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Link Wray and his Ray Men, Power Chord Pioneers

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Link Wray and his Ray Men broke into American pop music in 1958 with a loud guitar riff later characterized as the power chord, and a song that made some radio disc jockeys fearful of violence.

But the Wrays, Vernon, Link and Doug, were no 1950s-era gang members. They were three brothers who were journeymen musicians by the time they reached their early 20s. As babies, they learned to sing along with their Shawnee Indian mother while she picked cotton and they picked up the guitar one afternoon from a worker in a traveling carnival who spied the three boys in a North Carolina yard trying to play the instrument.

In the mid-1940s the brothers played country and western before slipping into 1950s pop in the Perry Como mold. Then Link Wray cut loose on a demo, a recording that was headed for the wastebasket when a record executive’s daughter chanced to play it. The song “Rumble” that she deemed to be right out of “West Side Story” has captivated generations of rock stars, movie directors and music lovers. Its signature power chord is credited as a progenitor of classic rock, punk and heavy metal.

Link Wray and his Ray Men were featured in the 2010 exhibition “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Pop Culture” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Recently, Sherry Wray, Link’s niece and the manager of the family music business that Link’s older brother, Vernon, started in the 1950s, talked with American Indian News Service editor Kara Briggs.

The story of Link Wray and his brothers is like a movie, or a song with three parts. Sherry Wray said that the brothers were close, working together in the studio and on stage even as Link Wray rose as a headliner. Vernon Wray worked to make music the family business as early as the 1940s when he first formed an orchestra and later a band featuring Link Wray on guitar. The family music company has held the licenses to the music of Link Wray and his Ray Men, which has allowed the family to direct its use, primarily in major motion pictures in the last 20 years.

Many rock superstars credit Link Wray and his distorted guitar with inspiring them, including Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, the Kinks, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. Sherry Wray is most excited about a new generation of Native American artists, including 36-year-old Mohawk rock musician Derek Miller, who reminds her of her uncle Link as a young man. Sherry Wray met Miller at the opening of “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.”

During an outdoor concert last summer at the museum, Miller told the audience, “Without Doug, “Rumble” would not have happened. It’s his stroll beat that sparked the whole thing. The Wray brothers shaped the voice of America!”

Briggs: For the last 30 years you have run the music company that holds the licenses to Link Wray’s hits. It’s the business your dad, Vernon Wray, started with his brothers, Link and Doug, in the 1950s.

Wray: Several people have said, “Do you know you are probably one of six to 10 independent private publishing companies in the world?” I do now.

Briggs: Your family, who would become Link Wray and his Ray Men, started out as kids playing music together.

Wray: My father, Vernon Wray, was the first of the three to get a record deal. Through that deal and the ensuing session, is how my uncle, Link Wray got to do the demo that became “Rumble.” My father’s youngest brother, Doug Wray, was the drummer. You don’t realize what a wonderful drummer Doug Wray had to be to keep time with Link Wray’s guitar rhythm. They started playing together as kids. There are a lot of families who were in business together, but I can’t think of a single one who is as close as mine was. It was like having three fathers. They were in the studio every spare minute, and they toured together all the time.

Briggs: Where did the Wray family come from? And I’ve read in interviews that Link Wray gave before his death in 2005 that part of the answer is poverty, they came from poverty. Link told one reporter, “We weren’t dirt poor like a white family. We were Shawnee dirt poor.”

Wray: Dunn, N.C., was where my grandfather was born, and my grandfather didn’t move the family to Portsmouth, Va., until 1942. They were absolutely dirt poor. He was mustard-gassed in World War I, [and] when he got out of the Army they had to do share-cropping. My grandmother was Shawnee. She was crippled at 11. There were kids who teased her. The nutrition wasn’t as good as it became later. When one of the girls put her knee in Lilly’s back, it broke her back. The Indians were the ones who built a brace out of buckskin and bone for her, so when she stood her body could be supported. She kept all her body functions and her spine wasn’t injured. She had three children. All three [babies] weighed over 10 pounds. I don’t know how she did it. She would take the children on a picnic blanket and sing to them all day long while she picked cotton, to keep their focus on her, and as they got older they sang with her. They were church-going—everyone was in those days—so they sang in church.

Briggs: Music was simply part of their lives, and maybe in that time between the world wars, it was a part of country life. Entertainment was singing in family, or if you were really gifted, obtaining and playing an instrument. You were saying there was a special story about when Link got his first guitar.

Wray: Link got a hold of a guitar. I don’t know how he did, but he did. There was this black man, the only name I ever had was Hambone, and he saw the boys trying to play the guitar. So he came over and showed Link how to play a few chords and how to tune his guitar. He showed Link how to use the bottle-neck slide. He taught him for one afternoon, total. My mother is 83 and still alive. Once I asked her, “Why do you think they made it?” She said “Because they were so determined.”

Briggs: By World War II, the family moved to Portsmouth, Va., where your grandfather got work in the war industries. The bigger town gave your dad and uncles the chance to move up into the ranks of professional musicians.

Wray: As soon as my dad was old enough, he started running around and playing in any group that would let him. In those days, there was a club or some venue on every corner where you could go and hear live music and dance, and surprisingly that didn’t go away until the 1970s. So he got work in the Starlight Room. My dad, Vernon, founded an orchestra, and he played drums. It was the Vernon Wray Orchestra. He also started the first taxi-cab franchise in Portsmouth, and later Link would drive the cab for his brother. Vernon waxed bowling alleys for 2 cents a lane. When Link hit 16, well, people who were underage couldn’t go into bars and drink, but they could go in and play in bars. My father left the orchestra and they put together a band with Link on guitar, Vernon moved to the rhythm guitar, and Doug played the drums.

Briggs: Rock and roll is what Link Wray and his Ray Men are known to play. But this was 1946; it was way before the birth of rock and roll. Link Wray was the kid brother to Vernon, who was the front man. Vernon, your dad, sang and led the band, which consisted mostly by now of Link and Doug.

Wray: They also hired Shorty Horton, who was the bass player on all the Link Wray early hits. Back then, unless you were playing big band or country you weren’t playing. They went to work playing country and western music. They had all the western regalia. They were playing all the local venues and getting plenty of work. As the 1950s approached there was a place [Fernwood Farms near South Norfolk] in Virginia owned by Norman, Willie and Earl Phelps [the group the Virginia Rounders]. It was a combination of a stable, and there was a dance hall. They held dances there every weekend. Virginia had a lot of blue laws so people would show up with their “hard drinks” in paper bags and the dance hall would have ice and soft drinks as mixers. We kept our horses there, and my dad struck up a friendship with the Phelps’ and they started to play there, billing themselves as Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands. There was another guy, Sheriff Tex Davis, and when they played at his place, The Lazy Pine Ranch, they were Lucky Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers. Link was always extremely innovative. He kept experimenting around. By the early 1950s he was giving the music a little more of an edge. What Link said was when he saw how the kids reacted he immediately started playing around with things. They were able to set up a portable four-track and begin recording in the kitchen at home.

Briggs: The Wray brothers started sending out demos. The record labels weren’t all very good. One they used never distributed their records and made them pay for the privilege of having the records pressed. This is a story that could only be told in the post-war era, when national affluence and large, young populations of consumers contributed to a booming recording industry.

Wray: The Wray brothers were trying to play things more pop-ish, like Patti Page and the Chordettes. The record industry recognized only country music and that whole generic pop thing. They came to D.C. My dad hired an agent. Link and Doug were in the hospital in 1956 with TB. Dad’s agent was in one club and my dad was singing at another club. In those days they sent out talent scouts. The scout came into the club and sat down on the bar stool next to Dad’s agent who told him, you have to go hear Vernon Wray. Vernon signed with Cameo Records in Philadelphia, which had also signed Andy Williams and Pat Boone. Vernon asked if he could have his brothers play with him. Link got a medical pass to get out of the hospital to go play on the session. They were so impressed with Link that they decided they decided to get Archie Bleyer of Cadence to hear Link. Archie Bleyer came down to Fredericksburg, Virginia to listen to Link and stayed the whole evening at a record hop. But he hated the studio version of Rumble until his daughter heard it and said it reminded her of “West Side Story.” They release it as “Oddball.”

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Briggs: “Rumble” is released in 1958. Link was 28 years old, and Vernon 33, but the record company’s promotional department made them younger. “Rumble” was the game changer that among other things brought Link to the front of the band.

Wray: I rely on what my dad said. He was an amazing historian. He said it got airplay, but not in every city. In Boston the DJ took it off the record player and broke it and said “It will never get played on this station again.” But the next week it did because it was climbing the Billboard chart. Gang activity was a big deal, people were afraid, but that wasn’t what they [the Wrays] were doing. They were just trying to be innovative with their sound.

Briggs: Other things were changing in music that would change the dynamics of this literal band of brothers.

Wray: No one got filthy rich back then, even though the money was nice, the touring was nice. They still played the club circuit around D.C. They all performed and all sang. The record companies were working with all of them. The record company reversed my dad’s name from Vernon Wray to Ray Vernon. My dad’s record career was still going. But he understood supply and demand. There was Perry Como, Pat Boone, Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. There were so many guys singing in the pop venue. He moved into a businessman position, and let his contract go and opened a recording studio. After “Rumble,” they would release Link Wray and the Ray Men’s “Rawhide” in 1959 and “Jack the Ripper” in [1961].

Briggs: Link Wray’s sound was one part his innovative guitar playing, but it was also the recording, and the backup, notably by your uncle Doug on the drums for all of the hits.

Wray: There was a ton of musical talent that came shooting out in the late 1950s, but the engineering from those big studios was you get what you get. My father was a genius as a recording engineer. All you have to do is listen to anything Link Wray and then listen to the recording by the other early rock instrumentalists. When you listen to Link Wray music there is a top, middle and bottom. My dad did all manner of things to get the kind of sound out of things that he wanted. I can remember the first time I saw him pull the front off a bass drum and stuff it full of blankets. I am almost positive Link invented the power chord because I can remember all the experimenting they did.

Briggs: Rock music is full of outsized egos. A lot of family bands eventually split because of all kinds of differences. But the Wray brothers never did.

Wray: They fought more about the creative process; they didn’t fight about not liking and loving each other. They would argue over “I want to do it this way,” and then they would do it.

Briggs: So what happened as music changed in the 1960s?

Wray: In the early 1960s their releases did great regionally, and they were touring like mad, doing television, and playing the college circuit. But when the Beatles came, it got tough. They kept playing and working together. In 1969 they did an album, “Yesterday-Today.” They did old hits on one side, and new songs like “Genocide.” “Genocide’s” very ominous sounding, and would later be used in this year’s Ray Liotta movie called “Street Kings of Motor City.”

Briggs: The whole folk-rock genre took hold in 1970. But there was still a fan base for Link Wray, and his Ray Men had by now established a fan base internationally.

Wray: There was a small house in back of our house, as a joke my dad spray-painted on it, “Wray’s Shack, 3 Tracks” and moved the studio into it. In 1971 Polydor issued “Link Wray,” recorded at the Shack and engineered by my Dad; and re-established him as a viable musician, and brought the Wray family back again into the popular music scene. On the album cover was Link’s profile, wearing an Indian headband. “Fire and Brimstone” was a hit and was later covered by the Neville Brothers on their album “Yellow Moon.” “Fallin’ Rain” was another hit that the Neville Brothers covered later. Rolling Stone did a big spread on the family. At the time they played the Troubadour with Kris Kristofferson, and that was a love fest. That was when the Wray family moved back into the public eye. Link Wray had been so distinctive for so many years, and people must have thought my, gosh, there’s a whole family.

Briggs: Link Wray is credited with inventing the power chord and the Ray Men are known for not only playing, but expertly recording this music. It was a lot rockabilly, but it was also on the leading edge of the classic generation of rock and roll. So Link Wray and the Ray Men are in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and many people think Link Wray should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wray: The story is how [a young] Bob Dylan took some of his last money to see a Link Wray concert in Minnesota. When Link died in 2005, Jimmy McDonough, who did the biography of Neil Young, called me for information. I’d been hearing that Neil Young said, if I could go back in time I would want to see Link Wray and the Ray Men perform. Jimmy said that was true. When what he played affected people like Pete Townshend, who said he used to sit with his ear to the speakers trying to pick out Link’s chord progressions and Jimmy Page, and they acknowledge that they were inspired by Link, then maybe he ought to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Briggs: Vernon Wray died in 1979, and Doug Wray in 1984. The business that your dad built remains one of a handful of independent music companies left in the world. Owning the rights to all the music of Link Wray and his Ray Men has allowed you to control the music and allow it to only be brought out for prime opportunities.

Wray: After my dad died, I did a lot of work for many years making sure the rights were what they should be. In the beginning all the interest I would get was reissues, but in 1983, I got my first call for a movie, “Breathless,” that starred Richard Gere, and they used “Jack the Ripper” in the pinnacle scene. In 1993 I was sitting in my living room, and a woman called and said she was putting together music for a Quentin Tarantino movie, “Pulp Fiction,” and they wanted “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades.” The 1994 TV movie, “Roadracers,” starring David Arquette as a rebellious guy and Salma Hayek, was next. She was just a kid. There are so many references to Link Wray, at one point there is one of Link’s albums taped to the door of his apartment. She asks, “Who do you like?” And he said, “Link Wray’s cool.” She said, “Is he famous?” And he said, “No, that’s why he’s cool.”

Briggs: In the 1996 blockbuster “Independence Day,” Link Wray’s song is the only music other than the score.

Wray: When 20th Century called, the man said “We spent so much money on the effects that we had to compose our own music, but we have a scene where “Rumble” would fit.” It’s in the bar scene where the men are taunting Randy Quaid’s character about being abducted by aliens, when the ground starts to shake, that’s when you hear “Rumble.”

Briggs: The movies have once again brought Link Wray and his Ray Men to international attention.

Wray: It has been a wonderful experience. It helped me feel worthy of continuing the work my dad and his brothers did. Link Wray got to tour more and have his music introduced to a whole new generation because of these movies. He appeared on Conan O’Brien and was featured on the MTV Guitar Greats Special. He toured heavily in Europe and a couple times in the U.S. until he died in 2005.

What I am left with is our family history, father to son, father to son, and in my case, father to daughter; and what my dad said, “Family is sacred, sacred, and sacred.”