by Robert Wilkinson
Link Wray was one of the pioneer guitarists of rock and roll. Black leather jacket, sunglasses and a slicked back ducktail, he set the standard for early raunchy guitar slinging. Without Link Wray, rock and roll might never have survived the transition from the late 50s into the 60s, and certainly wouldn’t sound much like it has these past 50 years!
Today the spotlight's on one of the most influential guitarists in the history of rock and roll! Though most have never heard of the raw, menacing work of Link Wray (May 2, 1929 – November 5, 2005), he gave rock and roll one of its most distinctive guitar trademarks. From AllMusic:
“… his contribution to the language of rockin' guitar would still be a major one, even if he had never walked into another studio after cutting "Rumble." Link Wray invented the power chord, the major modus operandi of modern rock guitarists. Listen to any of the tracks he recorded between that landmark instrumental in 1958 through his Swan recordings in the early '60s and you'll hear the blueprints for heavy metal, thrash, you name it.”
”Pete Townshend summed it up for more guitarists than he probably realized when he said, "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and "'Rumble,'" I would have never picked up a guitar...."
Armed with a 1953 Gibson Les Paul, a dinky Premier amp, an Elvis sneer, and a black leather jacket, Link started playing the local record hops around the D.C. area…. One night during a typical set, says Link, "They wanted me to play a stroll. I didn't know any, so I made one up. I made up "'Rumble.'"
”Rumble” was a “primitive instrumental” that went to number 16 on the national charts, even though it was banned in a number of cities, including New York, as it was considered to “promote gang warfare.” As it was put by the biographer in AllMusic, “if Duane Eddy twanged away for white, teenage America, Link Wray played for juvenile delinquent hoods, plain and simple.”
Here’s more from the Rolling Stone Rock Almanac:
”With its slow tempo, thick riffs and distorted guitar, the recording will much later be called ‘the first heavy metal song,’ and Wray will be credited with inventing guitar fuzztone. The story goes that Wray, piqued by his malfunctioning amplifier, punched a hole in the speaker and discovered that he liked the dirty, distorted sound it produced.”
His influence is incalculable, since it is impossible to imagine rock and roll without the power chord! So it's heavy metal instrumental time!! Without further ado, here’s the 1958 breakthrough that scared white America to its toes, the singular “Rumble”
An interview with Link explaining the story behind “Rumble.”
Here’s an early performance by Link and the Raymen (without shades and his trademark leather jacket!) on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand live doing an early hit, “Rawhide.”
From the late 70s, here's Link with Robert Gordon in a live performance of "My Baby Left Me." From the same show, here's "20 Flight Rock." We close this trio of rockabilly standards with the classic "Lonesome Train."
From their days in the studio, here's an audio-only version of the Warren Williams rockabilly classic "Red Cadillac and A Black Moustache" set to still photos.
Now the original studio versions of some of his best!
Link doing one of my favorite Beatle tunes, the great “Please Please Me”
Here’s a great 18 minute live video clip from 1975 of Link Wray and the great John Cipollina doing “Mystery Train” and “Do What You Want To”
We’ll close with a one hour 12 minute documentary called “Link Wray – The Rumble Man”
In a fitting encore to this birthday tribute, we have a trifecta from Copenhagen Television in 1987! Here’s Link cranking out “Rumble,” “Born To Be Wild,” “Rawhide,” and “Jesus of Nazareth” (The closing rap is very strange....)
Sorry you're gone, but glad you're getting the recognition you deserve. Also very glad you rumbled through 50s America and shook everything up! "If there's a rock and roll heaven, you know they have a helluva band..." Power chords forever!
© Copyright 2014 Robert Wilkinson
ps - In a curious turn, I just found out that Lesley Gore was born May 2, 1946. Next year I'll do a tribute to this early 60s pop talent (produced by none other than the great Quincy Jones!) who gave us "It's My Party," "Judy's Turn To Cry," "Look of Love," "Maybe I Know," "You Don't Own Me," and "Sunshine, Rainbows, and Lollipops." Link Wray and Lesley Gore. Wow.