Born in 1929, Link Wray made some of the most blistering rock ‘n’ roll of all time. So why isn’t he in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet?
Initially signed to Cadence Records, Wray — who was born Fred Lincoln Wray, Jr. — released his debut single in early 1958. The instrumental “Rumble” was juvenile-delinquent rock ‘n’ roll of the highest degree and inspired many young fans to pick up a guitar.
Wray then issued a series of fiery instrumental tracks like “Jack the Ripper,” “Ace of Spades” and “The Black Widow,” all of which had a huge impact of the garage-rock scene that sprouted over the next decade. Even Wray’s vocal recordings, such as his raunchy version of “Hidden Charms,” were full of chaotic rock ‘n’ roll.
His influence over time has been far-reaching. The Who‘s Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone, “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I would have never picked up a guitar.” In the guitar documentary, It Might Get Loud, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin recalled “the first time I heard “Rumble,” it had so much profound attitude.” Others felt the same. “It changed everything,” Robbie Robertson said. “Rumble made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock ‘n’ roll was gonna go.”
But Wray — who was Native American — did more than just the instrumental music he’s best known for. Check out his self-titled 1971 album of haunting folk blues. Or when he hooked up with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gorden during the punk era. Wray continued to make music until his death from heart failure in 2005.
Below, we outline 5 Reasons Link Wray Should Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
One Word: ‘Rumble’
“Oh, my God. That record was really important,” said John Fogerty. “When it hit was a hit on the radio, all the kids were tuned into it — not just me. Everybody understood: Man, that’s so cool.” If you want reason number one why Link Wray belongs in the Rock Hall, crank up this two-and-a-half-minute blast of pure rock ‘n’ roll. The song has the distinction of being the only instrumental record ever banned for fear it could incite gang violence or be an influence on juvenile delinquency. The nasty, dirty sound Wray achieved on that single was due to a technical advancement of Wray’s own design. He jabbed pencils through the speakers, inadvertently creating what would later be known as the “fuzztone” sound. “He was one of the first that really had a tone that pointed the way to the future,” noted MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer.
He Kept It Simple
Wray unleashed a mound of killer instrumental recordings during his early years, and unlike many other rockers, he never capsized into schmaltz with any tender love ballads or pop-friendly songs. When he would take the vocal on a record, the results were as raw as his guitar tone. In the late ’70s, Wray teamed up with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon for recordings and live performances, which were as vibrant as any of the younger bands that were dishing out similar raw energy at the time. Everything from garage rock to punk to heavy metal owes Wray a round or two.
There’s More to Him Than Meets the Ear
Link’s early recordings set the standard and template he’d follow throughout his career, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t occasionally surprise fans. In 1971, after some years away, Wray returned with a self-titled album unlike anything he had done before — a mix of folk, country, gospel, soul and swampy blues that was just as much of its time as those early records were of theirs. “Juke Box Mama” was a bluesy stomp; “God Out West” merged fuzztone guitar with gospel. The album’s highlight, “Fire and Brimstone” is the kind of song everyone from Johnny Cash to Nick Cave would have loved to call theirs.
From the very start, Link Wray never molded himself as a matinee idol or pop star. He almost looked like a criminal, or at the very least someone you didn’t want to mess with. That look would develop into iconic black leather, shades and a switchblade-style presentation before long.
Laundry List of Achievements
Wray was the first Native American rock star. He was named one of the Top 50 greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone. His influences can be found running through Jimmy Page and Neil Young to Pete Townshend and Bruce Springsteen. He is credited with inventing, or at least discovering, guitar distortion, as well as the power chord. And he’s been featured in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the Native American Indian “Up Where We Belong” exhibits in Washington, D.C., New York City and Canada.