'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says farewell to the legendary Link Wray who died upon the 5th November 2005 (although the news was not released to the press, for reasons unknown, for around two weeks), aged 76 from natural causes.
Link certainly brought out conflicting opinions within the Rock'n'Roll fraternity regardless of age. For the most part the broadsheets got it all wrong in their otherwise well-intentioned obituaries; I don’t know if he got a mention in the redtops but somehow I very much doubt it. Me, I loved him, the man was addicted to noise; a seventy plus year guitar hoodlum, irascible and possessing Rock'n'Roll attitude in surplus.
The first time I got to see Link Wray was way back in the seventies; the rockabilly revolution had reached its zenith, the gig was at the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road, the darling of the ‘billy crowd, seen as the great hope for the future of rockabilly/Rock'n'Roll, Robert Gordon was in town. The former punk from New York City had cut a couple of albums with the guitar icon who represented the ideals that Gordon wished to translate into another place in time. Whirlwind were the support act, young and good-looking, it was, looking back, easy to believe that we stood upon a volcano which would gush forth a second Rock'n'Roll golden age.
'Tales From The Woods's very own marketing Manager, Ken Major, a talent of magnitude decades before this bible for Woodies was conceived, was in the audience that night. “Too loud, too heavy”, Ken did say. Well he was certainly loud, the loudest stuff I have heard since The Who played the Club Norvik back in ’64. For me, Robert Gordon was never as good again as he was that night, maybe because Wray projected the stage persona lacked by Gordon.
I caught them both in action again maybe a year or so later at the long gone Music Machine at the unfashionable end of Camden Town where Camden meets Somers Town, otherwise known as Mornington Crescent. The man of attitude in abundance was louder still, destroying one speaker completely. Outside after the gig a girl stood upon the steps maternally cradling her boyfriend’s head whilst he poked his fingers into his ears, no doubt in a vain attempt to make them function. “Not so loud tonight, was he?” I said mockingly to the pair as I passed, leaving them to gaze incredulously at each other as I disappeared into the darkness.
Fast forward three decades; 'Tales From The Woods's veteran contributor Shaky Lee Wilkinson and I were at The Garage in the Highbury Corner area of old London town. A 73-year-old Link was in town without his luggage (lost by the airline company), in studded black pants and leather jacket - black naturally - he cussed out the airline in language not suitable for your grandmother. He prowled that stage like a caged wild animal whilst kicking out tortured riffs laced with tons of feedback. I would not see ‘The Rumble’ man again but what an abiding memory.
A vast collection of Woodies would witness a very frail, sick looking Link unable to walk without the aid of crutches at the 2005 Ponderosa Stomp, New Orleans, Louisiana. Still angry, still untameable and still too loud. Going to miss you Link, you were one of my heroes if you ain’t already guessed.
Fred Lincoln Wray was born at Dunn, North Carolina on 2nd May 1929, his parents were semi-literate street preachers, his mother a Shawnee Indian, his father half Shawnee. In interviews Link would say he spent his childhood sleeping in barns and avoiding the attention of the Ku Klux Klansmen, learning to play the guitar from Hambone, a black musician with the Barnham & Bailey circus. Wray’s father suffered form shell-shock as a result of his experiences in the first world war.
Growing up Shawnee poor, there would be no way he could escape conscription had he wanted to - wrong time to be a certain age, he soon found himself fighting in the Korean War and, contracting tuberculosis, he was forced to have a lung removed. Back on Civvy Street, deciding to try his hand in the music business he formed a band with his brothers, Vernon and Doug, calling themselves the Palomino Ranch Hands, making their first recordings for the Starday label in late 1955. Through much of the following year tracks recorded did not wander too far from the country vein.
Come 1958 an instrumental appeared on the Cadence label out of Washington DC credited to Link Wray and his Ray Men which was altogether a different bag of beans; combining an hypnotic Mississippi, hill country style, blues edge with crashing power chords, Wray’s guitar given a distorted fuzz tone which had never been heard before, at least to such extent or intensity, created by all accounts by punching a hole in his amplifier with a pencil - deliberate or otherwise is open to speculation but he certainly picked up immediately on the potential of this distinctively unique sound.
The track, of course, for those handful of readers who will not know, was entitled ‘Rumble’, a creation of sound of atmospheric menace of a street gang out on the prowl and looking for trouble. Too successful in its imagery maybe as it found itself banned from airplay on many radio stations throughout the United States, yet this could not prevent ‘Rumble’ from becoming a Top 20 hit and eventually a million seller, inspiring young lads all over the world to pick up a guitar, preen a mannered attitude and attempt to copy the distorted sound.
The success of ‘Rumble’ led him to signing with Epic Records where a distinctive Wray formula was about to be set with another big selling instrumental, ‘Rawhide’, before they attempted to clean up his act. Radio friendly and far less controversial, Wray took to his heels and signed with Swan, doing good business with ‘Jack The Ripper’ (1962) although the personal favourite of this editor boy would be the raucous, over the top, take on the Willie Dixon penned ‘Hidden Charms’. His final flirtation with the Billboard Hot Hundred came in 1965 with a version of ‘The Batman Theme’.
As the sixties drew to a close, Link was complaining about his copyrights being stolen and rarely given monies due, he quit to a farm in Maryland where he built a studio in his shed and played in local bars. Returning to the spotlight in 1971 with the mostly self-penned album ‘Link Wray’, writing for the most part about his frustrations in a rootsy, countryish and blues style a radical departure from his past. The Neville Brothers have recorded two tracks from it, ‘Fallin’ Rain’ and ‘Fire And Brimstone’. Another homemade album, ‘Beans and Fatback’ (1973), was licensed to Virgin by his management much to Wray's displeasure.
The same year saw him signing to Polydor and within a couple of months put out ‘Be What You Want To’ recorded for the most part in San Francisco with Hippie guru Jerry Garcia, he of Grateful Dead fame, and roots rockin’ Commander Cody lending a hand. ‘The Link Wray Rumble’ (1974) features Boz Scaggs and the Tower of Power horn section and ‘I Got To Ramble’ is dedicated to the memory of Duane Allman.
Despite the falling out a couple of years earlier, Wray made an album with Virgin in 1976, ‘Stuck In Gear’ cut entirely in the UK at a studio, near Dorking, Surrey. Teaming up with the aforementioned rockabilly new generation man Robert Gordon for two albums, the self-explanatory ‘Robert Gordon with Link Wray’ (1977) and ‘Fresh Fish Special’ (1978).
The final album of the seventies saw him back on his own again with the somewhat heavier ‘Bullshot’. Albums continued into the eighties; ‘Live at the Paradiso, Amsterdam’, recorded in 1979 but released in 1982, ‘Apache’ (1989), the title track being a distorted take on the Shadows' hit of the very early sixties, the sleeve design by our very own and sadly very sick Ray Topping and the ‘Wild Side Of The City Lights’ (1990) both put out by Ace Records and recorded at Pathway Studios, London.
The early eighties would find Link marrying a Danish student he had met in the course of her studies into Native American culture and moving to Copenhagen where he would remain for the rest of his life. In later years his powerful early instrumentals have been much in demand for film soundtracks including ‘Johnny Suede’ (1991), ‘This Boy’s Life’ (1993), ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994), ‘Twelve Monkeys’ (1995), ‘Desperado’ (1995), ‘Independence Day’ (1996), ‘Blow’ (2001) and ‘Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind’ (2002) which all helped to keep the endless flow of compilations of early and often rare material.
In 1997 his final album was released on Ace, recorded in Rickmansworth, ‘Shadowlands’ was a well received swansong proving, if we needed to be reminded, that age had not tamed him. In the sleeve notes the author suggests that a great photo opportunity was lost at the aforementioned Music Machine gig when Bob Dylan turned up to pay homage to the man (incidentally Dylan opened his recent shows in London with ‘Rumble’) suggesting also Sid Vicious. Well actually, no! You are getting Sid mixed up with Johnny Thunders, formerly of the New York Dolls who jammed with Link for a couple of numbers. Photo opportunity lost? No, not at all, I got at least three of the Linkster and the Yorkie Doll. Thanks for all the great memories.
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