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A Living Link to Link Wray

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When guitarist Link Wray (1929-2005) released his iconic instrumental hit “Rumble” sixty years ago, it launched a musical revolution. With three chords — two Ds and an open E — Wray summoned the dangerous, rebellious spirits of rock n’ roll so powerfully that many radio markets banned the song out of fear that it would incite juvenile gang violence. But “Rumble” was only the beginning for Link Wray. He recorded and performed tirelessly for over five decades, spreading the rock n’ roll gospel to thrilled audiences worldwide, and often collaborated with artists and musicians of subsequent generations. One notable partnership was with singer Robert Gordon, who teamed up with Wray in New York in the mid-‘70s. At the peak of the punk movement, the twin forces of “neo-rockabilly” singer Gordon and rock n’ roll pioneer Wray created a sensation on the music scene.

Veteran NYC blues-rock musician Jon Paris was in Robert Gordon’s band. He recently shared his memories of what he calls a “magical time” working with Gordon and Wray, and sheds some light on Wray as a musician, an artist, a human being, and one of the true founding fathers of rock n’ roll. When I reached out to Paris for this interview, his enthusiastic email response included a photo from 1979 of him with Wray, Johnny Winter, and Wray’s band members.

Q: What’s this photo you sent me?

A: Well, this was a magical night, not long after I started playing with Johnny Winter. I said to Johnny, “Link Wray’s playing at the Lone Star, let’s go down!” [Note: the Lone Star Cafe was an iconic country/rock venue on the corner of 5th Ave. and 13th St. in NYC; it closed its doors in 1989.] So we went down to the Lone Star, and the minute we walked in and Link saw us, he dragged us onstage. He wouldn’t let Johnny go until the end of the set! Me and Johnny and [bassist] Rob Stoner joined Link and [drummer] Anton Fig and [bassist] Keith Lentin, who were Link’s band at the time. So we all just played the whole set, and Link and Johnny really hit it off; I knew they would. It was magical.

Q: When and how did you start playing with Link Wray and Robert Gordon?

A: In New York in the mid to late ‘70s, there was a lot of stuff going on. Bleecker Street was jumpin’, CBGBs was jumpin’, and I had just put together my own “Jon Paris Band.” I used to play at the Other End, which had been The Bitter End until Paul Colby took over, and Rob Stoner used to play there with his band Rockin’ Rob and The Rebels, with Howie Wyeth on drums. Rob and Howie were on those first couple of Link Wray/Robert Gordon records, and when Rob got the gig playing with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour he recommended me to Robert Gordon. So I auditioned and got the gig, and off to Europe we went!

They had a hit record at the time with “Red Hot,” an old Billy Lee Riley tune. It was a great matchup: They were both from the DC area, and Robert had been a fan of Link’s growing up there. Robert would sing a few tunes, and then he’d introduce Link and Link would do “Rumble” in the middle of the set, and then he would sing a number, maybe “Baby What You Want Me to Do” or “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” And then Robert would come back on and finish the set. It was an exciting time! We were in Europe for about a month, and the rockabilly craze was just starting to bubble up there. I think Robert and Link really opened some doors, for the Stray Cats for example. We played in London, and I got to meet Pete Townshend backstage, who was a big Link Wray fan. This was ’77, I think.

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Q: The height of the punk era!

A: Well, that rebellious nature is in rock n’ roll. And Link personified that: He was the leather jackets and the greased-back hair, even before there were titles for it. It made such an impression on me when I’d be onstage with Link and he’s doing “Rumble,” and I’m thinking, “That was a hit 20 years ago, and here he is making it relevant today, 20 years later, and putting his heart and soul into it.” I mean, how many guys have hit records, and after five years they’re like “Ugh, I’m sick of that song!” I think about this often, being a big Chuck Berry fan and singing “Johnny B Goode” with Johnny Winter almost every night, and those guys would never get sick of it. Chuck must have played “Johnny B Goode” 10,000 times! One of my regrets in life is that I never had a hit record to get sick of, but it ain’t over ‘til it’s over! (Laughs)

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Q: How did Link hook up with Robert Gordon?

A: Robert was the lead singer with the band Tuff Darts, and they were on that CBGBs scene. But I don’t think his heart was in that; he loved rock and roll and rockabilly, and it was his vision to go in that direction. And Link was the perfect candidate for that. I think through Richard Gottehrer, who was producing Robert, he suggested, “Hey, let’s get in touch with Link Wray.” And it worked!

Q: What was Link doing just prior to joining Robert?

A: Well, if you look at his history he’d been working nonstop. He’d had a band with John Cipollina, and Jerry Garcia played on some of his recordings. Link was a very prolific guy. He made a lot of records.

Q: When did you first hear Link Wray, and how did his music affect you?

A: I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and I started out playing drums. We were playing the repertoire of the world: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and some blues like Bobby Bland and Freddie King. I remember hearing “Rumble” on my dad’s transistor radio and I thought “Wow!” It was kinda like coming from outer space: what is this sound, you know?

Q: Isn’t it amazing how that song evokes so much drama and emotion with just a few simple chords?

A: Yeah, that’s a great point: talk about maximum effect, minimum effort! You’ve got those four chords and a pentatonic blues scale and that’s it! Yet it creates this incredible, emotional piece of music. I play “Rumble” just about every chance I get.

Q: What are some other key Link Wray tracks for newcomers to check out?

A: He set the tone for these riff-meisters like Jimmy Page and Keith Richards! He would come up with these great guitar riffs. There’s “Jack The Ripper.” He covered “Apache,” the instrumental; Link was Native American so he had a couple of Native American references. And you should check out some of his vocals: “Hidden Charms,” an old Willie Dixon tune, and this tune “Fallin’ Rain” that’s covered in this Stephen King series [Hulu’s Castle Rock]. Just a great, soulful singer; a force of nature! There’s a great clip of Link on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and he does one of his hits called “Rawhide.” You’re a Led Zeppelin fan, right?

Q: Absolutely.

A: You’ll notice the similarities between “Rawhide” and “Rock and Roll!”

Q: Strictly speaking, how would you classify Link’s music: rockabilly, rock n’ roll, early rock n’ roll…?

A: I think of it as rock n’ roll. But [as far as] the term “rockabilly,” when you talk to people that were there in the ‘50s who were fans of Elvis and Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly and all those cats, I don’t think “rockabilly” was even a term then. It came into existence after people tried to describe that “hillbilly meets blues meets country” sound. I think even Robert might think of himself as a “singer” more than a “rockabilly singer.” And Link was a “guitar player.” He started out playing country, and when rock n’ roll hit he liked it. So he started making rock records and playing rock dances. It was the wild west back then!

I was thinking about some of the people I’ve been blessed to work with: Johnny Winter, Bo Diddley, I got to know Les Paul and jam with him many times. And looking at Link and Bo and Les, there’s a lot of similarities, you know? All guitar fanatics chasing “that sound,” you know? Link was sticking pencils in his speakers to make them distort, and Bo was experimenting with overdubbing, stuff that Les had pioneered. Just driven guys, all of them, just passionate about the music. You know, we’re all looking for that magical, elusive sound!

Q: Do you think that Link understood how important he was to the history of rock n’ roll, and did he feel that he received the credit he deserved?

A: That’s a tough one. I went to see him at a club in The Village and wound up standing next to [bassist] Gary Tallent, from Bruce Springsteen’s band. And at the end of the night, Link got me up to play harp and got Garry up to sit in on bass. And afterwards we went backstage and he was thrilled to see us; we were like long-lost family to him. And I got the sense that he really felt isolated, that the world had kind of forgotten his importance. I think he had a sense of what he had contributed, but it’s hard to say. It makes me think about Johnny Winter, and what he did with Muddy Waters, shining the spotlight on Muddy and doing those records with him. And then Stevie Ray Vaughan with Lonnie Mack, getting Lonnie some attention. I think it’s just harder to do these days; people are so focused on getting their thing across.

This year is the 60th anniversary of “Rumble,” and I had a great experience earlier this year. They had a 60th-anniversary party at Generation Records in The Village. I got to meet Link’s eldest daughter Beth; her son, Link’s grandson, played with his trio and did all Link Wray songs. This was in the basement of Generation Records, and unfortunately, an event like that should have happened at the Beacon Theater! That’s how important Link Wray is to me, and a lot of people. You’ve seen the clip with Jimmy Page from “It Might Get Loud?” Page is going thru his favorite records and he picks out “Rumble” and plays the 45, and here Jimmy Page suddenly becomes a 15-year-old kid again! He’s all excited, going “Oh, here’s where the tremolo comes on!”

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Q: How would you sum up Link Wray’s impact on rock and roll? Visionary? Pioneer? Innovator?

A: All of those! There’s a movement to get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, Link’s not a household name; he’s a household name in guitar-player households! But he really should be more recognized. I just can’t say enough good things about the guy: tremendous warmth, and the minute you walked into his dressing room you just felt this love, you know? I love Link. I miss him. I sat in with him at BB Kings’ in 2005; he called me up to play harmonica and sing. Robert Plant was in the audience that night, and before Link called me up I went over to his table — I’d met Robert years ago — and I said: “You should come back and talk to Link.” And he said, “Oh no, I’m just here to hear the master!” Very reverent. He said, “I play ‘Rumble’ on my ghetto blaster every night before I go onstage!”

One thing I wanted to say about Link, and this thing of putting labels on stuff. I’ll never forget: I was playing with Robert and Link, I think we were in Nashville in a club there. After soundcheck, Link was just sittin’ around messin’ with the guitar, and I hung out with him for a while. And he played a beautiful version of “Misty,” you know? Beautiful changes like Johnny Smith or Wes Montgomery. And it just cemented my theory that if you’re a musician, you play “music!” And people back then in the ‘50s were influenced by the ‘40s, so you’d know some pop and jazz standards.

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Q: What was the most important thing you learned from working with Link Wray?
A: The main thing I got from Link, aside from forcing myself to learn some standards and some country stuff (laughs), was just attitude. I mean, here we were touring Europe, and Robert would introduce Link every night, and Link would play “Rumble.” And this was ’77, like twenty years after it had been a hit, and he was playing it every night like his life depended on it. He would put his whole heart and soul into those three minutes! That was a great lesson for me.

The other thing I think of often, and it relates to Bo Diddley as well: I’ve never been a big drug [or] drink guy. I’ve always been in it for the music; that was the thrill, that was the high for me. And Link: totally straight. Bo Diddley: totally straight. I don’t think I ever saw either of them take a drink; maybe Link had a glass of wine with dinner or something [but that’s it]. But here were guys who were real straight-ahead guys, and they’d get onstage and rock like crazy, you know? Because they loved the music and the energy. That was the drive.

Writer’s Note: Mr. Paris’ comments have been edited for brevity and consistency.

John Montagna

Photo Credits: Rock’n’roll guitarist Link Wray (1929 – 2005) performs on stage at The Venue in London, 2nd June 1979. (Photo by David Warner Ellis/Redferns/Getty Images); smaller image of Link Wray and other musicians by photo credit to Jim Wilson courtesy of Jon Paris.

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John Montagna is a bass guitarist, singer, songwriter (but not a “singer-songwriter”) and Brooklyn Native. He has toured the world and elsewhere with Alan Parsons, Todd Rundgren, The Turtles (featuring Flo & Eddie) and many other legendary hit makers, and he created the theme music for the top-rated comedy podcast “WTF With Marc Maron.” John prefers to view his all-consuming obsession with The Beatles as an asset, rather than a liability.

1 comment on “A Living Link to Link Wray

  1. What a great piece! I started hearing local bands in upstate NY in about 1960 or 61. Every teenage guitarist channeled Link Wray, and they probably burned out lots of small Fender amps!

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