Do you know who this guy is? Last week, he was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and this is the photo the Hall website shows above his biography. During his long career, this man changed his appearance many times, but I can’t figure out why the Hall used this shot. He looks like some folk singer who lived up on a mountain in Colorado, which he definitely was not.
Let’s try another photo.
Now, you are even more confused. This is a photo snapped toward the end of his life in 2005 at age 76. Even for an old dude, the guy looks like a bad-ass rocker. He’s got the black leather jacket and the shades, and you can see he is really into slamming that chord on his guitar.
Guessing this man’s identity would be easier if we showed photos of him during the time when he had his only two Top 40 hits in the late-fifties. Not yet, but here’s another hint: those two hits were both instrumentals.
Let’s see some other times and other looks in his life.
Hey, isn’t that one of the Rolling Stones? Or Deep Purple? Or Black Sabbath? Sure looks like a heavy metal guitar slinger. The RockHall biography called his first and biggest hit, “a dangerous slab of reverberating power chords and raw distortion.” (Wow, I wish I had written that.)
Here’s the cover of one of his albums (with his name whited out). Another hint, he is three-quarters Shawnee Indian.
Aw, man, now he is doing the Elvis thing. Looks a little like the ’68 Comeback Special, doesn’t it?
Here he is in 1998 at age 69, now with the pony-tail look. He had the tail in that old dude bad-ass rocker picture at the beginning, but you couldn’t see it because of the angle.
You can see the tail in this shot – with a pink band around it.
Are you thinking we’ve had enough pictures and hints? Just tell us who this guy is!
Link Wray! Certainly, some of you readers know who Link Wray is. Perhaps you are old like me and lived during the time his two hits got lots of airplay. There was “Rumble,” a number 16 hit in 1958, and “Raw-Hide,” a number 23 hit in 1959. Think about it, with only two hits, Link Wray has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And he never had a Top 40 album. There has to be more to the story.
And there is.
Fred Lincoln Wray started out in a country group – Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Gang. That’s Link in the cowboy hat backing his brother Vernon who sang as Lucky Wray.
Another photo of Link Wray during his country music days
In 1957, the group got a gig as the house band on Milt Grant’s House Party, a local teen dance show in Washington, DC.
Link improvised an instrumental to cover the intro and outgo of the show’s commercial breaks. It became known as “Rumble.” The band played other local gigs and “Rumble” turned out to be a fan favorite. Milt Grant, who was acting as their de facto manager, shopped the song around to various record labels, and finally got Cadence Records (the Everly Brothers label) to bite.
However, because it was an instrumental featuring Link, not Lucky, Cadence released it in 1958 by Link Wray and His Ray Men. (We can assume the record company executives thought the name Palomino Ranch Gang would be a deterrent to sales of a rock record.)
That’s Link on the left. The clean-cut all-American boy look didn’t last long.
The brooding, ominous blitzkrieg of “Rumble” caused it to be banned from the radio in several markets (including New York City). Cadence Records tried to get Link to clean up his act, but he wanted no part of that, so he signed with Epic Records and released “Raw-Hide.”
Link Wray continued to record, but subsequent releases failed to chart. For a while, he recorded for his own label, Rumble Records, then had a longer tenure with Swan Records. Many songs were instrumentals, but Link now incorporated singing into his act. During the late 60s and 70s, Link and the boys honed their particular brand of rockin’ mayhem working some of the grimiest joints on the face of the planet.
Link’s Rockabilly Phase:
During the late 70s, Link had a stint backing ’70s rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon.
According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio, Link’s “collaboration with Robert Gordon left every retro-rockabilly guitar slinger in the dust.”
Link Moves to Denmark:
In 1980, at age 51, Link Wray moved to Denmark after marrying his wife Olive, a Danish student who had been studying Native American culture. He continued to tour in Europe, while travelling to America occasionally to perform for the fans who knew him as an underappreciated rock hero. Here are just a few of the hundreds of small venues where he worked:
Link Wray and Elvis:
I couldn’t find much to connect these rock legends. The website Something Old, Something New said, “Link worshipped Presley, who invited him to dinner at Graceland. Wray’s ultimate compliment consisted of naming one of his sons Link Elvis Wray.” Link also recorded three Elvis songs: “Hound Dog”, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Love Me Tender.”
Link’s sunglasses sure look like those Elvis wore.
Check out the pink sports coat. Elvis loved pink clothes, but never had a pink coat as far as I know. Maybe Link was trying to do him one better.
Look who is on Link’s T-shirt during a performance in a 1998 Memphis concert.
Remember that Ponderosa Stomp poster above. Here are Link and Scotty Moore signing autographs at this event in April 2005. Link died in November that year.
The Link Wray Legacy:
You may be thinking that everything presented in this article doesn’t sound like enough to qualify Link Wray for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Well, here are several quotes from the Hall’s bio on Link:
”… the rebellious sonic onslaught of “Rumble” cut through Top 40 radio like a steamroller. This was more than a decade before power chords even had a name…The impact of Link Wray, one of Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Guitarists of All Time,” can be heard in generations of American and British metal, punk, grunge, thrash and psychobilly rockers, all of whom have claimed him and “Rumble” (and follow-ups “Raw-Hide” and “Jack The Ripper”) as their own.”
However, they also note that major mainstream rockers have a deep appreciation for Link:
“Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen head the A-list of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees who bow to Link Wray’s abiding influence.”
“Pete Townshend simply calls him the King: “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I would never have picked up a guitar.” Even Iggy Pop is an acolyte: “I left school emotionally after hearing ‘Rumble.”
The Hall could have added a few other prime testimonials. Neil Young once said: “If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Raymen.” The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll adds Bob Dylan to those who have given acclaim to Link Wray. A bootleg CD cover has this quote from John Lennon: “Gene Vincent and Link Wray and are the two great unknowns of rock ‘n roll.”
You can also count Quentin Tarentino as a Link Wray fan. He used two of Link’s songs in the movie, Pulp Fiction.
This article turned out to be three times longer than I originally intended. But what the heck, I’ve been a Link Wray fan since I was 16. I bought the “Rumble” and “Raw-Hide” 45s and played them a million times. Thirty years later, when I got into the record collecting hobby, I bought seven Link Wray albums. Four were original releases and prized collectibles. The other three were newer compilations of rare instrumental tracks that cost so much they might as well have been collectibles (maybe they are now).
In 2002, Link performed at a small, but unique, music venue in our city, and I was privileged to see him perform. He came out on the stage in the black leather jacket and the shades, but he seemed old and a little frail. His wife helped him put on the guitar and get his ponytail out of the way of the strap. Then he turned on the guitar and blew everybody’s mind. Boy, I was so glad I brought earplugs that night.
So, now we must wait to see if the RockHall selection committee picks Link Wray for the Class of 2014. If they don’t, they just might get serious complaints from that heavy-weight group of Hall members mentioned above. Link Wray fans are a dedicated bunch.
ElvisBlog has covered other musicians with connections to Elvis as they were selected (or should have been) for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Click below to read about them.
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