
Link admits the songs weren't included because of a dispute over the publishing rights. "(My brother Ray) signed the publishing back over to me before he died in 1984, and then (Ray's daughter) stole it," he offers as explanation. But in actuality, "Rumble" is owned by crooner Andy Williams' Barnaby Records label. "Barnaby Records owns the rights," Link says, "because when Archie Bleyer retired, (Williams) bought up all the catalogue on Cadence Records, and when he bought that he also bought 'Rumble.' I think he (Williams) got into a lawsuit with the Pulp Fiction people, and that's why it didn't make it (on the soundtrack)."
Link also admits he's neither met nor ever heard Dick Dale's music. He says Elvis Presley had the biggest impact on his sound. "Elvis is a Southern boy like me," he declares. "And he sorta opened the door for people like Link Wray, the Beatles and Rolling Stones." Link cites Elvis' Sun sessions and early RCA material as his favorites. "If Elvis hadn't opened the door, the black people (recording artists) wouldn't of had a chance," he adds.
He mentions Fats Domino and Little Richard as prime examples: "The white kids didn't accept them (Domino and Richard) until Elvis came out and started doing rhythm-and-blues-type singing."
There is, however, no mistaking Link Wray's huge influence. Every guitar hero--Hendrix, Page, Beck, Lennon, Townsend, ad nauseum--has knelt at the alter of supreme guitar god, Mr. Rumbleman, Link Wray.