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Decades Before Kurt Cobain And Stone Gossard Got Depressed In Seattle, Link Wray Was Tearing It Up In The Carolinas.

By Brendan Doherty

JUNE 1, 1999:  NOT MANY GUITAR obsessives can rightly wear the label of legend; but Link Wray is one of them. In 1958, the half-Shawnee native of Dunn, North Carolina, had become frustrated with a song he was recording. He was after a brooding instrumental--something moody and caustic that'd capture the dirt and grit of a street fight--but the technology of the time wouldn't help 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 next he stroked the strings of his electric guitar, 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. It's Wray, though, who's the demented and stubborn genius who actually did it. The song that changed all that followed was called "Rumble": beautiful for its simplicity and its menacing tone, it 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 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 No. 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 he 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.

These "basement" tapes got Wray a deal with Polydor in 1970, 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" more than a decade previous. Welcomed by a younger generation of guitar players he'd 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 has continued to record and tour sporadically.

Now closing in on his 70th year, Wray's making yet another comeback thanks to oldies-obsessed filmmakers. His music appeared on the recent soundtracks of Johnny Suede, Independence Day and, perhaps most importantly, Pulp Fiction--movies that inducted still newer, younger fans to Wray's wild riffs and dirty sound. To some degree, his history proves that if you only hang around long enough, what you're doing will come back into style. And in Wray's case, he gets extra points for musical stubbornness. Shadowman, his latest, marries his dirty guitar sound and '50s opuses with a modern sensibility and torn-sounding vocals. 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, 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 remembers his Southern homeland. "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 onstage, 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's 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."


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