Childhood & Early Life
Wray was born Fred Lincoln Wray, Jr., on May 2, 1929, in Dunn, North Carolina, to Fred Lincoln Wray, Sr., and Lillian M. Wray.
Hambone, a black musician at the 'Barnum and Bailey Circus,' found 8-year-old Wray struggling with a ‘May Bell’ acoustic guitar. He took him under his wings and taught little Wray the basics of music.
Wray and his family moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, when his father got posted in a Navy yard. He paid $20 to the country act ‘Phelps Brothers’ to play with his band.
Wray contracted tuberculosis while he was drafted in the ‘US Army’ during the Korean War (1950–1953). One of his lungs was removed in 1956, and the doctors predicted that he would never be able to sing again.
Wray joined 'Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands,' a band that he had formed with his brothers, Vernon (also known as “Vern”) and Doug, after returning from Korea. The band eventually moved from North Carolina to Washington, DC, where they recorded an EP.
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Wray recorded his first song, titled 'Lucky Wray,' in 1956, for which he used a 1953 ‘Gibson Les Paul’ guitar run through a 'Premier' amplifier. The following year, influenced by Elvis Presley, Wray developed his guitar style, by punching holes in his amplifiers, and coordinated it with a slow drag across distorted guitar strings in a simple chord progression, which produced a gurgling sound.
Wray used the rumbling sound in his first hit track, 'Rumble' (1958). However, the song was banned at New York and Boston radio stations, as it had suggestive teenage gang violence elements. Following the success of 'Rumble,' Wray's band was renamed 'Link Wray and the Raymen.' It was also known as 'Wraymen.'
The Wrays signed a contract with the label 'Epic' after disagreeing with their original label, 'Cadence,' which had asked them to tone down the tough image they had acquired through 'Rumble.'
In the 1960s, Wray often performed at underground clubs, hillbilly joints, and in Greenwich Village (with Bob Dylan). He also sang for his label. He played the guitar for Bunker Hill's (the gospel singer David Walker) record 'Hide and Go Seek.' Wray's distinct scream in the track still thrills rock lovers.
Wray’s' next hit single was the instrumental 'Rawhide,' in which he experimented with his new 'Danelectro Longhorn' guitar. Wray became a juvenile felon icon, which scared record companies back then. He was constantly forced by his labels to record non-rock songs.
Following the ruckus of Wray's violence-inspired music, the Wrays formed their own record company, 'Rumble Records.' They released their next hit, 'Jack the Ripper,' in July 1961 (1963 in the US and reissued in 1967). The track was later used in the film 'Breathless.'
Wray’s relationship with his brother Vernon (who was the 'Rumble Records' manager) soured soon after. As a result, Vernon sold the rights for ‘Rumble’ and other classics and destroyed several master tapes of their early songs.
The Wrays signed with the US-based 'Swan Records' after 'Rumble Records' crashed. Unlike 'Cadence,' 'Swan' gave them full creative freedom, which resulted in a decade of improvised, guitar-heavy records. Wray had a career-high stint (mostly as a surf guitarist) during his tenure with 'Swan' (1963–1967).
However, the 1970s were full of ups and downs for Wray. Many of his singles, such as 'The Sweeper,' 'Good Rockin' Tonight,' and a jokey cover of the 'Batman Theme,' did disappointing business.
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Wray then moved to his family farm in Accokeek, Maryland, where he converted a chicken shack into a small three-track studio and released the album 'Link Wray' (1971, under 'Polydor'). The album tracks displayed Wray's frustration. It was a flop despite being critically lauded. His subsequent releases, too, could not make a splash.
Wray's next home-made release was 'Beans and Fatback,' which his management licensed to 'Virgin' in 1973. He had no idea about it and thus refused to do the promotions. Wray later made another album for ‘Virgin,’ titled 'Stuck In Gear' (1975).
In the early 1970s, he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where bassist James "Hutch" Hutchinson introduced him to 'Quicksilver Messenger Service' guitarist John Cipollina. He later formed a band that initially featured "Hutch," drummer David Weber, and guitarist John Cipollina (as a special guest). Wray also featured in the rhythm section from Cipollina's band 'Copperhead.'
While in the Bay Area, Wray did numerous concerts and radio broadcasts, including ‘KSAN’ and the 'Winterland Ballroom.'
Toward the end of the 1970s, Wray collaborated with 'Tuff Darts' singer Robert Gordon for the albums 'Robert Gordon with Link Wray' (1977) and 'Fresh Fish Special' (1978) and performed together at several live shows. Wray recorded several drum-machine-based albums in the 1980s. Back then, he rarely did live concerts to show the guitar skills he had pioneered.
The year 1979 witnessed the release of Wray's heavier sound in 'Bullshot,' which featured a quiet revival of Elvis Presley's 'Don't.' His 'Live at the Paradiso, Amsterdam' (1982) included a cover version of 'I Saw Her Standing There' by 'The Beatles.'
Wray had a career boost in 1994, when his earlier releases, 'Rumble' and 'Ace of Spades' (1965), were featured in Quentin Tarantino's cult film 'Pulp Fiction.' He subsequently played in four songs from French rockstar Alain Bashung's album 'Chatterton' and released two albums which showcased Wray's new kind of music.
In the late 1990s, he performed in front of a young audience in London. He released his final album, 'Barbed Wire,' in 2000 and toured around until his death.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Wray's parents were semi-literate street preachers and Shawnee Native Americans.
Wray was married four times. He was initially married to Elizabeth Canady Wray. They had two children: Elizabeth (Beth) and Fred Lincoln. His second wife was Katherine Tidwell Wray. They had three children: Link Elvis, Mona Kay, and Ramona. He was then married to Sharon Cole Wray. They had three children: Rhonda, Char, and Shane. His fourth wife was Olive Julie Povlsen. They had a son named Oliver Christian.
In 2013 and 2017, Wray was nominated for the 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.'
Wray had moved to Denmark in the early 1980s.
Wray died on November 5, 2005, at his home in Copenhagen, due to heart failure. He was cremated in the crypt of the ‘Christian's Church,’ Copenhagen.