Link Wray

TrackAlbum
Black River SwampLink Wray
Fallin'’ RainLink Wray
Fire And BrimstoneLink Wray
God Out WestLink Wray
Ice PeopleLink Wray
In The PinesBeans And Fatback
Precious JewelMordicai Jones
Rumblesingle (London HLA6823)
Walkin'’ In The Arizona SunMordicai Jones
Water BoyBeans And Fatback

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Contributor: Peter Viney

Rumble by Link Wray & His Ray Men from 1958 was the first instrumental to be banned from airplay because radio bosses thought it would start gang fights. It was originally called Oddball, and renamed by Phil Everly, who thought it sounded like a gang fight. Bob Dylan has called it ‘the best instrumental ever’, Jimmy Page says it made him take up guitar, and the sound of distorted power chords influenced Dick Dale, The Kinks, The Who, punk, heavy metal. Wray punched holes in his speaker cone with a pencil to get the desired effect. It’s a contrast to the precise prissy guitar melody line picking of The Shadows, The Ventures and The Fireballs. Link Wray returned to it several times and re-recorded versions.

Link Wray is of Shawnee Native-American heritage, and subsequent singles were Raw-Hide and Comanche. Wray was a brooding presence throughout the guitar instrumental era to the early-60s, with Jack The Ripper (1961) and The Batman Theme (1966) being the best-known tracks. A friend who played guitar in one of the many Shadows imitators of the early 60s said there were two problems with Wray’s guitar sound: it terrified teenage British guitarists weaned on Bert Weedon’s Play In A Day and secondly, it was too hard for them to play. He recalled trying to learn Black Widow. The Sweeper is pure surf instrumental. Hardcore old rocker fans of Link Wray’s instrumental prowess are about to get pissed off, because Rumble is going to have to represent the lot.

In the mid-60s, The Ray Men disappeared from the credits and Link Wray vocalist emerged. Good Rockin’ Tonight is generic handclapping rock ‘n’ roll. but the flip, I’ll Do Anything For You astounded the loyal: it’s a teen ballad crooned with a little quaver in the voice.

So then he disappeared, and holed up in Maryland on his farm with brother Vernon Wray and associates building a backyard studio in a chicken coop called Wray’s Shack Three Track. In 1971 a Polydor LP called simply Link Wray appeared with a die cut sleeve of Link in Native American headband in profile. Richard Williams reviewed it in such glowing terms that I went out and bought it. It is one of the outstanding examples of Americana, up there with The Band (aka the brown album) and Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and Into The Purple Valley. That’s how good it is, and it would be easy to simply put the whole album as his Toppermost. It was produced by Steve Verroca who also played drums … before going on to a much more pop-oriented production career with the likes of Promises (Ooh, Baby I Like It). Verocca had seen Wray playing in a club and rediscovered him. Several tracks on the albums are credited to ‘Y. Verroca’ alone or ‘Wray / Verroca’. They all sound as if from the same pen to me, and given their ability to shapeshift as different names, we can only surmise what the deal was. Later albums have tracks by S.Wray and L.Wray.

Both Fire And Brimstone and Fallin’ Rain on Link Wray were later covered by The Neville Brothers, the first on Yellow Moon, the second on Brother’s Keeper (exquisitely too), then Fallin’ Rain was covered by Calexico on Feast Of Wire. Willie Dixon’s Tail Dragger is straight blues, and rivals Howlin’ Wolf’s version (even) and makes British blues bands look feeble. Crowbar is another powerful blues. Juke Box Mama breaks into an earth-shattering lurching rhythm. Rise & Fall Of Jimmy Stokes is a narrative Johnny B. Goode story. Black River Swamp has the classic mournful lead vocal, extraordinary guitar playing and that wild country chorus. In Fire And Brimstone and God Out West the chorus and percussion are key points. The drums sound like packing cases at times. The old guitar chorded sound is there, overlayed by intricate guitar and piano. Ice People is credited to S. Verocca, but it sounds no different. Take Me Home Jesus. La De Da. All wonderful. Any of the five selections in the ten Toppermost could be replaced by any of the other six.

The same backyard band went on recording, calling the next one Mordicai Jones ‘by Mordicai Jones’, a pseudonym for the pianist / mandolin player from the band, Bobby Howard, who took lead vocals. It’s now considered a Link Wray album, with extracts on Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years an anthology containing the 1971 Link Wray album in its entirety. Days Before Custer is a stand-out in almost Robert Plant vocal style. However, Roy Acuff’s 1940 song Precious Jewel is my favourite in a stripped down version. This is so down home it makes (e.g.) The Band or J.J. Cale sound over-polished.

Mordicai Jones was followed by Be What You Want To with equally good playing, but I feel Link Wray had used the best compositions from a five or six year period on the previous two and so it was thinner on melodic material. Tuscon Arizona is the same song (done differently) as Walkin’ In The Arizona Sun on Mordicai Jones. Tucson Arizona is softer with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel and Link Wray singing. Walkin’ In The Arizona Sun has that great shack sound. I’d like to include both, but the shack one gets it. Be What You Want To was recorded in San Francisco , produced by Thom Jefferson Kaye with a cleaner sound, and well-known accompanying musicians such as David Bromberg, Jerry Garcia, Peter Kaukonen and also Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen on You Walked By. I struggled to include something from it, but I prefer the earlier homespun sound.

Beans And Fatback is a collection of outtakes and left overs from the first 1971 two vocal albums. Water Boy showcases his deep country blues style over a near ten minute track, very much in his Tail Dragger mode but much more of it. It has two songs, Georgia Pines and In The Pines, both being the traditional Leadbelly song. The Four Pennies who had a hit with it called it Black Girl. Nirvana (US) called it Where Did You Sleep Last Night? on MTV Unplugged, as well as shifting ‘black girl’ to ‘my girl’. I’ll take Link Wray’s In The Pines where it’s ‘little girl’. Gandy Dancer is a stand out track which would have been a hit if The Eagles or similar had sanded off the raucous sound and smoothed it out, a move which would have been detrimental.

The Link Wray Rumble appeared in 1974, with one of many remakes of Rumble on there. Backwoods Preacher Man is the one to sample. Walkin’ Bulldog is Link’s take on the shave ‘n’ a haircut / two bits Bo Diddley rhythm.

Stuck in Gear followed in 1975, recorded for Virgin at The Manor in the UK, with a Jack The Ripper reprise for the closing track.

All three shack-recorded albums … Link Wray, Beans And Fatback and Mordicai Jones are on the Wray’s Three Track Shack CD set (changing the word order from the sign written on that chicken coop).

The vocal work didn’t get the promotion it deserved, and Link Wray moved to Denmark, continuing to record instrumentals, which he toured as well as recording two albums with Robert Gordon in 1977 to 1978, Robert Gordon with Link Wray and Fresh Fish Special. This period has a lot of rock ‘n’ roll revival covers; Mystery Train, Little Sister, Don’t Be Cruel with great guitar work.

Indian Child was co-written with his wife in Denmark, copyrighted 1991, but released in 1993, with a return to songs, and a Danish backing group. I strained to like it for a couple of weeks when it came out, but failed. Tryin’ To Find Your Love sounds like 80s AOR stadium rock, Indian Child beats the tomtom (modern drum set tom tom) and wails to little effect. God’s Little Baby was a genuine contender for Toppermost, and is the most raucous nativity song you’ve heard, but is disqualified for dated 90s big drum sound.

There are well over a dozen instrumental and rock revival CDs out there. In the end, nothing else touches those three recordings in Wray’s Shack.

Link Wray website

Link Wray biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #80

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