Austin fave Link Wray was born 88 years ago today

The man.

Happy birthday to the late Link Wray, the one-lunged, Shawnee native who changed the way people thought about guitar would have been 88 today. Antone’s celebrates his legacy at a concert later this month.

Wray is credited with inventing (or at least popularizing) both the power chord and distortion as a vital part of a guitarist’s musical palette, two elements upon which the rock ‘n’ roll church is built.

Wray, who hailed from Dunn, N.C., did most of his best work in the Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia/Maryland area. Legend has it that the Korean War veteran came up with his primal rock instrumental ‘Rumble’ while playing a dance at the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Arena.

Someone asked for a stroll, and Wray and his band knocked out one of the most powerful instrumentals of all time. The single was released in ’58 and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Rumble” is a wonderful song to listen to in the autumn — this sound is wind in the Central Virginia hills, leather jackets over heavy flannel shirts and violent D.C. juke joints.

It’s a sound that hypnotized everyone from Pete Townshend to Bob Dylan; bands such as the Cramps and the Rev. Horton Heat built entire careers around the rockabilly-as-menace shtick, mixing it with junk culture and punk rock.

His hits collections, full of ripping instrumentals such as”Raw-Hide,” “Jack the Ripper,” “Ace of Spades,” are mandatory listening for every rock fan.

As the Beatles ascended, instrumental rock faded. In in the late 60s and early 70s, Wray‘s career had a strange second act when he and his band cut three albums over a few years time on his father’s farm in Maryland, the “3-Track Shack.” A blend of blues, country, gospel, Native American chants and folk, they sound like the could have been cut tomorrow. One of them, “Beans and Fatback” was reissued for Record Sore Day 2017.

But he never forgot his overdriven, holes-in-the-amp-speaker roots, especially as punk embraced fuzz and distortion.  “Link Wray: Live at the Paradiso, released in 1979, is a proto-noise-rock stunner.

Wray — who toured until his death and did two nights at the Continental Club several months prior — is remembered for making music that embodied the idea of rock guitar as dangerous, as menacing, as something that could barely be tamed.

For those who want to see Austin players pay tribute to the godfather of distortion, head over to Antone’s on May 13 for the “13 Guitar Rumble” starring Burnin’ Mike Vernon (3 Balls of Fire), Eve Monsees (Exiles), Mike Buck (LeRoi Bros), Denny Freeman (Bob Dylan),  Speedy Sparks (Sir Douglas Quintet), Rosie Flores,
Rick Broussard (Two Hoots and A Holler), Steve Fulton, John X Reed, Danny B Harvey (Nancy Sinatra), Pierre Peligrin (Havana 3am), Pat Collins (LeRoi Bros), Don Leady (Tail Gators), Jack Montesinos (Don Leady’s Rockin Revue) and Homer Henderson along with all kinds of guests.

Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

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