Link Wray: 1929 to 2005
Two heavily-strummed D chords and an E opened Link Wray’s 1958 hit instrumental “Rumble”, which had a total of four chords but inspired guitarists of that era and all that followed. When he died at his home in Denmark November 5 of apparent heart failure at 76, the media correctly characterized him as the father of the power chord and a fountainhead of surf, rockabilly, punk and heavy metal guitar. Junior Barnard (Bob Wills) and Willie Johnson (Howlin’ Wolf) dabbled in power chording somewhat earlier, but Wray alone put it on the map.
At the start he was Frederick Lincoln Wray, three-quarters Shawnee Indian, born in North Carolina. His family relocated to the Portsmouth, Virginia, area, where in the late 1940s the Wray brothers — Link, Vern (“Lucky”) and Doug — and their cousin Shorty Horton formed a local honky-tonk band that recorded two singles for Starday. They moved to the Washington, D.C., suburbs in 1955 and, as rock began to dominate, morphed into the Ray-Men. They became the house band for Milt Grant, who hosted a TV dance show and record hops. After a fight at a dance in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in July 1956, Grant told them to play a “stroll.” Uncertain what Grant wanted, Link faked what became “Rumble.” The crowd insisted they repeat it.
Puncturing his amp speaker with a pencil to distort the sound, Wray recorded a demo of the tune he called “Oddball”. Grant gave a copy to Archie Bleyer, owner of Cadence Records, then making history with the Everly Brothers. Bleyer loathed “Oddball”, but his teenage daughter’s enthusiasm led him to reconsider.
“Rumble” (renamed by Bleyer to recall the West Side Story gang fight) reached #16 on the pop charts in 1958. It might have been bigger, but paranoid authorities in cities already antsy about gang fights summarily banned it (though in Liverpool, John Lennon embraced it).
Spooked by the controversy, Bleyer assailed Wray’s bad influence (though not Cadence’s “Rumble” profits) and dumped him. “Raw-Hide”, Wray’s second edgy hit, appeared on Epic in 1959. His visibility faded until 1970, when his self-titled Polydor “comeback” album appeared. Recorded at the family home near Accokeek, Maryland, in a ramshackle house turned three-track studio, it reflected the raw, organic spirit of The Band. Later albums and collaborations with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon introduced him to a new, younger audience.
After Wray married a Danish woman (who became his manager), he moved to Denmark in the early 1980s and started a family. His onstage energy, even in his 70s, amazed audiences, but his U.S. tour in the spring and summer of 2005 was his last. His wife and son buried him in a Copenhagen churchyard, but the full benediction came November 23 when Bob Dylan opened his London concert with “Rumble”.