Guitar blaster Link Wray always came to the stage ready to rumble, with his amps opened wide, his right hand heavy as a jack hammer and, in the days before gain, his speakers sliced with a knife to create nasty sawtooth waves.
After all, nasty sawtooth waves weren’t a staple of rock until Wray came along with his 1958 instrumental wonder “Rumble” – a song so profound it propelled his career for the duration of his life. And while there were lean years, once he was embraced by the punk rock movement of the 1970s as one of its granddaddies, his status and gigging schedule were assured. He also became part of the rockabilly revival of the ’80s, sharing bills with post-modern greaser god Robert Gordon and headlining festivals in Europe.
Wray – who favored Gibson Les Paul Gold Tops early on and moved on to lighter Gibson SGs often decked out with whammy bars – was born on May 2, 1929 as Fred Lincoln Wray in Dunn, North Carolina. He caught guitar fever at age eight when he heard a bluesman called simply “Hambone” playing slide at a carnival.
Nonetheless, he didn’t attempt to play in a serious way until he was in his 20s and had returned home to Virginia – where his father had moved the Wrays a decade earlier to find shipyard work – from the Korean War with enough money in his pocket to buy an axe. Initially the plan was to write songs and accompany himself on guitar, but he’d contracted tuberculosis in the jungles of Asia and eventually it crept up on him and destroyed one of his lungs. Doctors told Wray he’d not be able to sing with just one lung – this was before Willie Nelson put the lie to that – so he decided to concentrate on his picking.
Strictly speaking, Wray was a rockabilly artist, and like so many rockabilly cats, his entry point was country music. His first band was Link Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers. After a few years playing gigs in the Washington, D.C., area, the group got a slot as the band on a TV show called Milt Grant’s House Party. By 1956 they were recording for the Starday label.
Wray, who was self-taught, was never the sharpest technician on the instrument, but had a great sense of melody and understood the power conveyed by hanging chords. From those two strengths he created “Rumble” in 1958. From its surfy vibrato to its descending single note riff, “Rumble” sounds like a Dick Dale tune, but the fact of the
matter is that Wray was likely an influence on surf-rock king Dale. “Rumble” was issued a year before Dale’s first single, and rapidly climbed the charts thanks to its dance-ability.
Nonetheless, Wray’s song was an attempt to emulate another group: the Diamonds, whose hit “The Stroll” kept the dancers at the live House Party broadcasts on the floor. Essentially it’s a dark 11-and-a-half bar blues. When Wray and his band debuted the tune on the show, the audience made them perform it three more times. Archie Beyer, the owner of Cadence Records, decided to sign the group and release the tune, then called “Oddball,” as a single. He hated the name, so turned to another Cadence artist, Phil Everly, for a suggestion, and thus it was renamed “Rumble” for its ominous tones and moody vibe.
That name got the single banned in certain parts of the country at a time when rock was still considered outlaw music – hell, at a time when rock still was outlaw music. But it sold 4 million copies nonetheless. And looking for a more fitting name for his group, Wray rechristened the Lazy Pine Wranglers, who’d already morphed into the Palomino Ranch Hands, as the Ray Men.
Wray had more instrumental hits over the next few years: “Rawhide,” “Ace of Spades,” “Jack the Ripper.” But by 1962 his career on the charts was over. Despite counting Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Marc Bolan, Jeff Beck, Neil Young and Bob Dylan among his avowed fans, Wray seemed destined for obscurity until punk rock came along and players from Chris Spedding to Cheetah Chrome to Thurston Moore heralded him as an influence. With his dark shades, slim frame and black leather couture, Wray fit in perfectly with the movement’s aesthetic and found himself playing places like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City to adoring crowds with safety pinned cheeks and mohawks.
A few years later the rockabilly revival of the 1980s kicked in, sweeping Wray along with it as well. The movement was especially strong in Europe, and Wray moved to Denmark in the 1980s.
All along the way he’d continued to record singles and albums using different configurations of Ray Men. And that back catalog paid off. His music appeared in dozens of big-budget movies including, of course, Pulp Fiction, which features “Rumble” prominently. Other films with Wray’s tunes are Independence Day, Twelve Monkeys, Desperado, This Boy’s Life and Pink Flamingos, as well as It Might Get Loud, where Jimmy Page plays air guitar to the tune.