Not many guitar obsessives can rightly wear the label of legend; Link Wray, though, does. In 1958, the half Shawnee native of Dunn, North Carolina, grew frustrated with a song he was recording. He was after a brooding instrumental, something moody and caustic that would capture the dirt and grit of a street fight, but the technology of the time wouldn't let him achieve the thick, crunchy sounds he heard in his head. So in frustration he took a pencil and poked holes in the cones of his speaker, changing their ability to make clear sound. When he stroked the strings of his electric guitar again, the noise he made was one that would reverberate down through rock and roll history.
More than a few guitarists have claimed they were the first to use distortion on their records, the first to create the music that would lay the foundation for not only heavy metal but the likes of Jimi Hendrix; Link Wray, though, is the demented and stubborn genius who actually did it. The song that changed all that followed was called "Rumble"; the track, beautiful for its simplicity and its menacing tone, sold millions of copies and influenced almost as many guitar players.
"I had to search for sounds, play through off-brand guitars and slash up my speakers," the stone-faced star says today from his home in Copenhagen. "I had to make my own distortion. Back in the '50s, there was Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee, but 'Rumble' don't sound like '50s rock and roll. It sounds like outer space."
Wray, born Frederick Lincoln Wray to parents who were preachers, learned to play guitar from a black musician. He joined the Army in the late '40s and served in Korea and Germany, ultimately contracting tuberculosis. He finally lost a lung to the disease, and while in the hospital did little but play his guitar.
"That's when God gave me 'Rumble,' " Wray says. The song peaked at number 16 on the Billboard charts, and was quickly followed in 1959 by "Rawhide." Link and his band, the Raymen, milked the "Rumble" formula into the early '60s, but other instrumental artists -- Duane Eddy, the Ventures -- were hot on his heels, and more successful commercially.
Wray's sales began to slump, and when his label, Epic, booked him to record "Clare de Lune" with a 40-piece orchestra, he walked out on his contract. For a while, he recorded under pseudonyms -- the Dial Tones, the Fender Benders, the Moon Men and the Spiders are all actually Link Wray -- and then in 1965 decided to pack it in and become a farmer in Maryland. His brother Doug became a barber, and the two
continued to record on Wray's three-track recorder.
It was these tapes that, in 1970, got Wray a deal with Polydor and led to two records -- Link Wray, a glorious country, gospel and blues record in the vein of the Band, and Beans and Fatback, which included tracks from the same sessions. Despite his lung problems, Wray sang his own songs on these albums, using a hoarse, creaking voice that colored the records with the same glorious imperfection and warmth that his broken speakers had done with "Rumble" over a decade earlier. Welcomed by a younger generation of guitar players he had influenced, Wray went on to record Be Who You Want to Be and Link Wray's Rumble in 1974 with Boz Scaggs, Jerry Garcia, the Tower of Power Horns and Commander Cody.
However, the esteem in which Wray is held by musicians didn't carry over to the record-buying public; he faded from the spotlight again until 1977, when he recorded two albums with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, former singer for the Tuff Darts. For a while, Wray toured with Gordon, gaining new fans among members of the late '70s punk scene. Then, when that burst of activity wound down, he moved with his wife and son to Denmark, where he continued to record and tour sporadically.
And now, at age 68, Wray's making another comeback thanks to oldies-obsessed filmmakers. His music was on the soundtracks of Johnny Suede, Independence Day and, perhaps most important, Pulp Fiction, movies that introduced a new generation to Wray's wild riffs and dirty sound. To some degree, Wray's history proves that if you only hang around long enough, what you're doing will eventually come back into style. And in Wray's case, he gets extra points for musical stubbornness. Shadowman, Wray's latest, marries his dirty guitar sound and '50s guitar opuses with a modern sensibility and a torn-sounding voice. It's something old, something new -- and it's still something different.
Wray has embarked on his first full tour of the States in years to back up Shadowman, and though his catalog is filled with hundreds of reissues, don't expect him to recreate his 1958 sound. "It's like a good climax, the show," he says, still speaking in a drawl that sounds of his native North Carolina. "It's good rock and roll. I live and breathe rock and roll."
"I don't play to old people," he adds, "and there's no difference between me and Pearl Jam, and no fucking difference between me and Nirvana. I don't crawl on-stage, you know, I'm running. The music I play is 20 or 30 years old, but you're gonna hear it fresh for the first time -- it's the spirit that is fresh, and the sound is raw as ever. When some of these older guys play, they play as old as they are.
"Link Wray don't play that way."
Link Wray performs at 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 20, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $12. Dieselhed opens. For info, call 869-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.