BE WILD, NOT EVIL:
THE LINK WRAY STORY
Link Wray playing Hershey, PA in 1958. Note the Supro guitar. "I was searchin' for different sounds," said Wray. (picture by Bob Lee)
A tribute by Jimmy McDonough © 2006SEARCHING FOR SOUNDS
(Part 3 of 6)
In 1958, Duane Eddy was riding the charts with "Rebel Rouser," a slick guitar instrumental adorned with gimmicky yells. Milt Grant told Link to come up with something similar: "Milt said, ‘I want you to take ‘Dixie' and ‘Yankee Doodle' and put them together, I can sell it to Epic Records.'" Wray did exactly that, recording for the first time in stereo at a local Washington YMCA with engineer whiz Ed Greene both "Dixie Doodle" and a rip-snorting instrumental he'd written in Texas in the back of a Chrysler limo called "Raw-Hide." Link had some new tricks up his sleeve--the sound of a weirdly-pronged Danelectro Longhorn guitar in tandem with a wacko amp modification: the speakers on his Premiere were shot, so he'd rigged a pair of outdoor fairgrounds speakers, giving it extra blast. This being the days before effects boxes, pedals and megawatt amps, Link, craving volume and originality, was always tinkering with or joining amps together and subsequently blowing them up on a regular basis. ‘You didn't want to lend Link an amp," said Ellwood Brown.
"I was searchin' for different sounds," maintained Link. "After ‘Rumble' I found out that I had caught onto something, and so I started finding other guitars, trying to look for sounds. I didn't want everything that I put out sound like ‘Rumble.' After I had my lung taken out, the Les Paul was too heavy for my shoulder, and that's another reason I was searchin' for other guitars. I had a Supro guitar give me a certain sound, I had this here Danelectro... I'd just get different guitars for different sounds."
According to Link, Grant didn't care for "Raw-Hide" and wanted an inconsequential number "Dance Contest" as the B-side. Link hit the roof, and not only did he get the former onto the slab of wax, he had the satisfaction of watching "Raw-Hide" climb to #23 on the charts after Dick Clark picked it for American Bandstand exposure over the "Dixie Doodle" A-side, which, much to Link's displeasure, Grant had hoked-up with rebel yell overdubs.
Link recorded a variety of material for Epic from 1958-1961, much of it primo: "Slinky," "Walkin' with Link," "Right Turn," and a gentle instrumental tribute to his mother, the dreamy "Lillian," which showed his mastery of a very particular sort of bittersweet melancholy (Ray's wife Evelyn would tell her daughter Sherry, "Link could play ‘Maleguena' on the acoustic guitar and absolutely make you cry"). Even Wray's ballads retain a rusty edge; soft and gentle as a cat's paw, one senses the claws could come out any second. Wray also proved how sub-Elvis stinkeroo he could be with the lead-footed "Oh Babe, Be Mine." With Link, there's really no in-between, just stunningly great or howlingly bad.
Standing alone is the tough, tribal "Comanche." The combo of Link's transistorized, brittle, percussive guitar tone with Doug's tom-toms made for a fierce sound that would provoke a war dance out of any modern-day Native American warrior. Hard to believe, but Link was deeply dissatisfied with the recording. "I wanted to cut ‘Comanche' live. I wanted Epic Records to take their fuckin' recording equipment to the theater, set it up, and record Link Wray live. I was playin' it at the shows and the kids went nuts--these theaters were packed with two, three balconies of kids who would holler ‘Comanche' when I'd put my guitar up. Milt took some kids into a studio and they hollered ‘Comanche.' They totally fucked it all up. That'd been a number one song if they'd done it the way I wanted."
Best of all, perhaps, was the monumental "Ain't That Lovin' You, Baby" which shows just how inventive a singer a man with one lung can be. It is not easy to out-derange the song's originator, Jimmy Reed, but Wray huffs and puffs and growls his way through a performance that is exhilarating in its depravity. He belts it out the way he plays guitar--just plain nasty. Listen to the way he mangles the line "You can bury my body way down deep but my spirit will rise to you" not to mention the smutty, lowest-of-registers "yeah" that follows it. Only Link could do this to a song, and it's a beautiful thing.
But the record company had other ideas for Link Wray, many of them ridiculous, such as "Trail of the Lonesome Pine," a wet rag of an instrumental that left Link seething. "It was pure shit. I just wound up my guitar, put it in the fuckin' case, packed my bag, and Ray said, ‘Where are you goin'?' I said, ‘I'm goin' home, I ain't doin' this no more.' And Epic Records really got pissed off at me. Ray and Milt both were pissed at me. I threw my guitar at Milt one time. He got scared and ran out of the studio. He pissed me off. He told Ray later, ‘I can understand Link bein' mad at me, but how could he treat his guitar that way?' I never got along with any of those people. They were the outside world, they didn't have anything at all to do with the music. I couldn't relate to ‘em."
Even worse yet was an as-yet-unreleased version of "Clair De Lune" with Wray trudging through the swamp of Mitch Miller's orchestra. "100 violins," said a glum Link. "I was outta place. I don't read music. This big producer would point to me to play... then he'd point to me to shut up." Inevitably, Link and Epic soon parted ways. "He bucked the system every step of the way," said Sherry Wray. "He was just gonna do it his way." Sherry feels this was one of the main reasons Ray Vernon went independent, setting up his own studio in DC, where he produced countless sessions on a variety of local acts, opening a new chapter in the saga of the brothers Wray.
Link Wray was recruited for numerous sessions for brother Ray, quickly becoming adept at adding the hot sauce to any sort of recipe. Listen to the brief wowser of a solo he lets fly on Marvin Rainwater's demented, frog-voiced "Boo Hoo" from 1961, not to mention the killer backup he and the Ray Men provided for Bunker Hill, AKA David Walker, an ex-boxer and sometime gospel singer with the Mighty Clouds of Joy. As Link recalled, "He came to me and he said, ‘I got this song. I want you to do it.' I said, ‘Well, sing it for me.' So he started singin', I said, ‘Man, ain't no way I could sing that song like you do. I'll get my brother Doug and Shorty on the equipment and you do it.' He said, ‘Yeah but I'm playin with this church group, they would never let me do that.' I said, ‘Why don't you do it under an alias? Ray, give him a name.'" The moniker Bunker Hill was settled upon (‘Four H Stamp' was the first choice) and Ray Wray produced a few singles on Hill, including 1963's frantic "The Girl Can't Dance," with Link and the boys sounding like they're aiming to charge into the Guinness book for the fastest R & B number of all time. Covering the popular black hits of the day was another component of Wray's live sets. "That's one aspect of our performances that never was reflected on Link's records," said Ed Cynar. "Try to imagine '60's soul played in the Link Wray style. It's hard to describe."
Ray, of course, continued to produce his brother as well. Over the next decade he'd end with so much Link Wray in the can he'd start releasing it under pseudonyms to prevent Link from competing with himself. The post-Epic era began with a strange number originally entitled "Time Bomb" ("'Cause they were sending bombs through the mail," explained Link). Bassist Ellwood Brown recalled Link fumbling around with the hyperactive "Sabre Dance" (a classical number I mostly associate with my childhood as the background music for crazed acrobats balancing plates on poles on various variety shows) one night at a D.C. joint called The Rocket Room and mutating it into an original that band member Bobby ‘the Kid' Howard would rename "Jack the Ripper" after a dirty dance the black kids were doing. Ray caught the song on tape one night at the Portland Building. "It used to be government offices, now it was just a building with all the furniture gone," recalled Link. "We were upstairs in these giant rooms with high ceilin's, and we used the bathroom as the echo chamber."
Remember the first time you saw a cubist painting? Love it or hate it, but it sure was something new and different. Likewise with "Jack the Ripper," a telegram from another planet. A frozen, desolate one. Link's cave-echo guitar, with its big, ringing power chords setting up stinging single string solos. Doug's tom-tom beat, which sounds a continent away, not to mention the drifting, awash-in-reverb tambourine and Shorty's throbbing, hypnotic, two-note bass. A very simple, slightly futuristic tune with lots of wide open spaces. The boffo ending where everybody stops, Doug speeds up a roll, the end. It just conjures up evildoing, this "Jack the Ripper."
No wonder Link's music has ended up as soundtrack fodder for major motion pictures--so many of his records are movies unto themselves. Close your eyes and you can see Robert Ryan moving through the shadows clutching a .45, some jittery blonde at his side. Wray was able to create a mood using the most minimal elements. No doubt part of it had to do with the musical glue that comes from playing with the same people over a long period of time, as Link had done with Doug and Shorty (as well as Ray, who was becoming more and more prominent at the board). "There was somethin' about the sound of those three guys that nobody could ever get again," said bassist Richie Mitchell. "You could play the same notes as Shorty played, but it was just somethin' about the chemistry between those three people. They had an early original rock sound that was all theirs."
Originally released on Rumble Records (a Ray Vernon-Milt Grant enterprise which led to Vermillion Records, which put out a couple Link albums) in July 1961 and sold from the trunk of a car, "Jack the Ripper" hit big locally and hung in there, leading to a 1963 deal for Link at the indie label Swan Records ("Third most important record company in Philadelphia," boasted their A & R man Frank Slay to Rob Finnis). Over the next four years came a bunch of singles, a Swan album and enough unreleased material to fuel a slew of reissues. Uncharacteristic for Link, decades later, he was still singing the praises of Swan's owners, Bernie Binnick and Tony Mammarella: "They really treated me beautiful."
It was a sweet deal. Whatever Link came up with, Swan put on a 45. While American Top 40 radio was being overwhelmed by the British Invasion, Link was off in a timeless dimension of his own. Surely adding something special to the mix was the fact that the Wrays were now recording music right from their home. Ray had bought a small, three acre place in Accoceek, Maryland, and set up a jerry-built studio in the basement (it would later move outside to a former chicken coop after Ray's wife Evelyn complained about the noise). Wray's Shack Three-Track, as it eventually came to be known, was a downhome place where everyone felt welcome. Ray even had a Pepsi machine installed and musicians were treated to all the fatback and beans they could gobble down, unless they chose to splurge for a chicken basket from nearby B & J Carry-Out. "A-lotta musicians went through there," said Ruth Newton. "A-lotta them."
Then you had the magic touch of Ray himself. "He was a fantastic engineer," said Link. "He knew exactly what I wanted." Part of the Shack's mystique lay in the equipment. "Ray was pretty smart," said Richie Mitchell. "He had very good mics, the old Neumann mics. Ray would go to Nashville, pick ‘em up for fifty bucks." They'd record on an Ampex three-track machine ("I don't think Ray ever paid for it," cracked Mitchell) and then blast what they'd just cut out of a couple of huge Altec Lansing Voice of the Theatre speakers. "When he'd play back the stuff, it would just about knock ya over," said Mitchell.
There was another secret ingredient permeating the Swan sides--the local bucket-of-blood biker joints where Link Wray and Ray Men played gig after gig, night after night. Wray refrained from touring outside of the East Coast, where he enjoyed a particularly frenzied following at Ivy League frat houses. Beyond that, he seemed to prefer hanging in the shadows of the worst sort of dives. Moneywise, it added up to small change, but musically it gave Link the freedom to play whatever the fuck he wanted whenever he wanted.
To play notorious DC clubs like the 1023 or Vinnie's, a Rayman had to be prepared. "If anything was gonna go down, we were cocked and locked," said Ellwood Brown. "Armed to the teeth." If things didn't seem quite right out in the street after the gig and you had the ears of a bat, you just might hear the collective click of the band's switchblades. One night, bassist Ed Cynar even had to pack real heat: a loaded Rutger .22 he kept onstage and within reach atop his bass speaker cabinet. Link had been dating a blonde bombshell named Kay, and one of her hoodlum ex-boyfriends didn't take the news well. "Several threats were made against Link," said Cynar, adding that Wray "was sneering from the bandstand that night with a ‘bring-it-on' look... It was a tense night."
Located at 1023 Wahler Place in Southeast DC, the 1023 was "a squat, deep cinderblock cave built into the side of a hill," as the Washington City Paper put it. Link and the Ray Men played there Tuesday through Saturday, five sets a night with Link occasionally showing for a Sunday afternoon jam session as well. Surrounded by housing projects, the 1023 was a stomping ground for gangs like the Pagans, the Kamikazes and Satan's Few, and a haven for "throwbacks to another long-gone era where hillbillies and greasers ruled the neighborhood streets," as historian Mark Opsasnick puts it. "People got knifed in the club, people got knifed outside the club," recalled Ellwood Brown. The Ray Men's tenure finally ended at the 1023 when a brick came flying through the window and nearly connected with Link's cranium. Race riots all but demolished the club in the late summer of 1966.
With a bandstand about the size of a postage stamp, Vinnie's, at 10th and H streets NW, was a much smaller, even more intense place, frequented by the sort of customer who got their unsmiling photo taken not only head-on but in profile. The 1023 had its bikers, but also welcomed young semi-innocents who just wanted to cut the rug. Vinnie's catered to thugs. "One could be pretty sure he or she would leave the 1023 alive or at least not too bloody," said Ed Cynar. "That was not the case at Vinnie's." Link wisely planted himself onstage near an exit, and if things got too rough the band would rip their guitar cords right out of their amps and hightail it over to DeVito's, an Italian joint across the street. The bouncer at Vinnie's was a bruiser bnamed Dutch, and Ray Man bassist Richie Mitchell recalled a particular rumble between Dutch and some reprobate. "This guy takes a razor, cuts his face, and just lays his cheek open to where you could literally see his tongue."
"I drew all these here bikers, different gangs from different parts of the city," said Link. "While I played ‘Jack the Ripper' they'd be down in the audience cuttin' each other. A lot of those guys coulda said, ‘Oh fuck, let's cut Link Wray.' I guess God just had an invisible net between them and me. They loved my music. One night a stranger came in sayin', ‘Link Wray is tryin' to imitate Elvis.' When I went outside he was layin' there. They beat the shit outta him ‘cause he ridiculed me. So he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, y'know?"
The most apochryphal tale concerning Vinnie's--which has certainly grown taller over the years--concerns a certain mentally unbalanced regular who tossed an old cash register through the window when Link and the boys broke into his maniacal "Run Chicken Run." Others say it was "Eighteen Yellow Roses." Ed Cynar remembered Link's "Cross Ties" revving the audience engine. "It is a very eerie tune," said Cynar. "The crowd in Vinnie's would pick this opportunity to break bad if things had heated up enough to warrant mayhem. The knives and clubs would come out and they would go at each other."
Amusingly, not all of the dirty deeds done at the bar were of a life-threatening nature. Future Ray Man Richie Mitchell maintained that as a fresh-faced sixteen year old, he was "introduced to a lotta things at Vinnie's," among them a club go-go dancer who asked if he'd like to be her "old man for the night." Next thing Richie knew, he was down the street at the Crown Hotel getting laid on the dancer's dime. "She paid my bus fare home and got me somethin' to eat at the Greyhound bus station."
By the early to mid sixties, Shorty Horton was getting a little long in the tooth for his Ray Man gig. Ellwood Brown recalled that the paunchy Horton started to look as out of place as a grocery-store butcher surrounded by his all-in-black bandmates. He duly retired to the station of band driver. His replacements included Ed Cynar, Richie Mitchell or Ellwood Brown on bass, augmented by Bobby ‘The Kid' Howard on organ and Chuck Bennett as soul shouter.
This was a potent bunch of players. Ed Cynar describes the "almost scary sound and sight of the live performances" of the Ray Men in the mid sixties. Unbelievably he maintains the tough-as-rocks sound of Link's Swan recordings didn't do them justice. "What one hears on Link's older recordings is NOT the way we sounded then. Try to imagine the spectacle of Link on stage, dressed darkly, blasting with more volume than is healthy for human beings, with Chuck Bennett and his past-shoulder-length hair hanging down, me with long hair and skin-tight pants playing bass through a 40-inch speaker cabinet, and Doug pounding his drums, all of us sneering and looking like we really enjoyed mayhem. People would walk away afterwards in a daze with silly grins on their faces. You could never get that presence on a 45-rpm record."
And despite the collective rapsheet of the audience, they brought out the best of Link in a way the square world perhaps couldn't. "Very few people ever heard Link alone in a room," said Ed Cynar. One night at the 1023, Wray "motioned for the rest of us to put down our instruments and leave him on stage alone. For the full twenty minutes, he played everything from classical to standards. The absence of a band behind him was unnoticeable. After he finished, Link received a standing ovation from the crowd - and his band. The clientele at that venue may not have been among the most literate of people, but even the rough-hewn folks from Southeast Washington, DC knew when they were in the presence of greatness."
So all the magic ingredients were in place: a record company that let Link do just about whatever the hell he wanted, a couple of crazy local biker joints that functioned as perfect places for Wray's music to ferment, and a funky basement studio where he, his family and friends could make music any time of the night or day. Often, the band would tear straight home to Ray's studio from a gig at the 1023 or Vinnie's.
"After we finished playing for the night at 2:00 a.m., we would drive back to Accokeek and begin as soon as we got there," said Ed Cynar. "Recording with Link was an intense and serious endeavor. He knew what he wanted... he was always open to anyone's ideas. We never stopped until he was satisfied. Often we would be up all night recording, grab a few hours of sleep, return to play live the next night... if necessary, we would head back again for another all night session in the studio."
This resulted in an artistic high point like no other in Link Wray's career. Aided by his brothers, friends and paramours, Link was a Dr. Frankenstein in an analog-tube basement lair, concocting one nasty instrumental after another.
See Part 4 of 6 of our Link Wray tribute
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