LINK WRAY AND HIS RAY MEN
If you weren't in a line somewhere dancing the stroll back in '58, you were nowheresville. The dance craze and hit single "The Stroll," by The Diamonds, inadvertently gave birth to the glorious, distorted monster rock song that in turn provided inspiration to untold thousands of future guitar heroes: "Rumble," Link Wray's signature tune and hard rock's first big hit. It came about when the crowd at a Washington, D.C. record hop where Link and his Ray Men were playing demanded something they could stroll to; Wray ad-libbed his own instrumental take on the shuffle-beat structure of the Diamonds' hit, crunchin' some down-and-dirty lead riffs on his Danelectro guitar that made the temperature of the show's host, local disc jockey Milt Grant, quickly rise ten degrees. Grant had the group record a demo of the untitled song (Link sometimes called it "Oddball"), then he took it to Cadence Records, owned by Archie Bleyer, who scoffed at what sounded to him like a jumbled mess.
Bleyer's stepdaughter, Jackie Ertel (her mother was Janet Ertel of The Chordettes), 17 at the time and fascinated by her stepdad's "glamourous" show biz career (she later married Everly Brother Phil), often put in her two cents about music. Archie wisely considered her comments; she championed the song, saying "It sounds like a rumble!," referring to the street fights between the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story, the hot Broadway musical that had opened several months earlier and taken New York by storm on its way to iconic success on stage and, later, at the cinema. Bleyer released the single against his better judgment under her suggested title "Rumble" (with another sweltering instro, "The Swag," on the flip), in stark contrast to everything else on his Cadence label. It hit the airwaves and set off a light bulb in the minds of those soon-to-be rockers, as good an indication as any of the future of rock and roll.
Frederick Lincoln Wray, Jr. was born in 1929 in Dunn, North Carolina of part Shawnee Indian ancestry; his family later moved to Portsmouth, Virginia. He served two years in the Army starting in 1950 and spent part of that time in Korea during the war, losing a lung to tuberculosis, which put a serious damper on his ambition to be a singer. Once discharged, he joined Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands, a C&W band led by his brother Vernon (nicknamed "Lucky" because he always seemed to come out ahead in gambling) and younger brother, drummer Doug Wray. By 1955, Brantley Moses "Shorty" Horton, a neighbor and friend from Portsmouth, had joined as bassist and the quartet headed to Washington, D.C. Vernon landed a deal with Starday Records in '56, singing and writing songs with Cindy Davis. His first single as Lucky Wray, "It's Music She Says," is straight hillbilly; the second, "Got Another Baby," comes closer to rock and roll with the added bonus of a rip-roarin' yodel. Vernon's preference became clearer with the third single, "Teenage Cutie" by Lucky Wray with Link and Doug Wray, a driving, uptempo country rocker.
In 1957, Vernon was among the first to sign with Philadelphia's Cameo Records. As Ray Vernon, he was fashioned into a teen idol type by the label's owners, Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe. Of four singles for Cameo, love ballad "Remember You're Mine" was the weakest but had the best shot at becoming a hit...until a cover version by Pat Boone cut if off at the pass. Other efforts were more rocking but not successful. Vernon made records for Mark, Liberty, Scottie ("Roughshod," an instrumental with 'wo..oooh!' vocals) and other labels over the next six years. In the meantime, brother Link waxed an odd EP for Kay Records of D.C., singing despite his doctor's warning not to use his vocal cords; "I Sez Baby" is as lascivious a rockabilly track as you'll find and "Johnny Bom Bonny" contains many indecipherable lyrics in an addictive two minutes of pure energy (Harrisburg, Virginia husband-and-wife act Bob Dean and Cindy demonstrated a more traditional country lean on the flip's two tracks). Link, Doug and Shorty supported themselves doing local shows as The Ray Men, resulting in the "Rumble" that ignited Wray's career and set a rock benchmark.
In the tradition of game-changing rock and roll records, "Rumble" was banned by many radio stations, possibly the only instrumental to have achieved such an honor of subversity. Lyrics apparently weren't required to fit the standards of some disc jockeys and station managers; concern over the song's title and a perceived potential for encouraging juvenile gang violence was enough to make people nervous. Despite this handicap, the record was a top 20 hit in the summer of 1958, a solid seller for Cadence, which should have convinced Archie Bleyer to order more of the same, but he was baffled by the whole thing and there was no follow-up. Wray and his Men moved to Epic Records, nary missing a beat with another blistering rock instrumental, "Raw-Hide," its title, Link admitted, stolen from the popular new western series Rawhide, starring Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood, that had debuted on CBS-TV in January '59. The single hit the top 40 in March.
Epic had signed Wray in an attempt to compete with Duane Eddy, the "twangy" guitar man who'd already scored with "Rebel-'Rouser" and two other hits for the Jamie label. The B side of "Raw-Hide," "Dixie Doodle," aped the twangy style, as did other efforts, but it wasn't easy for Link to tone things down; he was truly the "bad boy" alternative to Eddy. Other sides, like "Comanche," evoke Wray's signature rumble. He collaborated with steel guitarist Ray Searce for a single on the Alpine label as Bert and Ray (Link's pseudonym was the less-obvious Bert); the easy-rolling "Slow Drag" was backed with "Night Life," both reminiscent of Santo and Johnny's summer '59 chart-topper "Sleep Walk." Link took another stab at singing and did an enviable job with a two-sided Epic single; he growled the blues with the best of them and his axework fired on all cylinders the day he laid down Ray Charles' "Mary Ann" and Jimmy Reed's "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby" (or, in this instance, "Babe").
The Wray brothers started their own production company in the early '60s, converting a chicken coop into a crude recording studio and releasing a single on the logically-named Rumble label in '61; "Jack the Ripper" took the Wray way of playing to a new extreme, slowly but surely attracting an audience not adverse to note-hugging, ear-splitting six-string swagger. Epic released Wray records until mid-'61 (parent company Columbia pressed the few Rumble label singles by Link, Vernon and a couple of other artists). More singles came out on Trans Atlas and Mala (where Vernon produced and Link backed R&B shouter Bunker Hill on several songs, including Hill's manic hit "Hide and Go Seek" and the over-the-top "The Girl Can't Dance"). A one-shot by Wray on Okeh, "Rumble Mambo," a strong surf-inspired track, resembled his greatest hit in name only.
Disc jockeys began playing "Jack the Ripper" in 1963, prompting fearless, forward-thinking Bernie Binnick of Swan Records to pick up the master for distribution. The two-year-old track became Link's third hit with a respectable two month up-and-down run on the national charts in the summer of '63. Wray made new recordings for Swan over the next couple of years as Binnick gave him free creative reign; "Week-End" (an organ-steeped remake of the 1958 Kingsmen side project by Bill Haley's Comets), guitar-string-peckin' "Run Chicken Run" and "Deuces Wild" are highlights. "I'm Branded," like "Raw-Hide," lifted its title from NBC's 1965 Chuck Connors western series Branded; a cover of Neal Hefti's "Batman Theme" in '66 (with Link and Shorty speaking silly Batman and Robin lines on an otherwise rocking instrumental) was a thinly-veiled attempt to jump on TV's Batmania bandwagon.
During this time, Link and the guys released instrumentals under a number of made-up names including The Spiders on the Lawn label ("Baby Doll") and The Moon Men on Southern Sound ("Some Kinda Nut"). An established band, The Fender Benders, did a single on Vermillion ("XKE") with group leader Jack Van Horn on guitar and backing by the Ray Men. Link made attempts at revisiting his greatest and most in-demand song ("Rumble '68" on the Heavy label, rehashed the following year as "Rumble '69" on Mr. G) and recorded for Polydor in the early '70s while spending most of his time at his farm in Accokeek, Maryland, about 20 miles south of the District of Columbia. In 1977 he began performing with retro-rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, wearing black and usually keeping his back turned to the audience while wailing on his guitar. He and Gordon scored on the charts that year with a remake of Billy "The Kid" Emerson's 1955 R&B classic "Red Hot" and continued to record and perform together, off-and-on, for the next few years. Wray moved to Denmark in the early '80s and recorded two albums several years before his death in 2005.
The progression from acoustic strumming to the "power chord" of hard rock can be traced through many artists. T-Bone Walker emerged in the latter half of the 1940s as an expert axe man. Guitar master Les Paul certainly did his part to encourage creative horseplay with reverb and sound effects. B.B. King let loose with scorching guitar riffs like on his often-imitated 1953 hit "Please Love Me." Chuck Berry raised the profile of the guitar as a rock and roll vessel to augment and ultimately replace the saxophone as lead instrument. Duane Eddy's twangin' slipped in just ahead of Link's long, low, nasty notes. Dick Dale added a fast-finger dexterity to the formula with his early-'60s surf recordings. Pete Townshend of The Who gave all the credit to Wray as inspiration and others, like Jeff Beck of The Yardbirds, have admitted as much. These are but a few of many early innovators. To this day, gazillions of guitarists knowingly or unknowingly pay tribute to Link Wray and his rock milestone, "Rumble."