Interview by Lee Sobel
(c) Lo-Fi Magazine #8, 1998
Lee Sobel: I just saw you at Tramps. You were great.
Link: I had a blast. Anton Fig came backstage to see me. He was on the last
tour I did with Robert Gordon. He plays drums for David Letterman’s band
now with Paul Shafer. It was a great gig at Tramps, man, l loved it. The kids
were lovely. They were like 17, 18 years old a lot of ‘em, all bangin’ on the stage.
Lee Sobel: You really gave your all at the show.
Link: You could see that my heart and soul was in it. I love rock and roll.
The spirit of rock and roll is like any church. I’m very spiritual. I give all my credit to Jesus God who pulled me out of the death house when all the army doctors said I’d be dead tomorrow. I was in the Korean War, y’know. Before they gave me surgery I was heaving up blood. The fuckin’ army doctors didn’t give me any hope that I would survive. I had tuberculosis. But I didn’t die. They rushed me into the operating room and took one lung out. But I survived it. Then when I came out of the death house God gave me “Rumble.” And I’ve been rumblin’ ever since, man.
Lee Sobel: How are you liking this tour and how is it different for you?
Link: I’ve been touring Europe pretty much constantly. I’ve been living in Copenhagen practically since Robert and I finished. I lived on Hollywood Blvd. in L.A. for about six months after that and met my wife Olive. We got married in Las Vegas. She didn’t like Las Vegas so we went back to Denmark and got married in a Danish church. We had a son named Oliver Christian, who’s now 14 years old. I'm happy to live in Denmark, but I’m also happy to be back in America playing over here. This is my first time back since 1985 when I did a thing called “The Guitar Greats” on MTV with all the great guitar players. Then I went back to Denmark. I just toured Europe and in 1988 I did a record for Ace Records. Three of the songs went into the movie “Johnny Suede.” Now “Rumble” is in “Independence Day,” “Ace of Spades” is in “Pulp Fiction,” “Jack the Ripper” is in “Desperado.” I hung out with Robert Rodriguez, director of “Desperado” in Austin. He has a movie coming out on video called “Road Racer” and it's got five Link Wray songs on it.
Lee Sobel: Do you think you were ahead of your time?
Link: I don't know if I was ahead of my time, but I knew I couldn’t be Elvis
or Jerry Lee because I couldn’t sing. So I devoted all of my time and my
energy and my soul into my guitar and sound, like punching holes in my
speaker. Alter I created “Rumble” in ‘56 in Fredricksburg, Virginia, I went
into the studio and couldn’t duplicate the sound. Now I just push my foot
down on a button on a box, y’know. But back in those days I didn’t have
that. So I had to go into the studio and create my own sounds to make it
happen. So I had to punch holes in my speakers. Then when I made “Rawhide” I saw this longhorn Danelectro guitar in a magazine for $60. Now if you try to buy the same guitar it costs you $5-10,000. I used these off brand guitars to try to get a certain sound. When I think up each song I try to find a sound to put around it. I try to have each song have its own personality.
Lee Sobel: Some of your music seemed to be the soundtrack of juvenile delinquency in the late 50’s.
Link: When “Rumble” came out there were all these gang fights going on, so they banned the song on the radio in New York in ‘ '58. Even Dick Clark told me he couldn't say the title of the song because of the gang fights.
Lee Sobel: Had juvenile delinquency entered into your head at all when you wrote the song?
Link: No, not at all. It was a stroll, a dance. In 1957 the Diamonds had a number
one song in Billboard called “The Stroll.” A disc jockey got up on the stage and
said, “Link, give me a stroll.” I said “I don’t know a stroll.” My brother Doug said,
“l know the beat to a stroll,” so he started playing a real hard beat, the “Rumble”
beat. So I started playing “Rumble.” My brother Ray took the microphone that
you sing through and he put it into the speakers of my amplifier. Back in those
days nobody miked amplifiers, so it was really pulsating through this small
speaker. That’s why I had to later punch holes in the speakers to get that sound,
because it was rattling and distortion was coming out of the speakers. There were
about 5,000 kids in the audience that all rushed to the stage, hollerin‘ and screaming
during this wild instrumental I was playing. It was really amazing. l just made it up
on the spot. l just let my emotions carry when he died his daughter sold ‘em. These
were never supposed to be released. But I have to live with that.
Lee Sobel: I understand you worked some pretty tough nightclubs in the D.C. area back in the 50’s.
Link: There was a place called Vinny’s on 10th Street. I'd play and some guy would jump up on the stage and do "Jack the Ripper" with me. Then he'd jump back down in the audience and start fighting; people would pull out their knives and cut each other. I'd take a break and go outside and the police would come and carry 'em all out and I'd go back in and play again. Ha-ha-ha. It's rock and roll. I've done the same thing in country bars with hillbillies fighting each other with knives and bottles. A lot of country musicians have fishnet over the bandstand so when a beer bottle would fly it wouldn't hit 'em.
Lee Sobel: Do you find Europeans more reverent of your status as an original rock and roller than Americans are?
Link: Europeans look at me as an American playing rock and roll
in Europe as being authentic, because they know Elvis and Jerry
Lee started rock and roll. Then Elvis opened the door for everybody
else. In Europe they give credit to Elvis and people like me from
America as authentic. I first went to England in '75 and I had no
idea my music was so big over there. I met Pete Townsend and
some of the Beatles and they told me how much they loved it.
When I came back here I said to my wife Olive maybe I won't get
the same reception here I get in Europe because I'm just an
American playing to another American. But when I hit the stage
and all these kids yell we love you, I realized it didn't matter where
I was. The kids are the same. With the spirit of rock and roll it
doesn't matter what language they speak.
Lee Sobel: It's been said that you created the power chord, that you somehow started heavy metal.
Link: That's fine with me. I'm not against it. I guess "Rumble" was the first song that was distorted. It wasn't Chet Atkins. It wasn't clean. So I guess you'd call my stuff really dirty and menacing.
Lee Sobel: Did you have any problem with the studio engineer when you did "Rumble"?
Link: I produced it myself. We did it on a one-track German Grundig machine. I had the engineer Tom put mikes on everybody. We had a stand-up bass with a hole it in from a fight. We put the mic through the hole in the bass. Like I said I punched holes in the speakers to get my sound. He got a mix and in three takes it was done. It became a four million seller. So I never had any fights with the engineers in the studios up until I went on the big labels like Polydor and Epic. When I went on Epic I gave them "Rawhide" and it was a big hit, but after that they wanted me to do other kinds of music I didn't want to do. I said, "This is not Link Wray," so I left them. I went back home and recorded "Jack the Ripper" on my own label in 1960. I put it into all these one-stopper record shops across America. Then in 1963 Swan Records bought it and put it out and it became a million seller.
Lee Sobel: Who were some of the original artists
that inspired you?
Link: I was listening to great country guitar players,
Chet Atkins, Johnny Sith, Barney Ressel, Les Paul,
Hank Garland, Tal Farlow. I don't think of myself as
an old rock and roller.
Lee Sobel: When you closed your show you sang
to the audience, "You're so young and beautiful
and I'm so fuckin' old." But you're not old, not the
way you play. I don't think you know how old you are.
Link: I don't think my music is old.
Lee Sobel: What was it like for you to have a four-million selling hit with "Rumble"?
Link: I was just a country boy. I didn't even know who having a hit was. Cadence put it out. They were based in New York. Andy Williams was on the label. Then instead of just local bars in D.C. and around Maryland and Virginia that knew Link Wray, then it suddenly seemed like the whole world knew who I was. I was doing interviews and radio shows and TV shows and my whole life changed. All of a sudden Pandora's box opened for me.
Lee Sobel: Your guitar is called "Screamin' Red."
Link: That's my main guitar. I also just got this silver one my wife bought for me. It's the first Strat I've ever played because I've always played Gibsons. My main guitar "Screamin' Red" I've been playing since 1964. I have a '59 Gibson I used to play but it's too old now and the wood on it has gotten too soft and it cracks easy. It's an antique so I leave it at home.
Lee Sobel: You mentioned before that you weren't a good singer, but that's not true anymore because at the show I saw and on your new record you had a wonderful singing voice.
Link: Thank you very much.
Lee Sobel: I just interviewed Robert Gordon who you worked with...
Link: I haven't seen him in a long, long time. Not since ur last gig at The Music
Machine in London in '79. Bob Dylan and Sid Vicious came backstage to see
us that night. Robert is a lovely person.
Lee Sobel: How did you like working with Robert Gordon?
Link: I was living in San Francisco at the time; Robert's producer Richard Gottehrer called me and said he has this here kid who is a Link What fan who saw me play with Little Richard in Maryland when I had "Jack the Ripper" out in '63. He was just a teenager in the audience. So I said he’s gotta be black. Richard Gottehrer said, “No, he’s a white Jewish kid.” I said all I saw was black kids because it was Little Richard and a black audience. This was at Glen Echo Park. So Robert told his producer he wanted to get me to play with him on his record. So I said send me a plane ticket. So I listened to Robert and I liked him. I thought he sounded like a young Elvis. We got the Rolling Thunder Revue to back us on rhythm and went to this studio called Plaza Sound at Radio City Music Hall where Richard Gottehrer had produced Blondie's first album. I didn't ask to be half on the bill with Robert, but that's the way Robert called the record, "Robert Gordon With Link Wray." Going on tour with Robert in Europe brought me to Denmark where I met my wife Olive.
Lee Sobel: Have you ever thought about moving back to America?
Link: Not really. All of my family passed away, so the only thing that brings me over here is my music.
Lee Sobel: What keeps you so young?
Link: Rock and roll. I’ve got a guardian angel, man.
I’m very spiritual. I don’t take drugs or anything like
that. I drink beer but I don’t mess around with that
drug shit. I never have in my life. That’s not my thing.
Lee Sobel: Has having one lung slowed you down
Link: Did it look like it to you at the show?
Lo~Fi: No, sir. You look like you’re ready to eat a
steak and kick ass.
Link: Well, I’m a vegetarian. But thank you very much