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Link Wray

+ {Link Wray & The Wraymen} + {Mordicai Jones}

The missing “link” one could say between DUANE EDDY and DICK DALE, rockabilly guitarist LINK WRAY (& His Wraymen) was known primarily for a pair of late-50s Top 30 instrumental hits, `Rumble’ and `Raw-Hide’; the former his distortion dirge that helped inspire a fresh generation of rockers from PETE TOWNSHEND and ERIC CLAPTON to JIMMY PAGE and JEFF BECK.
Born Fred Lincoln Wray Jr., May 2, 1929, Dunn, North Carolina, the part Shawnee Indian’s first music venture was in a country band, Lucky Wray & The Lazy Pine Wranglers, who also featured his brothers Doug (drums) and Vernon (vocals). The trio – who subsequently renamed themselves Lucky Wray & The Palomino Ranch Hands – recruited bassist Shorty Horton and cut a debut EP (shared with Bob Dean and Cindy) for the Kay label in Washington D.C., where they were now based.
After losing a lung from a bout tuberculosis in the Korean War, Link increasingly concentrated on his guitar technique; and this was the case when he and Doug backed Lucky Wray (aka Vernon) on 1957’s `Teenage Cutie’ rockabilly conversion. By the release of LINK WRAY & HIS RAY MEN’s `Rumble’ smash hit the following spring (a one-off for Cadence Records), the guitarist had developed a primitive yet pioneering style of 6-string distortion which would see the aforementioned track have a seismic influence on the development of guitar-rock and, in turn, heavy metal.
Switching to Epic Records for their rebound, `Raw-Hide’; another classic Top 30 instrumental, the combo were again slated for apparently appealing to juvenile delinquents, though neither `Comanche’ (b/w `Lillian’), `Slinky’ (b/w `Rendezvous’) and parent LP, LINK WRAY & THE WRAYMEN (1960) {*7}, could register a chart place. Lucky continued as a solo act and their manager, under the name Ray Vernon.
After the major label failed to tone down WRAY for popular consumption a la `Trail Of The Lonesome Pine’ (yeah that one!), plus a bluesy-sung cover of JIMMY REED’s `Ain’t That Lovin’ You Babe’ and a solo-credited instrumental, `El Toro’ (possibly the “link” to MORRICONE’s Spaghetti Western themes), the great guitarist and Vernon set up their own Rumble Records to release the original 1961 version of `Jack The Ripper’.
1962 saw the release of two further commercial flops with the Trans Atlas-endorsed `Big City Stomp’ (b/w `Poppin’ Popeye’) and Mala Records’ one-that-got-away `Big City After Dark’ – by Ray Vernon & The Ray Men – though compensation arrived when the Philadelphia-based Swan imprint turned `Jack The Ripper’ into a minor surf hit in summer 1963. Although the spin-off JACK THE RIPPER {*7} LP and subsequent 45s would fail to impress the majority of the American record buying public, LINK WRAY continued in his quest to keep the ethos of rock’n’roll alive and kicking. From to the vocal-pop of The Spiders’ `Baby Doll’ (b/w `Run Boy Run’) to F.L. Wray And The Moon Men on the garage/surf-rock of `Other Side Of The Moon’ (b/w `Some Kinda Nut’) and `XKE’ (b/w `Drag Strip’) – the latter in the guise of The Fender Benders (alongside Jack Van Horn, Chuck Bennett and Ed Cynar) – 1964 was a vintage year for the guitarist if one takes into account the low-key Vermillion-endorsed round-up, SINGS AND PLAYS GUITAR {*4}.
Despite a few further attempts to revive his flagging career (e.g. `Rumble ‘68’ and `Rumble-69’ – you get the drift), Link was probably too busy paying alimony for his eight children from three broken marriages.
1971’s eponymous LINK WRAY {*8} comeback set; which included a version of WILLIE DIXON’s `Trail Dragger’, was recorded in his home studio, a converted chicken coop. A more mellow effort that attempted to resurrect his various American indigenous and roots traditions in the mould of The BAND or VAN MORRISON (in a Mississippi Delta mood), or a one-man-band ROLLING STONES, somehow this LP got swept under the proverbial rug by Polydor Records. A shame in the fact that `Fire And Brimstone’, `La De Da’ and `Fallin’ Rain’ are now regarded as semi-classics.
Another LP that seemed to go under the radar, MORDICAI JONES (1972) {*6} featured guitarist/co-composer Link, and his brother Doug (plus keyboardist Bill Hodges), in a support role to the pseudonymous lead singer/pianist (a la Bobby Howard). Swamp blues in the mould of CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL, it was certainly an esoteric time for the “Rumble” legend if one added WRAY’s all-out country-rock follow-up solo set, BE WHAT YOU WANT TO (1973) {*6}, which featured JERRY GARCIA, DAVID BROMBERG, COMMANDER CODY et al. Thankfully, there was a bit of everything in the country blues man’s final LP for Polydor, THE LINK WRAY RUMBLE (1974) {*6}.
On the back of rather patchy blues album for UK Virgin Records, entitled STUCK IN GEAR (1976) {*6} – that saw Link take up vocals again – the great guitarist was back in the spotlight in ‘77 with rockabilly revivalist ROBERT GORDON (ex-TUFF DARTS). A pointer towards up-and-coming acts from The CRAMPS and TAV FALCO’s PANTHER BURNS to STRAY CATS and the psychobilly movement of the 80s, several singles – including minor hit `Red Hot’ – and a pair of LPs: `Robert Gordon With Link Wray’ (1977) and `Fresh Fish Special’ (1978), competed for a time with punk and the new wave.
But no matter what style the Wray man chose; blues seemed to prevail for BULLSHOT (1979) {*6}; and garage-surf for LIVE AT THE PARADISO (1980) {*6}, the 50 year-old just couldn’t rock’n’roll back into contention. That could said for all Link’s sets on London-based Big Beat/Ace Records: namely LIVE IN ’85 (1986) {*6}, RUMBLE MAN (1989) {*6}, APACHE (1990) {*6} and WILD SIDE OF THE CITY LIGHTS (1990) {*6}, which kept up his high rockabilly momentum if nothing else.
Cited by the likes of The GUN CLUB and aforesaid The CRAMPS as a huge influence, WRAY was never short of connections. And with 1993’s disappointing INDIAN CHILD {*4} – recorded for Epic Records in Denmark where he’d resided with his wife Olive since 1980 – the brave Link came across as a SPRINGSTEEN impersonating ELVIS or ORBISON.
Ace Records duly allowed the leather-jacketed icon – now in his late 60s – to make amends by way of a brace of classy and ready-made rock’n’roll sets: SHADOWMAN (1997) {*7} and BARBED WIRE (2000) {*7}, CDs much more in line to the legend’s aura and image. Sadly, part of rockabilly’s heritage, and all its offshoots, died the day LINK WRAY passed away on November 5, 2005.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2019

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