BE WILD, NOT EVIL:
THE LINK WRAY STORY
Link Wray circa the late fifties. "Everybody loved Link," said ex-wife Sharon. "Nobody had a bad word for him." (photo by Widmarc Clark)
A tribute by Jimmy McDonough © 2006GROWLING GUTS
(Part 2 of 6)
In the summer of 1956, Link was looking bad--real bad, as in sick. Both his brother Ray and his wife Evelyn tried to prod him into going to a doctor. "They noticed him getting skinnier and skinnier, like he had a bad cold all the time," recalled their daughter Sherry Wray. But Link "was so stubborn he wouldn't go to the doctor. Finally one morning he couldn't even get up out of bed."
Wray had double pneumonia. In the process of treating that, doctors discovered he had contacted tuberculosis during his stay in the service. "After they cured the pneumonia I started hemmoraging right away," said Link. "Every time I breathed, I breathed out blood." He overheard the doctors saying he wouldn't last the night. "They had five doctors operating on me for eight hours, took my left lung. When I come out of the oxygen mask I just said, 'Thank you, God.'" Niece Sherry recalled her uncle showing her a scar that "started from under one of his breasts, went down and made a circle at his waist, and came all the way up his back to his shoulder blade."
Link had to remain quarantined for a year. Since he'd been living with Doug, his brother was stuck there as well. Link became chummy with a bunch of African American patients over some rather lively card games. "I had my guitar in the hospital, I was playin' this here bluesy type guitar," said Wray. "They loved my music." One day the group was standing in a large bathroom debating religion. "They were sayin', 'Well, why do you believe in this God, Link? You're in the death house with us, Link. What has he done for you?' I said, 'You're sayin' the same thing that the church said to Jesus when this elder of the church said, "If you're God, come off the cross.'
"When I pointed my fingers up, God appeared in front of me. And then I went flying through the air. Doug was there, Doug saw it. And the blacks, they got scared and run out of the bathroom. I went flying across the room and then God just let me down easy and Doug said, 'Are you hurt, Link?" I said, 'No, I'm not hurt. I saw God.'
Doug said, 'I seen you flyin' through the air, but I didn't see no God.'"
Lying in his hospital bed, Link had a nonreligious epiphany as well. Once Doug got out, he had a gig drumming on a local TV music show hosted by Jimmy Dean, and Link tuned in to check out his brother beating the skins for a new talent named Elvis Presley. Link was mesmerized. "I saw Elvis with Scotty Moore, that put a whole new thing to my head. Hank Williams, Hank Snow--I loved those guys, but when Elvis came playing this 'Train I riiiiiiiiiiiide,' and then there's Scotty Moore with this here guitar behind Elvis-chank chunka chunk--I said, 'Wow, that's somethin' brand new.' Rock and roll was brand new. Elvis brought it to the world." And to Link's ears, not dullsville, like he found country or big band. Wray decided then and there that "this is the way I wanted to go. I knew I couldn't sing, because I had a lung out. So I devoted all my soul into music."
The brush with death and the visit from God only intensified Link's desire to make music. "After they sewed me back up and I recovered from the surgery the doctors said, 'Now you're gonna have to sit on the couch the rest of your life.' And I said, 'Well there's a mightier power than you that's gonna tell me I can't go out and play my music.' Ever since I went on the operating table, it's like this Link Wray character that was in the service died and another Link Wray was reborn. Because things started happening to me. God appears in front of me in the hospital. God zaps this here 'Rumble' in my head and this character called Link Wray is born."
Which brings us to a record hop in Fredericksburg, Virginia one night in January, 1958.
A bigwig on the teen scene, Milt Grant hosted a daily TV and radio shows in the DC area. That night at the Fredericksburg Armory on Route 1, he'd hosted a record hop, and Link and the boys were the band. Also present were The Diamonds, a white vocal group who'd hit big with 'The Stroll"--although in some tellings of the tale, The Diamonds aren't present, but had merely guested that day on Grant's TV show.
For reasons not quite clear, Grant suggested that Wray and the boys do "The Stroll." Sometimes Link said that a fight in the audience had inspired Grant to call for the tune, but audience member John Lightner recalled no such tussle. He also scoffed at Link's frequent claim that there were 10-15,000 kids present, putting the figure at closer to a few hundred.
What happened next was one of those weird and wondrous confluences of seemingly random events. Link, sporting his '53 Gibson Les Paul and cheapo Premiere amplifier, hadn't heard the Diamonds record due to his stay in the hospital and had no idea what in the hell a stroll was. Doug had an notion and jumped in with a beat. Link started in with a grinding, three-chord drone. Then Ray put the icing on the cake. Inspired by his brother's racket, he planted a mike right next to the speaker on Link's Premiere--not the way it was done in the low-volume days of 1958. "In the heat of that night, Ray stuck the microphone in my amplifier," said Link. "The speakers are rattling because they can't take that heavy playin', they're small, and I'm playin' really hard, see? So they're rattlin' all over the place and these kids started swarming, rushin' to the stage. Milt got scared. I think the Diamonds got scared and left. My brother Doug got off the drums and started laughin' his ass off. He said, 'Y'know, you've been playin' here all fuckin' night and these kids haven't been payin' a bit of attention, and now yer playin' this thing and they're going completely apeshit.' We played it about four or five times. So Milt smelled a dollar and tells Ray, 'We gotta find a studio.'"'
While Link had been in the hospital, brother Ray had concentrated on his pop career, signing with Cameo Records for a single, "Remember You're Mine" and becoming Ray Vernon in the process. Unfortunately, Pat Boone covered the song, leaving Ray in the dust. "That really took the sails out of him," said Link. "He was really hurt." Another Cameo single failed, and Ray was on his third and final go-round for the label at the time of the Fredericksburg show. At the end of the Cameo session, Link stepped up to cut his new song, which for a brief moment was christened "Oddball." According to Link, the room they cut it in "wasn't even a recording studio--they recorded politicians' speeches. A one-track Grundig tape recorder. Fifty-seven dollars, that's all it cost to record it." Link, Ray, Doug and Shorty nailed it in three takes.
Link might've had his head in the clouds most of the time, but when it came to music, he was a quick study. And he learned a very important lesson that night on stage in Fredericksburg. "I found out with 'Rumble,' volume meant everything to me. Scotty Moore playin' behind Elvis was very quiet 'cause they didn't mike his amplifier--it was Elvis's voice. My music was very loud from the start, when Ray stuck the microphone into my amplifier. So right from day one, my music was supposed to be loud. It wasn't supposed to be quiet like Elvis."
Not only loud, but distorted. "Doug was playin' a heavy beat, but the guitar was too clean, Chet Atkins clean. I said, 'Ray, it's not rattling like the mike speakers at the hall. I'm gonna take the cover off the amplifier.' Link took a pen and jabbed a few holes in the tweeters, leaving the amp's woofer intact. "Ray said, 'Yer tearin' up yer amplifier!' I said, 'I want that sound.'" The woofers and tweeters and the big were miked separately, giving the guitar that glorious combo of clean 'n dirty--and making "Rumble" arguably the first record (intentionally, anyway) utilizing fuzztone guitar. And let's not forget the idiosyncratic Shorty and his wondrous, out of tune acoustic bass--recorded through a hole that had been kicked in its side during a gig in some country roadhouse.
Grant started shopping "Oddball" around. According to Link, many labels passed, unaccustomed to the sheer ugliness of it all. Finally, a copy landed in the hands of Cadence's Archie Bleyer, languishing with a pile of demos in his home until his daughter Jackie decided to plop it on the turntable during a teen party. She was wowed, and asked her dad who was responsible. "Some Indian down in Washington, DC," was his reply.
She pestered him to put it out, and the song--now retitled "Rumble" by Jackie in a nod to the street-gang musical West Side Story and credited to Link Wray and his Wray Men (later to become Ray Men)--was unleashed on the world that St. Patrick's Day, 1958. According to Wray, Shorty's woeful bass notes had Bleyer begging for a more polished recut in Cadence's Manhattan studios. Link refused. "I said, 'Well, you either accept this or you dont get it at all--If you don't want this one, fuck you. I'm not comin' to New York.' So he took the whole thing--with Shorty's bad notes."
Starting in the middle of a four count, "Rumble" comes at you like killer fog on the highway. Just three chords and a bad attitude, it slowly snakes through its changes, raising its spitting head during the scramble-chord chorus--as Cub Koda puts it, "four bars of sustained tension that hold the track in a vice grip until Link lays down the nastiest A chord imaginable." No warning, no escape and certainly no end in sight, "Rumble" goes nowhere and everywhere all at once--as Koda notes, the song never arrives at "any clear-cut musical resolution," simply fading away as Wray ramps up the vibrato. It's some ending--as in, "Oh, Link's going to outer space now." Was there anything remotely like it on the radio in 1958? "Short Shorts," "At the Hop," "Sugartime"... I think not. A lot of people have covered "Rumble," but none of them sound like Link. He had a bluesman's sense of time, as in, 'I'll come in when I want to, not when you expect it." Sure, "Rumble" might seem dead simple to play, but attempt to replicate the precise feel of it and you lose. Like a lot of Link's music the song has no melody, just riffs. Try to hum "Rumble," I dare you. What a spooky, beautiful debut (Link apparently found the song patriotic--he opened a wild 2002 Florida show by shouting, "I got one thing to say to Al Qaeda--RUMBLE!").
The record shot to #16 on the Billboard charts, despite Link's claims that it was banned in more than one city. It must've caused Ray Vernon to wonder. His third single for Cameo had flopped, and now his sideman brother was riding high on a bizarre fluke. Had Ray been the hit artist, said Link, "I woulda just been lead guitar player behind him as a singer--I woulda probably never made 'Rumble.'" But at the time, there was no ill will between them. With the Wrays, it was all for one, one for all. "My dad was pushin' Link from the very first day," said Sherry Wray. Ray would now concentrate on the production and business side of things, creating and running the music publishing company for their music, booking gigs and recording sessions. Just the kind of help Link needed, as he had no aptitude for schmoozing deejays or negotiating contracts.
When it came to music, "Link was a consummate artist," said Sherry. As for the rest of reality, "Dad had to have to stage everything, make sure he had the right clothes, said the right things. My mom used to say to me, 'Sherry, if it hadn't been for your dad and Doug and me, Link could've been one of those people sittin' there with a cup on the sidewalk. Nothing mattered to him as long as he could've played somethin' with strings on it, he'd have been a vagrant, he didn't care... he will never know his entire life what all was done for him.'"
But Ray's publishing company eventually complicated the relationship with his brothers. In a common move for deejays at the time, Milt Grant--who admittedly had suggested the band play "The Stroll," which had provoked the song in the first place--got co-writing credit for "Rumble" under the pseudonym 'M. Cooper.' Grant's co-author on the song was not Link, but Link's father, F. L. Wray, Sr., who was apparently given credit in an attempt at tax avoidance.
The song's actual author has darker ideas about this assignation. "My Dad just worshipped Ray," said Link. "That's exactly why Ray put 'Rumble' in Daddy's name, 'cause he could control him. My Daddy woulda done anything Ray said." Whatever the motivation, a number of the classic songs Link created from 1958 through the mid-sixties would be credited to Wray Sr. and Grant, with Link's name nowhere to be found. Link claimed that he never even signed a record contract at the time, that his signature had been forged. "I guess they were tryin' to keep me away from all papers, 'cause even though I'm uneducated, I probably woulda been nosy and said, 'What is this? How much am I getting?' If it pissed me off, I wouldnta recorded anything." When it came to "Rumble," Link continued, "they gave me a little bit of money--just enough to buy my mother a house, and they kept the rest of it."
While Link might've produced a smash for Cadence, he'd quickly be shown the door. Despite a recently surfaced album of unissued material and a mysterious but thus far undocumented session in Nashville ("Archie stuck me with this clean sound, he was tryin' to record me good, but it was too perfect, too perfect--he wanted me to sound country, I said, "That's not me, Archie"), Link's only release for Cadence would be the "Rumble" single, and his message of feedback and menace was not one the label head approved of. According to Rob Finnis, Archie Bleyer told a friend, "I never liked Link Wray and the negative influence his music had on the young people of America."
How ironic--Link was certain that with "Rumble" he was doing the work of the Lord ("I'm rumblin' against Satan," he'd tell me), yet the rest of the world thought he was the devil himself. Wray took the hood look to its apex--leather jacket, black shades--yet the coat was full of vitamins and the specs served to hide his poor eyesight. He didn't drink, smoke or do drugs--"Satan's candy," as Link saw it--and was also a lifelong vegetarian who's never had so much as a hamburger. "I wouldn't know what meat tastes like 'cause I've never tasted it. My dad tried to get me to kill hogs, kill cattle, and I could hear the hogs moanin' as Dad was cuttin' their throat. I just couldn't do it, man. I just couldn't eat it."
Link was simply just ahead of his time. "He took a lot of vitamins, did exercize--this is back in the fifties when nobody but Jack La Lanne was doin' this kinda thing," said Ellwood Brown. But Link had two meager vices--he was a television addict thirsty for old Westerns (according to his kids, he also loved Star Trek) and, said Brown, he drank coffee "twenty four hours a day." Link never seemed to sleep. He'd be working on a song and, as Rhonda Wray Sayen remembers, "I'd leave him to go to bed, wake up, and he'd be in the same position."
The only thing that mattered was his music. "Link always had a guitar in hand, he was always writing new stuff," said friend Ruth Newton. Fan and friend Bobby Morris, AKA Widmarc Clark, was amazed at how influence-free Link seemed, despite his awareness of players like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. "Link was an experimenter. I never recall him playin a riff from those guys and sayin', 'This is what I learned,' because he just had a headful of it himself. He didn't have a bit of trouble thinkin' of a chord progression that sounded different and good. That's just how he was born. Link was gifted."
The one musician that genuinely humbled Link was Elvis Presley. Link had a lifelong obsession with the King, and would cover his songs throughout his career. "He talked about Elvis a lot," said Clark. "Link wondered about his childhood... Elvis was interesting to him." When Elvis died, Link was devastated. "I remember my dad sitting in our living room crushed when Elvis died," said daughter Rhonda Wray Sayen. "He was on his knees in front of the TV watching a special on his death and I remember him crying. It was like a family thing--we all cried.
"My dad was a very emotional man," Rhonda continued, "and he had no qualms about tellin' you how much he loved you and if you did wrong or makin' sure you were straight. He was just a wonderful person." Everyone talks about how open and kind Link was in the old days. "He was an extremely nice human being," said Clark, who'd visit Link and his first wife Elizabeth in their modest Washington, DC apartment. The one time Clark recalled Link losing his cool, albeit mildly, is when fellow guitarslinger Duane Eddy came backstage at a Madison, Wisconsin gig and asked Link to show him how to play Wray's tune, "Lillian." "Very unlike Link, he told Eddy, 'Hey, that record is available. All you have to do buy it and learn how to play it.'"
Of course, with the rough-and-tumble background the Wrays had come up from, they were certainly no marshmallows. "One thing I can say about Link, Doug, or Ray--none of them were violent in the least. But if you threatened them, or their wives, or their kids, there was gonna be hell to pay," said Ellwood Brown. "Link always carried a knife on him." And should his temper reach the boiling point, look out. "It was like flippin' a light switch," said Brown. "It was a whole different Link. He could be very menacing. If this guy had a scowl on his face and whipped out a switchblade, I mean you'd have to give him some attention."
I found this out quite literally one late Seattle night in 1997. Wray spoke of a seventies record producer he was particularly angry with, and how, in a fit of anger, he'd whipped out a switchblade and held it to the unfortunate fellow's neck. Link got so animated telling the story that he leapt across the hotel room and, for a hair-raising moment, pretended to cut yours truly's throat with his invisible shiv. Link might have been a skinny little guy, but I wouldn't have wanted to be on the receiving end of his stiletto. He said Doug had to talk him out of killing the producer. I asked Wray if he ever wondered what God thought of the darker side of Link.
"You can be wild, but not evil," he maintained. "My whole life, I've never gone out in thrills lookin' for trouble and wantin' to fight. If a dog attacked you, you try to protect yourself, right? Well, I look at a wild human being as somethin' that's gonna attack me. I always thought I was just protectin' myself. 'Course, I hid a lot of that stuff from my mother--she said, 'Son, you must not do that--you must trust in God to help, save you.' I said, 'Yeah, but momma, sometimes when these people crawl on me, I don't feel like God's around, y'know?'
"I'm not strong at all, Jimmy. God's strong. God rules me, man, Satan don't rule me. Satan knows that he could turn me over in one second, 'cause I am a mean person--I mean, a nice person would never pull out a knife and cut nobody. Peter, one of Jesus's favorite disciples, man, he got a knife and he was goin' around cuttin', stabbin', he was a drinker and a wild fisherman, wild as hell. It took Jesus a lot to tame him down. There's an evil, and there's wild. And I was wild."
See Part 3 of 6 of our Link Wray tribute
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