ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 3, 1997
By Steve Newton
There’s been a missing Link on the North American music scene for a long time, but now he’s back, and instro-rock fans have serious cause to rejoice. Two weeks ago in Texas, 68-year-old guitar god Link Wray launched his first North American tour in 25 years, the same tour that brings him to the Starfish Room on Friday (July 4). The Straight caught up with the living legend—who currently resides in Denmark—the day after his historic date at Houston’s Satellite Lounge.
“It was a fantastic gig last night, man!” enthused a rapt Wray from his Dallas hotel room. “It was really packed and everybody was happy, the owner of the club got up and jammed with me, and I got a good write-up in the Houston paper. I was a little bit worried, you know, ’cause I haven’t been over to America to play, so I was wonderin’ how the American audience was gonna receive Link Wray. But man, they were hollerin’ and screaming, bangin’ on the stage. Whew! It was almost like when I had ‘Rumble’ out, you know.”
It was nearly 30 years ago that Wray’s signature tune, “Rumble”, changed the shape of rock guitar, influencing generations of noisemakers. (“If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble’, I would have never picked up a guitar,” Pete Townshend has said.) At the time of its 1958 release, the primitive instrumental—which brought to mind the rumble scenes in West Side Story—caused quite a controversy. Although it reached Number 16 on the American charts, it was banned from the radio in several markets—including New York and Boston—because of its supposed capacity to incite teen violence.
“Gangs were really happening back in those days,” recalled Wray. “There were headlines all across the East Coast like ‘Teenage Gang Fights!’, ‘Rumbles in the Streets!’, and my instrumental was seen as related to the gang fights, so they had to ban it. When Dick Clark played it on his show, he couldn’t even say, ‘Here’s Link Wray’s “Rumble”.’ He said, ‘Here’s a slow, stroll type of song from Link Wray,’ and then ‘Rumble’ would play.”
The ability of “Rumble” to get young ’50s rowdies hopped up and ready to scrap had a lot to do with Wray’s snarly, groundbreaking guitar sound, which resulted from his inventive use of a pencil to create one of the world’s first recorded instances of fuzztone. “When I made ‘Rumble’ they didn’t have no [effects] boxes, right, so I had to get my own distortion. So I was searchin’ for sounds, and to get the distortion I had to punch holes in my amplifier speakers with a pencil.”
As anyone who’s seen Pulp Fiction can attest, the instro-rock music Wray helped pioneer—along with the likes of Duane Eddy and Dick Dale—has been making a huge comeback. Two of Wray’s songs, “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades”, appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s hip ’94 hit, and “Rumble” also made it onto the Independence Day soundtrack. Wray’s echo-laden ’61 riff-fest “Jack the Ripper” was used in Desperado, and Breathless before it, and three of his tunes were included on the soundtrack to the underground Brad Pitt flick Johnny Suede. “They started putting all my songs in the movies,” noted Wray cheerfully, “so that’s sorta like bringin’ my image and my music back to the ’90s.”
Part Native American of Shawnee extraction, Wray was born to preacher parents in North Carolina, in 1929. He first picked up the guitar when he was eight, after discovering the power of music thanks to an old black bottleneck guitarist who performed in the local circus.
“I heard him playin’ that bottleneck music, and I knew right then I wanted to play a geetar. I mean I wanted to play country music, black music, bottleneck music—I wanted to play it all. And then when I moved to Virginia at 13 years old I heard all the country artists playin’ behind the country stars, and I tried to play like that, but I could never get that clean sound. I just didn’t have that kinda technique. So instead of tryin’ to pick clean like a Chet Atkins, I sorta created my own ‘rumble’, you know what I mean?”
With a new CD, Shadowman, just released on England’s Ace Records, and a 17-date North American tour in full swing, Wray’s 50-year musical career is rumblin’ right along. Even though he’ll soon be pushing 70, and has a lung missing from a bout with tuberculosis during his stint in the Korean War, the “godfather of metal” still rocks.
“Yeah, I’m 68, man, but I still got black hair, and I’m skinny, and I’m playin’ my wild guitar. And the kids, they don’t give a shit how old I am. Those kids last night were actin’ like I was Elvis onstage, and every time I hit a note they were hollering and screaming. It totally shocked me, man. And I would tilt my guitar out and the guys would eat the guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Aw, you should have been there, man! If all the gigs in America go like last night, I’ll be the fuckin’ happiest guy in the world.”