LINK WRAY-EARLY RECORDINGS AND GOOD ROCKING TONIGHT.
LINK WRAY-EARLY RECORDINGS AND GOOD ROCKING TONIGHT.
Nowadays, Link Wray is regarded as one of greatest guitarists in musical history. Link Wray influenced everyone from Jimmy Page and Neil Young to Iggy Pop. He also popularised the power chord in his 1958 instrumental hit Ray Gun. For that alone, several generations of guitarists owe Link Wray a debt of gratitude. Sadly, neither in life nor death, Link Wray never deserved the recognition he so richly deserved. Then nearly eight years after his death, it looked like Link Wray was going to be inducted into the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame.
That however, that was a shameful fiasco. On October 16th 2013, it was announced that Link Wray had been nominated to be inducted into the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. Sadly, this never came to pass.
When the great and good gathered at a glittering and ostentatious ceremony in 2014, Link Wray wasn’t inducted into the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. Once again, a musical pioneer had been treated shabbily by the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame.
Since then, British reissue label Ace Records, have been doing their best to introduce Link Wray’s music to another musical generation. Earlier, this year, Ace Records reissued 3-Track Shack, which features the three albums that Link Wray recorded at his brother’s home studio, Link Wray, Mordicai Jones and Beans and Fatback. These three albums were released between 1971 and 1973. However, Link Wray had been realising music since 1956. There was certainly life before the 3-Track Shack trilogy.
Proof of this, can be found on Ace Records recent Link Wray release. It features two albums Ace Records Early Recordings, compiled and released. The first was 1978s Early Recordings, with Good Rocking Tonight following in 1982. These two albums feature on one disc, which is simply entitled Early Recordings and Good Rocking Tonight. It’s a reminder of a musical innovator as he set about making musical history. Link Wray’s story began on May 2nd 1929.
That’s when Link Wray was born in Dunn, North Carolina, to Fred Lincoln Wray, Sr. and his wife, Lillian M. Wray. Link Wray’s mother was a Shawnee Indian, and later, Link Wray was proud of his heritage. However, this caused problems growing up.
North Carolina in the thirties was Klu Klux Klan country. Life was tough for the Wray family. At nights, the Klan came calling, wearing their white capes and carrying burning crosses. In the local community, African Americans and Link Wray’s mother feared for their life. They had no option but to hide under their bed, until the Klan left. It was a tough upbringing for Link Wray. To make matters worse, the family were poor.
Link Wray’s father had been pensioned out the US Army. His disability cheque allowed the family to survive the depresson…just. The house had dirt floors, and didn’t even have electricity. However, somehow, Link’s mother and father found the money to buy his elder brother Vernon an acoustic guitar.
When Vernon showed little interest in his guitar, fourteen year old Link Wray picked up the guitar. Link tried to teach himself, and used to sit in the porch strumming and picking his guitar. Then one day, a member of a passing circus saw Link playing his guitar. Realised the young man was struggling, the stranger, who called himself Hambone, showed him how to tune and then play the blues guitar. He showed Link open chords, and how to play the guitar with his fingers and even a knife. It was a masterclass from Hambone, who was just as comfortable playing drums and horns. Having showed Link how it was meant to be played, Hambone left Link playing his guitar, However, every time the circus passed through town, Hambone stopped by, to see how his pupil was progressing.
By the time Link Wray was sixteen, he was more than proficient guitarist. He spent a lot of his spare time listening to the blues. Some of the Wray’s neighbours enjoyed the blues. When they threw open their windows, the music spilled out. As Link sat there, he listened and learnt. For Link, it was part of his musical education, which was going pretty well. He had mastered the guitar.This was just as well. Link was about to leave school.
After a teacher threatened to whip Link, there was a fracas. The outcome was, that Link had to leave school. Initially, he got a job delivering groceries and picking cotton and tobacco. This brought some much needed money into the household. Then in 1947, when Link was eighteen, the Wray family were on the move.
Their destination was Portsmouth, Virginia, where Link’s father and elder brother Vernon got job as pipe fitters at a dockyard. Things were looking up for the Wray family. Not long after this, Link got a job as a messenger at the same dockyard.
After two years working at the dockyard, and scrimping and saving, Link had enough money to buy his first electric guitar in 1949. He chose a Vega electric guitar, which he purchased from a Sears and Roebuck catalogue. From the moment he bought the guitar, Link practised non stop. He was determined to improve his technique and playing. However, in 1950, things were looking up for his family.
Vernon Wray, Link’s elder brother founded his own taxi firm in 1950. He employed his two brothers, Link and Fred as drivers. Not long after he started work as a taxi driver, Link began playing bass in country bands. This made him some extra income until in 1951, he was called up by Uncle Sam.
In 1951, Link Wray was called up to serve in the US Army during the Korean War. This almost wrecked Link Wray’s career. Whilst serving in the US Army, Link Wray contracted T.B. Somehow, nobody realised this. It didn’t become apparent until well after Link Wray left the US Army.
On leaving the US Army in 1953, Link Wray’s thoughts turned to music. He was even more determined to make a career out of music. So on his return home, he bought a new Les Paul guitar and amplifier. It was then his brother Vernon, suggested they form their own band, The Lazy Pine Wranglers.
The nascent group featured Vernon on vocals and rhythm guitar, Link on lead guitar, steel guitarist Dixie Neal and Brantley “Shorty” Horton on stand-up bass. Soon, what was Link Wray’s first group, were a popular draw in the nearby city of Norfolk.
While The Lazy Pine Wranglers were the Wray brothers first group, it wasn’t their last.
Link’s brother Doug got a job playing drums and guitar for the Phelps Brothers. They had been really successful on the country circuit, and featured in westerns alongside Roy Rogers. The Phelps Brothers also owned the nearby Palomino Dude Ranch. Somehow, Doug managed to swing a regular gig for the Wray brothers there. As Link Wray and The Palomino Ranch Gang, they provided a country tinged soundtrack at the Phelp Brothers’ ranch. This gave the Wrays career a boost.
Soon, they were backing Tex Ritter, Lash La Rue, Sunset Carson and Wild Bill Elliot. Link Wray and The Palomino Ranch Gang even found their way onto WCMS’ radio’s Hillbilly Concert Hall. This lead to a spot on WMAL-TV’s late night country program Town and Country. With WMAL-TV based in Washington, the Wray brothers moved their permanently, hoping this would further their career.
It did. In 1956, Link Wray released his debut single. He was billed as Lucky Wray, and released It’s Music She Says on the Texan independent label Saturday. The followup was Whatcha Say Honey. Both singles showcased a talented singer. Just as it looked liked Link Wray’s star seemed to be in the ascendancy, tragedy struck.
Link Wray became ill. Initially, the doctors diagnosed pneumonia. He spent a year in hospital. During this period, Link Wray had to have a lung removed. The doctors that treated him thought that Link Wray would never sing again.He proved them wrong.
Early on in 1957, Lucky Wray released another single, Teenage Cutie. This was the last single Link released as lucky. His next release marked the debut of Link Wray.
This came on an E.P. featuring Bob Dean and Cindy With The Kountry Kings. Both acts featured two tracks. Link Wray supplied two of the four tracks on an E.P., I Sez Baby and Johnny Bom Bonny. They saw Link combine country and rockabilly. There’s more than a nod to early Elvis Pressley recordings on the songs that lauched Link Wray’s solo career.
By then, two the Wray brothers were trying to forge a career as singers. Vernon was signed to Cameo, which ultimately resulted in a couple of unsuccessful singles. During one of Vernon’s recording sessions, Link was watching proceedings. When the session finished early, Bernie Lowe allowed Link to record two tracks he had written, Oddball and Swag. When Link heard the playback of Oddball, he knew in his heart, that the song was special. He smiled inwardly, knowing that the session at Broad and Locust, in Philly, cost just $75. For that, Bernie Lowe worked as tape-op.
Little did anyone know how much of a bargain it had been. However, Link struggled to get anyone interested in the song. He played it on Milt Jackson’s show. Wanting to help his friend, Milt even took a copy to Archie Blayer at the Cadence label.
Archie Blayer didn’t like the raucous sounding track, so gave his copy to his teenage step-daughter Jackie Ertel. She however, loved Oddball, and encouraged her father to release the track. The only thing that Jackie didn’t like, was the name. She suggested that Oddball be renamed as Rumble. History was about to be made.
In April 1958, Link Wray and His Ray Men released what would become Link Wray’s most successful single, the classic instrumental Rumble. It saw Link Wray deploy distortion and feedback. This was a first, in more ways than one. Link Wray also became one of the first guitarists to use the power chord on Rumble. He wouldn’t be the last, and since then, it’s been part and parcel of a guitarists arsenal. When the Rumble was released, it was immediately banned.
This made Rumble one of the first instrumentals to be banned. The problem was the title. Rumble was the slang term for a gang fight. The authorities feared that the single would lead to disorder. Ironically, banning Rumble made the song even more popular.
Some nights, Link Wray and His Ray Men played several encores of Rumble. Rumble was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It reached number sixteen in the US Billboard 100 charts. Across the Atlantic, future members of The Kinks and The Who heard this classic instrumental. Other musicians were won over by it. From Bob Dylan to Phil Everly, Rumble was a favourite of musicians everywhere. After the success of Rumble, many thought that Link Wray would become one of the biggest stars of the late-fifties and sixties.
That proved not to be the case. Things looked good at first. Archie Blayer sent Link Wray and His Ray Men to record the followup. He suggested a track called Dixie Doodle, which was Duane Eddy-esque. However, Link preferred the other track they cut Raw Hide.
Link Wray released Raw-Hide as a single in January 1959. It reached number twenty-four in the US Billboard 100 charts. After that, Comanche a song Link Wray named after his North American Indian roots’ failed to chart. So did Slinky and Vendetta. The rest of 1959 was a right-off. So was 1960.
Neither Trail of the Lonesome Pine nor the Jimmy Reed penned Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby charted. 1960 when Link Wray released his debut album, Link Wray and The Wraymen wasn’t going to plan. However, Vernon Wray realised the importance of looking after his brother’s finances.
Having secured tuning from Milt Jackson, the Wray brothers setup a two room studio opposite WTTG, where Milt’s show was broadcast. From that studio, Vernon looked after Milt’s publishing and composing rights. The company that took care of the publishing, was Vernon’s Florentine Music. This proved a shrewd move. When the hits dried up for Link Wray, he had a nest egg to fall back on. However, things improved for Link.
Over the next few years, Link Wray continued to release singles and a few albums. Link Wray released his sophomore album Great Guitar Hits by Link Wray, in 1962. By then, Link Wray’s star was in the ascendancy, and he was releasing some of the best music of his career. This includes the music that found its way onto Ace Records 1978 album Early Recordings.
One of the earliest Link Wray songs on Early Recordings is Jack The Ripper. It was released on Swann in July 1961, reaching number sixty-four in the US Billboard 100 charts. While it was a long way from the success Rumble enjoyed in 1958, Jack The Ripper featured Link Wray’s unmistakable, signature guitar sound. Sadly, after Jack The Ripper, the hits dried up for Link Wray.
Ironically, 1963 found Link Wray releasing some of the best music of his seven year career. It finds its way onto Early Recordings. This includes 1963 single Black Widow, which was released on Swan in April 1963. Just like his last few singles, Black Widow failed to chart. Neither did Run Chicken Run, which was released as a single in September 1963. This run of unsuccessful singles continued with Weekend, which featured Turnpike U.S.A. on the flip side. It’s a like a joyous homage to The Beach Boys from Link Wray. Why it languished on a B-Side seemed strange? Turnpike U.S.A didn’t even make it onto Link Wray’s album Jack The Ripper.
Released on Swan in 1963, Jack The Ripper features songs like Cross Ties, Fat Back, Run Chicken Run, Mr. Guitar and even a rerecording of Rumble. These songs feature Link Wray at his best. He unleashes a series masterclasses on his trusty guitar. However, although it sold better than his singles, Link Wray was no longer as popular as he had once been.
The man who should’ve been hailed one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, was a stranger to the charts over the next few years. When the mood sounding The Shadow Knows was released on Swan in March 1964, it failed commercially. It makes a welcome return on Early Recordings. So does the 1965 single I’m Branded and Ace Of Spades and The Batman Theme, which were both released as single in 1966. On the B-Side of The Batman Theme was Hidden Charms, a stomper of a hidden gem, with blistering guitars. It features a surly sounding vocal from Link Wray, and is an unmissable track for Link Wray fans. Garage meets proto-punk describes the track. It’s the last of the sixties tracks on Early Recordings.
Scatter was recorded in 1978, and completed this fourteen track compilation. It featured mostly Link Wray’s sixties recordings, with Scatter a nod to the seventies. Good Rocking Tonight, which was released in 1982, was also a mixture of the past and present.
Good Rocking Tonight.
When Good Rocking Tonight was released in 1982, the album was mixture of newly recorded songs, a Link Wray classic and a couple of hidden gems. The earliest recording, was Link Wray’s theme tune,..Rumble.
April 1958 saw the release of Rumble on the Cadence label. Quickly, the single became popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It reached number sixteen in the US Billboard 100 charts. Across the Atlantic, future members of The Kinks and The Who would be influenced by this classic instrumental. On the flip-side was Swag, which is also included on Good Rocking Tonight. These two tracks started the Link Wray story.
By 1963, hits were a think of the past for Link Wray. This shows how fleeting chart success can be. The Sweeper which was the B-Side of Run Chicken Run, which was released as single in November 1963, is a welcome inclusion on Good Rocking Tonight. It’s a spellbinding wall of sound, where Link Wray’s finger flit up and down the fretboard. Run Boy Run, a hidden gem from 1964, features an equally impressive performance. However, Link Wray has something special up his sleeve, Deuces Wild, his single from July 1964. A year later, and Link Wray recorded a demo for Stateside.
For his Stateside demo, Link Wray recorded a cover of Good Rockin’ Tonight. It features an Elvis inspired vocal from Link Wray, whose aided and abetted by The Ray Men. They add harmonies and handclaps. However, Link Wray’s dalliance with Stateside was short-lived and he returned to Swan, which was his home as the second half of the sixties began. However, Link Wray fortunes didn’t improve.
By 1982, it had been a long time since Link Wray had enjoyed a hit single. Link Wray now lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, with his new wife Diane Poulsen. Money was tight for Link Wray, and he existed on an US Army pension, and the money he made playing live. However, in 1982, Link Wray wasn’t play live very often. So the opportunity to release the Good Rockin’ Tonight album in Ace Records was a godsend for Link Wray.
Good Rockin’ Tonight saw Link Wray combine covers with new material. Cover versions included a moody, almost surly take on Heartbreak Hotel. Then on Blueberry Hill, Link Wray takes centre-stage showcasing his considerable skills. Soon, he’s rolling back the years. That’s the case on Lieber and Stoller’s Hound Dog and That’ll Be The Day. Honky Tonk sees Link Wray going toe-to-toe with a blazing saxophone. The other three tracks come from the pen of Link Wray.
Mustang sounds like Link Wray in his prime. It’s a track he wrote. So is Law Of The Jungle, which shows that Link Wray still has the x-factor. Closing Good Rockin’ Tonight, was Zip Code, a track that sounded as if it had been recorded circa 1961, and was a long lost hidden gem. It’s not, and instead showed that despite his ailing health, Link Wray was still one of the most talented musicians of his generation. Sadly, he never received the credit he deserved.
Often, musicians like Link Wray are described as a “musician’s musician.” That was the case with Link Wray. Only musicians were able to appreciate how he had changed music, and his music. Link Wray had also inspired many of musicians. From Jimmy Page and Neil Young to Iggy Pop, countless musicians have said that that Link Wray inspired them. Similarly, anyone whose utilised the power chord, has Link Wray to thank.
He popularised the power chord in his 1958 instrumental hit Ray Gun. For that alone, several generations of guitarists owe Link Wray a debt of gratitude. Sadly, Link Wray never deserved the recognition he so richly deserved. However, one record company has always recognised this musical pioneer.
Ace Records have been flying the flag for Link Wray’s music since 1978. Since then, they’ve released several releases. This includes 3-Track Shack, which features the three albums that Link Wray recorded at his brother’s home studio, Link Wray, Mordicai Jones and Beans and Fatback. Since 3-Track Shack has been released, Ace Records have been readying themselves to release Early Recordings and Good Rocking Tonight, which were recently released on one CD.
Early Recordings was released in 1978, with Good Rocking Tonight following in 1982. These two albums are a reminder of a musical innovator Link Wray, who sadly, died in Copenhagen, Denmark, on November 5th 2005. The recent release of Early Recordings and Good Rocking Tonight celebrates the music of Link Wray, on the tenth anniversary of his death.
Now, somewhat belatedly, Link Wray is starting to receive the recognition his music so richly deserves. That’s thanks to Ace Records, who for five decades have championed the music of Link Wray. Ace Records’ release of 3-Track Shack earlier in 2015, plus their recent release of Early Recordings and Good Rocking Tonight, will hopefully, introduce the music of that musical pioneer, Link Wray, to a much wider audience.
LINK WRAY-EARLY RECORDINGS AND GOOD ROCKING.