Wray and his Ray Men, Power Chord Pioneers
Condensed by Native Village
The Ray Brothers:
Doug (left), Vernon (center), and Link in
his Army uniform (right)
“We weren’t dirt poor like a
white family. We were Shawnee dirt poor.” Link Ray
Link Wray and his Ray Men are Shawnee tribal members who broke into American pop music in 1958. Their loud guitar riffs,
known later as "power chords," helped inspire rock, punk and heavy metal
continues to captivate generations of music lovers. Rock superstars who
credit Link for inspiring them include Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, the Kinks, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.
And films such as the blockbusters
“Independence Day” and “Pulp Fiction,” featured the
Link's niece, Sherry Wray, now manages the family music business. The family
music company holds the licenses for Link Wray and his Ray Men and controls how
and where the music is used.
Below is an interview between Sherry Wray and American Indian News Service editor, Kara
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.
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.
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
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
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
his daughter heard it and said it reminded her of “West Side Story.” They
release it as “Oddball.”
“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.
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
Ripper” in .
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
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.
Jack the Ripper
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
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.”
to ACE OF
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
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.
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
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
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
Ripper” in the pinnacle scene.
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
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
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
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,