Guitarist Link Wray was already something of a legend among rock ’n’ rollers when, in the early 1970s, he signed a pact with Polydor Records and recorded two albums, Link Wray and Mordicai Jones.
Both records are a long distance from the brooding, high intensity instrumentals that made Wray’s reputation to the surprising, rootsy funk of his latter-day Polydor LPs, so it’s best we start at the beginning of his long musical odyssey, in the early days when Fred Lincoln Wray, Jr., took up the family business: making music.
Born in Dunn, North Carolina on May 2, 1929, Link was the second of three siblings; his older brother Vernon (who would be variously known professionally as Lucky Wray during his country epoch and Ray Vernon in his pop days) was born in 1924, while younger brother Doug followed him in 1933. The Wrays began playing music professionally after the family moved to Portsmouth, Virginia in 1942. Vernon was the original, smooth-voiced frontman in the brothers’ country-western swing-styled unit, variously known as the Palomino Ranch Gang and the Lazy Pine Wranglers, with Link taking lead guitar chores (originally paired with a pedal steel guitarist) and Doug as drummer.
After plenty of work on the local level in Virginia and following Link’s 1951 tour of duty with the Army in Germany and Korea, the Wrays relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1955. A bout with double pneumonia and tuberculosis (contracted in the service) sidelined Link for a year. However, the family act–now known as the Raymen and playing their own rough style of rock ’n’ roll–was ready for a breakthrough.
It came in 1958 after a sock hop in Fredericksburg, Virginia hosted by Washington DJ Milt Grant (who would go on to serve as the band’s chief promoter and de facto manager). There, the Raymen improvised an instrumental version of the Diamonds’ then-current hit, “The Stroll”; unsure of the song’s structure, Link faked a simple riff on his Gibson Les Paul. Bristling with volume and distortion (the hallmarks of Link’s guitar style from that point forward), the forbidding number was the hit of the gig, and the Raymen soon recorded it impromptu at the end of a vocal session fronted by Vernon, who was then briefly signed as a pop singer by Philadelphia’s Cameo Records. Christened “Rumble” and sporting, in writer Jimmy McDonough’s memorable phrase, “just three chords and a bad attitude,” the cavernous, threatening recording– credited to Link Wray and the Raymen–was picked up by Cadence Records, the home of The Everly Brothers. The single reached No. 16 on the national pop chart, but Cadence owner Archie Bleyer, apparently skittish about the association with juvenile delinquency conjured by the number’s gang-war handle and menacing vibe, left an album subsequently recorded by the Raymen unreleased.
Link was swiftly signed by Epic Records, the junior imprint at CBS, home of Columbia Records. He proved capable of making raunchy, aggressive instrumentals in the “Rumble” vein (like the No. 23 single, “Raw-Hide,” produced by Vernon) or putting over an intense vocal–a rarity, since he had lost a lung to his TB treatment–like his cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby.” However, the label too often shoved him into recording material in the less challenging style of then-reigning guitar instro champ, Duane Eddy, and lesser pop-oriented instro mush like “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” and “Tenderly.” Undaunted by this unsatisfying stint at the majors, the Wrays began cutting records on their own at a small studio established by Vernon, who served as producer, in an office building on Vermont Avenue in the nation’s capital. The fruit of one session, the fearsome instrumental “Jack The Ripper,” was self-released on the brothers’ Rumble imprint and then picked up by Philadelphia-based Swan Records, which took the single to No. 64 nationally in 1963. From then until the label’s closure in 1967, Swan issued pretty much anything the prolific Wrays would supply, including such intense, atmospheric instrumentals as “Ace of Spades,” “Run Chicken Run,” “Deuces Wild,” and “The Black Widow,” and Link’s occasional vocals–notably, a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Hidden Charms” and, late in the game, a prescient, folk-styled cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.”
After the folding of Swan, the Raymen worked locally, playing some of the D.C. area’s scariest clubs; at the same time, the band recorded at Vernon’s new studio, located first in the basement of his newly purchased Maryland home and then–after his wife Evelyn complained about the noise–in a converted shack on the property.
In early 1971, Link convened a small band of family and locals at Vernon’s “Shack Three Track” (as it was identified in the handpainted legend on its weather-scarred walls) in Accokeek. Vernon’s seemingly primitive little studio setup was actually furnished with top-of-the-line equipment: he had acquired some first-rate Neumann microphones at cut-rate prices, and he used large state-of-the-art Altec Lansing studio monitors. But, at the end of the day, the gear was housed in a room that was little better than a lean to.
The brazenly out-of-tune group recording there produced an amped-up, almost prehistoric sound. Link alternated between electric guitar, cranked up to the limit, and some finger-picked acoustic guitar and slithering Dobro work that harkened back to the Wrays’ days playing country.
The battered house piano was complemented by Doug’s simple, thumping drumming; at times, he or Verroca would push a song along by merely stomping on the studio floor with their feet and scraping hand-held percussion instruments.
Probably the most surprising thing about the material was the complete absence of any instrumentals; Link had opted to test his one remaining lung on a full set of vocals. Some of the material–“Take Me Home Jesus” and “God Out West”–was overtly religious; that would come as a surprise to anyone who didn’t know that Link was a devout believer who had undergone a spiritual experience while recovering from TB surgery in the hospital in 1956 and claimed in interviews that God had appeared before him. Perhaps the most extreme and exciting manifestation of religious imagery in his work can be found in the album’s grinding, apocalyptic “Fire and Brimstone,” which was issued on a flashy marbled color single overseas.
The album marked a nearly complete break with his familiar style, though the well-versed listener could undoubtedly detect the veins of country, R&B, and blues that had run through his work in covert fashion. Today, a parallel might be drawn between the progress of Link and the Raymen’s late career and that of another rock ’n’ roll unit that mutated out of their greasy roots to play embryonic Americana: Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band, the Hawks. That group, via a protracted touring and recording association with Bob Dylan in 1966-67, metamorphosed into the Band and had opened eyes and ears with their formal 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink. The Shack Three Track was as much a laboratory for Link Wray’s early-’70s sound as the Band’s pink house in Woodstock, New York had been. However, sadly for Wray, his daring down-home experimentation won none of the critical admiration that Big Pink experienced.
Issued in an unusual die-cut jacket featuring a profile portrait of the musician in native garb that reflected his Shawnee Indian lineage, Link Wray proved to be the only album that the guitarist issued in his own name to hit the American charts during his nearly 50-year recording career. It peaked at a lowly No. 186 during its brief four-week run. Only through latter-day re-releases did Link Wray acquire a cult reputation as a compelling and forward-looking piece of honest, handmade Americana. But the Wray brothers’ Shack Three Track experiment wasn’t over and continued later in 1971 with Mordicai Jones.