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The '50s were full of inspired and essential guitar stylists--Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Luther Perkins--but nobody rode the black back of the unpredictable, just-born beast called electric guitar with the panache of Link Wray. His "Rumble," released in 1958 although recorded years earlier, is still the electric guitar instrumental; a slow processional designed to invoke the mood of a gathering gang fight, it has been mentioned as a heart-stopping moment by more guitarists than you can count. No less a light than Pete Townshend gives "Rumble" credit for not only his own inspiration, but for the formation of the Who. Indeed, when Wray stopped by the studio to meet the band during the recording of Who's Next in 1971, his presence so affected Keith Moon that the madcap drummer stripped off all of his clothes and ran about the studio, shouting "That's him! This is the guy! 'Rumble!'"
Wray is the guy, but for more reasons than most know. Born in North Carolina into a family of brush arbor preachers and pickers, he lived the life that hipsters like the Stones could only dream about and pretend to, battling semi-anonymity and sporadically putting out albums. In Accokeek, Maryland, he and his brothers--who often played with him--built their own three-track studio in the familial manse, a built-on combination of house and chicken coop that would make John Waters proud. Bob Feldman--once of the Strangeloves and the producer of the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back"--got Wray a deal with Polydor's just-opened American branch.
Wray's Polydor albums are a triumph of the era's Americana. Very close to the experimentation of the Stones' Gram Parsons-inspired efforts, Little Feat's first album, and the work of the Delaney-and-Bonnie-Bramlett/Tulsa mafia axis, Wray's recordings--Link Wray and Mordecai Jones (1971), Be What You Want To (1973), and The Link Wray Rumble (1974)--are undiscovered relics of that era, featuring players like Jerry Garcia (on steel), Commander Cody, and Bill Kirchen. At the same time, Virgin released Beans and Fatback, a rootsier collection of songs like the traditional "Take My Hand (Precious Lord)" that never saw the light of day in the states.
Wray recorded with Robert Gordon in the late '70s, producing albums like Robert Gordon with Link Wray and Fresh Fish Special--full of retro '50s flavors and accents that wouldn't be cool for another five years, minimum--lending those albums a near-unforgettable guitar presence. On a head-ripping "Lonesome Train, Lonesome Track," Wray renders what is one of the most savagely ass-kicking leads of all time, his rent-fabric tone the perfect complement to Gordon's heartbroken, hiccup-y vocals. Wray has an excellent new album out called Shadowman. The album gets the same spooky atmospherics that have long been Wray's trademark--as electric as a car battery and darkly sinister--as he plays his songs and tears up covers like "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Run Through the Jungle"; the flinty shriek of his guitar and his not-a-singer's voice, combined with the basic relentlessness of his whole approach, puts you in mind of old Velvet Underground or John Cale, but Wray's path to that spot is genuinely his own.
He doesn't even need a new release, for whenever a kid pushes the "tremolo" switch on his amp to see what that will do, or turns his amp and guitar all the way up for the sheer hell of it, Link Wray is there. His imitators are legion, but he himself is one man, and this is your chance to see him.
Link Wray plays Trees Saturday, June 21.