Mystic Chords

By  |  November 20, 2018
Illustration by Tom Martin Illustration by Tom Martin

Link Wray—power-chord progenitor—made his most transcendant music in a chicken shack


The basic outline of his life reads like a miscellany of twentieth-century American folklore: a Shawnee Indian from North Carolina river country who learned the blues from a black man named Hambone (who happened to be a traveling circus performer) and who invented the power chord before falling into obscurity, only to rise, Lazarus-like, from the dust of rural Maryland to cut an Americana classic in a converted chicken shack, true stardom eluding him, until, slipping again into heroic defeat, he decamped to Europe, where he drew his last breath under the watchful, imperious eyes of a younger wife. Even his name—the hard-bitten, monosyllabic Link Wray—has the ring of invention. A dust bowl drifter or highwayman bard, perhaps; a robed desert mystic or soulful chainsaw killer. In photographs, he inhabited all of these roles. Though the one he came back to most often, the one you tend to find online, is Elvis before the Quaaludes and Seconal took hold, Keith Richards born two decades sooner in a Piedmont backwater. You know the look even if you don’t know Link Wray: black leather jacket open to a hairless navel, gold cross on a long chain, not a trickle of sweat, muttonchops looking for a fight. 

There was always a Dylanesque kind of distancing going on with Link, a self-mythologizing and a willingness to embody the fantasies of America’s past if it meant bigger sales. The only music he didn’t try was klezmer. Not that he faked it. He was too weird for that. Too anticipatory of everything that came after him. What else could he do except take the sounds in his head—windy, bellowing conduits of electro-fuzz that gave way to baleful melodies—and find a way to be heard, to resign himself to personal and professional betrayal and, simply, rock on? 

He had the misfortune to live at a time when record company executives ritually imbibed the blood of young aspirants, tapping a vein to brew their cappuccinos. Like the man in the Charles Simic poem, Link was “jinxed at every turn.” Narrating his life, you begin to feel like the Central Scrutinizer in Frank Zappa’s rock opera freak-out, Joe’s Garage, telling of the garage-band leader who, imprisoned for his music’s incendiary air, is repeatedly raped by record label honchos. 

But Link’s story, like his music, turns out to be stubbornly resistant to genre. Yes, it’s about devastation wrought by the American Dream; a poor, tight-knit family of bootstrap strivers torn apart thread by thread, everything gone to hell over money. There’s that. But the contrast with the rest of his life could hardly be greater. He was not, by all accounts, a man exorcizing personal demons or yearning for an exit from long and troubled years. He didn’t drink. Didn’t covet the hilltop manor. Wasn’t gonna be the rum-bloated burnout who has lost control of his facial muscles. He played and wrote and recorded with his brothers, Vernon and Doug, more or less happily for thirty years. They lived the way they did, with wives and kiddos and grandma and grandpa all jammed up in one house together, because it allowed them to become completely absorbed in the music, and because they were family. 

To a researcher, some of Link’s years pass as blanks. Others are zones of figment and filtered truth in which all living parties have a dog in the fight. Finding a plausible centerline without exhuming and then burying the guy alive is to enter a long corridor of knives and clawed things and very pissed-off cobras. When an artist has been neglected as Link has, there’s a risk of turning him into an object of religious veneration. So it’s worth saying outright that the Rock God lore—how Link was a child of “sidewalk preachers” and so on—has the seductive power of myth. And the notion that he “invented rock & roll,” which you hear a lot of whenever his name pops up on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot, is the old tack of writing black people out of history. 

These days all anyone wants to talk about is “Rumble,” Link’s 1958 instrumental breakthrough, which, by popular consensus, influenced every subsequent guitarist, from Pete Townshend to D. Boon. The song, a minimalist four-chord blues of elongated, gut-punch distortion that held—to borrow John Cheever’s line—a “hint of aberrant carnality,” upended the cutesy single-note picking of the day, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April 2018, one of the first group of songs chosen for the Hall’s Singles category. What interests me more is Shack-era Link. These are the years from the early sixties to the early seventies when the Wray brothers shared a home in Accokeek, Maryland, and recorded songs in a derelict outbuilding that their father once kept chickens in (we’ll come back to the chickens). Everything that’s most brilliant and enduring about Link’s music happened then. For a stretch, the Wrays were joined by producer Steve Verroca, and together they cut three albums: Link Wray (1971), Mordicai Jones (1971), and Beans and Fatback (1973). While no piece of music can be said to break entirely new ground the way “Rumble” had, they managed to sound at times like three different bands on three different micro-strains of psilocybin mushrooms. It dwarfed nearly everything any of them had ever done or would ever do again.

 

Fred Lincoln Wray Jr. grew up outside of Dunn, North Carolina, near a tributary of the Cape Fear River called the Black River. It’s low, swampy floodplain mixed with dry cotton land in just about the bull’s-eye of the state, where the Piedmont rises and starts tiding east. That whole country was, obviously, first settled by Indians. I’d heard stories as a kid about the Tuscarora War, about Chief Hancock and his southern band of warriors, and Col. John Barnwell’s bloody fight to subdue them. For the Tuscarora, for all Carolina tribes, it spelled the end of the old times. But the descendants of those who survived European extermination campaigns remain, namely Coharie, Eastern Cherokee, Lumbee, Waccamaw-Siouan, Pamlico, and Sappony (North Carolina has the largest Native American population in the U.S. east of the Mississippi). 

Black River Township, Link’s home, was a Native American community, with blacks and poor whites mixed in. Much of that part of the state was notably tri-racial; in some counties, blacks and Indians together outnumbered whites two to one. Link’s mother, Lillian, was at least part Shawnee (Shawnee means “southerners” in Algonquian) and maybe part Cherokee. In a scene that might’ve caught Gogol’s eye, when she was eleven, Lillian’s back was broken by a white girl who put a knee in her spine and yanked her arms up-and-around until something snapped. Her parents, being not just destitute countryfolk but destitute Indians, could do little but wait for her to die. She recovered, knowing all the while that Jesus would heal her. Her back knitted crooked, though, and for the rest of her life she walked slightly bent over. 

Link’s father, Fred Sr., was probably Irish, hailed from southern Indiana, and worked as a carpenter and pipe fitter around Dunn. He seems to have discouraged talk of the family’s Indianness, not out of shame but from worry it would limit them, or worse. The Klan barely distinguished between Native Americans and blacks. Crosses were burned on the lawns of Indian families in neighboring Robeson County. In the 2017 documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, Robbie Robertson of the Band remembers there being a hard-and-fast rule on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, where he had roots: “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.” 

Link, born in 1929 (as it happens, the same year the electric guitar first became commercially available), was the middle child, arriving five years after Vernon and four years before Doug. A story Link told the writer Jimmy McDonough about his birth has the heady whiff of bunk but establishes a leitmotif of his origins: “I been in the grips of Satan ever since I been born. Because my mother was crippled, the midwife told my mother, ‘Well, to save your life we gotta kill the baby.’ And my momma said, ‘Don’t you kill my baby! I don’t care if I die, you do not kill my baby!’ So they took metal forceps to pull me out of her womb. I got scars on both sides of my head.” 

What’s certain is that Link and his mom—everyone called her Mema—were uncommonly tight, and that his birth was reckoned an occasion of both spiritual and physical survival. 

“We came from dirt,” Link often said and meant literally. For a while, they lived on dirt floors and without electricity. “[Elvis] came from welfare, and I came from below welfare,” Link said in a ’96 documentary. The big question, though, is where did his music come from? It’s impossible to say. The family didn’t own a radio. Neither parent played an instrument or had much of an ear. But all three kids became accomplished musicians. Theirs was a strain of ingrown and omnivorous talent. I’m not the first to wonder if something more can be extrapolated from the Wrays’ Shawnee-Piedmont origins. Rumble positions Link within the Native American vocal traditions of the Southeast and its cross-pollination with African rhythms—the very foundation of the blues, the film implies. Link’s niece, Sherry Wray, told me that Mema “would take the boys and put them on a blanket under a tree while she picked cotton to earn money, and to keep them occupied, she’d sing.” The boys sang together at revivalist brush arbor meetings and, Link later said, at black gospel churches. 

Then there’s this Hambone business. I just find it odd that no one has talked about it, because it’s the sort of casual, wearying detail that gets picked up and idly passed along but seems rooted in a weirdly racialized mythology: “Hambone,” among other meanings, was shorthand for a minstrel clown, typically in blackface with floppy shoes and fat lips, who spoke in a bogus black dialect and was musically inclined. It also wasn’t unheard of for black performers back then to go by the name Hambone. The story goes that this Hambone, a black sideshow act passing through Dunn, happened by while the Wray brothers were outside harmonizing to church hymns, with Link trying to play along on a beat-up guitar someone had given him. Hambone obligingly tuned the guitar, played some bottleneck blues, and changed the course of rock & roll forever. Link repeated the story a bunch. They did live in a mixed neighborhood across from the Dunn fairgrounds, and a few years before Link’s encounter, a musician called Beans Hambone was in Charlotte, a hundred and fifty miles away, cutting the song “Tippin’ Out” for the Victor label. So, it’s not inconceivable. One of the uses of narrative is to do justice to our memories by making them appear meaningful and orderly. Maybe Link just flubbed the name? But I can’t help thinking of the William Maxwell line, “[I]n talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” It’s also possible I’m being way too uptight about this. 

At any rate, Link was about eight years old. Thereafter he took the music in gulps, not so much distinct phases as everything sort of jumbled together: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson. Howlin’ Wolf. Tommy Dorsey–style big band jazz. Honky-tonk. Merle Travis. Chet Atkins. Musically and sartorially, Hank Williams was a point of departure. It’d be impossible to overstate Williams’s influence, and not far-fetched to posit him as a reliable indicator of Link’s intended career path, save the booze and early death. “I loved his voice, the way he was in pain,” Link once said of Williams. “I could tell through those moans, man, that he really meant it. . . . It just struck a nerve in my heart.” 

When Link was twelve or thirteen, his family began a gradual migration north, first to Portsmouth, Virginia, where Fred Sr. found work in the shipyards, and then to Washington, D.C. Somewhere in there, the Wray brothers began playing together as a western swing band fronted by Vernon, with Link on guitar and Doug on drums. Vernon had a voice between Dean Martin’s and Johnny Cash’s, and recorded a few singles as a solo act for Cameo-Parkway Records, which never came to much. 

In 1949, at the brink of the Korean War, Link was drafted and sent to Germany. The next four years are a biographical void. What’s known is that he gigged on U.S. Army bases, playing in country and jazz outfits that moseyed into polka and show tunes. And it was likely in Germany that he contracted tuberculosis, which wasn’t diagnosed until ’56, when he was back in the States. He spent a year in a sanatorium, had his left lung removed, and was told he’d never be much of a singer. Upon his release, he went out and bought his first Les Paul. Under Vernon’s guidance, the Wray brothers played local hellholes up and down the Potomac: Vinnie’s, the Ozark Club, the Two Thieves, the Wigwam. They were Lucky Wray & the Lazy Pine Wranglers (“Lucky” being Vernon), and Lucky Wray & the Palomino Ranch Gang, with cousin Brantley “Shorty” Horton on bass. Pop music was busy exhuming the ghosts of the American frontier in 1955. No fewer than three versions of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” charted the Billboard Top 30. I have on my desktop a painful publicity photo of Link and Vernon done up in Roy Rogers fringe, preposterous white neckerchiefs, and hats big enough to swim in. To pay the bills, Link and Doug sat in with a jazz combo at a dive in Indian Head, Maryland, while Vernon, frugal and self-sufficient, waxed bowling alleys on his hands and knees. 

If it’s possible to reduce to a few words a tireless, poverty-stricken decade of evolving and atomizing the standards of musical composition: Link’s sound started to jell. Electric guitar had always been a gentleman’s game as epitomized by Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Grady Martin: clean, fluid note-picking over plainly deduced paths in which fuzz and feedback were abominated. An endlessly repeated detail about Link is that he “punched a hole in an amp” with a screwdriver or pencil. In this way, as in so many others, are Link’s technical innovations casually brushed aside. Speaking to people who knew him then, you get a picture of someone insatiably curious, trying to lift a tradition out of a self-determined rut. Link often said he didn’t consider himself a great musician: “I knew back in the old days I never could be a real good clean jazzer, or even a clean country picker, so I was looking for sounds.” He was forever tinkering, stretching and curling notes, unraveling the threads, poking around for something that radiated warmth while blurring into chaos. 

“I never knew him to play golf,” his friend Bobby Morris told me. “He’d work the clubs, go home, sleep, get up the next day and sit around piddling with his guitar, writing stuff down. That was his whole life.” 

Link’s guitars tended to be hockshop deals that he rebuilt, pickups and all, to lend them their peculiar chortle. One amp was a repurposed kitchen radio with no volume knob and a speaker of sluggish, hateful wattage, from which Link summoned the time-release howl of an air-raid siren. He played loud, he said, because of his bad hearing, but also, presumably, because it sounded awesome. His bandmate Bobby Howard said Link idolized the jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, whose punctual, seamless plucking Link would transmute through his own tics and chord penchants. 

The Wray brothers became known for their synchronous onstage connection, a sibling telepathy that eclipsed the usual harmonizing and made it luminous. By late ’57, they were sharing bills with Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean, Patsy Cline, and Charlie Daniels. But Vernon and Doug could sense that Link was overtaking them. They were smart enough to back off. The band became Link Wray & His Ray Men. Vernon must’ve bristled, shelving his own frontman aspirations to take a backseat to little brother. He learned to live with it, however, and his influence helped form and sustain Link as a frontman. “I’ve always said that my dad and Doug made a Link sandwich,” Sherry Wray said. “They knew how to give Link direction without making him feel squelched. They didn’t say, ‘No, that’s too loud.’ They just said, ‘Let’s try this.’ Link was cultivated, nearly one hundred percent, by my dad and Doug.” 

The record labels, on the other hand, didn’t know what to do with him. They tried turning Link into one of these lovestruck Ricky Nelson fops—Elvis Lite—with the bullfighter’s hair and sharp-cornered jacket and lips indolently curled. One label had him record “Clair de Lune” with a forty-piece orchestra, reflexively erasing much of what made Link interesting. 

It’s important to remember that these years, as David Halberstam says in his magisterial The Fifties, were a kind of cultural interwar period: a bridge spanning two previously unbridgeable divides. Halberstam calls Elvis the second-most-crucial break between the old, staid America and the new tumultuous one (the first being Brown v. Board of Education). A white boy singing the blues shattered the familiar landmarks of mid-century American pop. But when Link turned up, Elvis was still asses-to-ankles on the charts with the likes of Pat Boone, whose insufferable “April Love” was popping teen hearts alongside “Jailhouse Rock.” 

Link’s moment, when it came, all but exorcized the dreamboat drudgery. The origin story Link told about “Rumble” was the kind that grew with each telling. My favorite, probably the most apocryphal, concerns a fight breaking out at a show in Virginia in ’57 and Link instinctively playing along, creating a soundtrack of sorts to the fisticuffs and projectile furniture. “Jesus God just zapped it right in my soul,” he said of what was eventually named “Rumble,” “and I just gave it to the kids.” It’d be easy to find a million twelve-bar precedents for the song (John Lee Hooker’s “I Love You Honey,” played slightly down-tempo, comes to mind), but commercially speaking, it captured something new. 

Link was being managed by a D.C.-area sock-hop impresario named Milt Grant, who took a demo of the song to Archie Bleyer, the head of Cadence Records. Bleyer loathed it. His seventeen-year-old stepdaughter, who’d just seen West Side Story, felt differently, and floated the name “Rumble” for it, in homage to the Sharks and Jets. It soon became the first and only instrumental banned from U.S. radio, apparently over worry it would incite teen violence. (One thing that’s impossible to ignore, as John Troutman tells us in Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879–1934, is it had long been federal policy to suppress indigenous music, which was considered a barbarous and implicit soundtrack to rebellion, going back at least to the nineteenth-century Ghost Dances. “Rumble,” it’s not unfair to say, falls on that continuum.) 

People who know more about music than I do will cringe at this, but “Rumble” exists for me purely in the realm of background noise. The near-universal adoration for the song, I can’t help but notice, seems dressed in a dead man’s clothes. There’s a touching scene in the film It Might Get Loud in which Jimmy Page is standing around in one of his mansions listening to “Rumble” with this great goony smile on his face, and it’s striking to see the Swami get so earnestly jazzed at what feels today like a plodding, mechanical chord progression. I know I risk being trolled in the vilest terms, but while I can appreciate what “Rumble” meant to guys like Page, to my ear, Link’s greatest achievements were yet to come. 

“Rumble” sold a million copies. After a follow-up instrumental, “Raw-Hide,” and a supporting LP, on Epic Records in ’59, Link joined package tours with Fabian, Duane Eddy, and Frankie Avalon. There was a trail of 45s and LPs, but no more hits until ’63, with the “Rumble”-y “Jack the Ripper.” Two years later, he cut a terrifically strange cover of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” for Swan Records, not only singing but doing a plausible knockoff of Dylan’s nasally honk. Never again, however, would Link chart a single. 

As the years ticked by, he got married, divorced, married again, had kids, played the East Coast clubs, and awaited his big break. Link’s daughter Beth and son Link Jr. recalled these as happy times. There wasn’t much money. Link was making maybe $200 a week. But he didn’t complain. He kept at it. That’s what you did. It was music or the shipyards. He must’ve wondered if it was worth it. I can’t fathom what he was feeling, how he’d hoped his life would turn out. Often the person you most want to become lives at the edge of your imagination, circling, undiscoverable, a background abstraction, but still the light by which you travel. Given Link’s outsized virtuosity, fame seemed assured. 

 

I grew accustomed, when telling people I was writing about Link Wray, to blank, thousand-yard stares. These being otherwise well-informed, overeducated people of my northeastern college-town milieu, obsessive hoarders of useless and arcane trivia. Woody Harrelson’s middle name? Tracy, dumbass! Link Wray? The guy who invented the power chord? . . . Nothin’. 

Understandably, this is a sticking point for some Link fans, and why his absence from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which recently admitted Bon Jovi, strikes them as stupid and obscene. The story is supposed to go like this: an artist suffers a lifetime of rejection and anonymity only to be posthumously rehabilitated as a master of profound genius, the hardship redeemed by the immense wealth heaped onto the public with his/her art; the lesson being that greatness and integrity triumph sooner or later and are accepted by the forces that once rejected them. With Link, we’re being denied a proper ending. 

But it feels ultimately meaningless, this officious stamp of approval from the cultural gatekeepers. What’s more curious are the putative reasons for Link’s obscurity. Among the faithful these are given as: a) his unyielding artistic integrity (megafan Greg Laxton, who more than anyone helped initiate a renewed interest in Link through his website, linkwray.com, said: “He always did things his own way, maybe sometimes to the detriment of his career. I just don’t think money was ever important to Link”); b) the capriciousness of record companies and managers, including Vernon, who has been accused of fleecing his brother (Bobby Howard: “Link got screwed royally. He wasn’t looked after. Vernon took advantage of him. It was a shame”); and c) the British Invasion, which bridged the gap between Link’s incongruous thundering and the pretty-boy crooners (Mick and Keith alone are said to have vanquished the careers of thousands of less-marketable acts). 

To this we have to add his Indianness. Fred Sr. was right on that account. Racism did limit Link. His failure to crack the mainstream for very long owes as much to it as to anything else. He was too dark. That mouth was a hungry, gum-chewing mouth, all tooth and eagerness. His collar didn’t quite pop like it did for Ricky or Eddy or whoever; the duck’s ass failed to coalesce at the nape with pure Anglo pretension. 

Again, I merely want to acknowledge what so few have paid attention to. Maybe, in light of our history, it’s something we can’t quite bring ourselves to name. “No American minority,” Chuck Klosterman writes, “is less represented in the national consciousness” than Native Americans. These days we scarcely notice their absence, or when we’ve given offense (the Navy SEALs’ codename for Osama bin Laden, the most reviled man in the world, Klosterman reminds us, was “Geronimo”). The picture we’ve always had of Link, in certain respects, is negligent and incomplete. Which helps explain what happened to him in the mid-sixties. Why his extraordinary talent followed such a depressing pattern. Why, with his head full of ideas, brimming over with music and promise, things ground to a halt. 

 

It was December when the package finally arrived. I’d been emailing with Sherry Wray about the family’s history and we’d been speaking occasionally by phone. She was probably appalled by my ignorance and decided to take pity. One evening, there it was, waiting in my foyer, all gloriously boxed up. Sherry called it a “flashback”: a homemade Wray family musical biography. Nearly every blessed song. From the fifties on up through the nineties and beyond. Including a handful of super-top-secret, never-before-heard-outside-of-the-family home recordings. With photos and press materials and a four-hundred-song bibliography. It was like King Arthur retrieving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. I’m talking about an actual physical object here. Not “files.” CDs. Dozens of them. The heft of the box, it might’ve killed my postman. I had to pick it up with both hands and sumo-walk it up the stairs. 

I wrestled the CDs out of their plastic sleeves and onto the trays of my five-disc changer, choosing at random, saying a little prayer as I pressed play (the machine is vintage at this point; it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, the shuffle being particularly dicey). It seemed fitting hearing Link this way, skipping across the decades, through the various phases of intransigence, backward and forward, getting up to bang on the stupid machine as it paused and whirred and restarted in a whole other era, so that the breadth of his music worked itself out in fits. The overall effect was both fragmented and whole. 

There aren’t great adjectives to describe Link’s music. The most common—“raw,” “ominous,” “backwoods”—feel pat, throwaway. But he had perhaps the biggest range of sadness of any mid-century American musician I can think of, with the possible exception of his brother, Vernon, whose rare seventies masterpieces, Wasted and Superstar at My House, Sherry had included. The Wrays had an old-world, Keatsian melancholy. It bloomed in the kitchen of their 6th Street home in Portsmouth, Virginia, where, from about 1951 to ’55, they recorded songs on a one-track, mostly originals written by Vernon. This was back when the music was fun, before it became a business. It’s the sort of thing that’s dashed off and then mislaid and vanishes somewhere. Sherry found the masters in a box of her dad’s stuff that, horrifyingly, was bound for the dump. She rescued them, and named the disc 6th Street Kitchen. The vibe is Elvis doing Dylan’s Great White Wonder: gushy, drunken ballads, some barely a minute long, and rapturous in the way that the smallest beginnings can express enormous feeling. On “I’ll Always Remember You,” a baby wails somewhere, kids chatter (including, probably, Sherry as a toddler), a door hinge (?) squeaks. While Link and Doug play tenderly along, Vernon warbles: “No matter what might be / I’ll keep your love in my heart / And there it will always stay.” 

I found myself skipping over the power chord stuff, the familiar back-catalog numbers like “Rumble” and “Raw-Hide.” What I was geeked to get to, what has always slayed me, are the Shack years, when the Wrays picked up and moved again, en masse, this time to rural Accokeek, and eventually recorded hundreds of songs on a three-track in a dismal little shed that resembled, at first glance, a coal miner’s dwelling. On the first album from these sessions, 1971’s Link Wray, Link did something exhilarating: he sang. Virtually for the first time. You have to hear this—his forlorn, one-lunged, loping baritone. It carries such desolation. Such lovely distress! As if Van Morrison and Cat Stevens had fallen down a flight of stairs together. What’s truly amazing and heartbreaking is that Link had to be wheedled into it. Vernon had the pipes. Link hated his own voice. Nightclubs and demos, fine. Records, no thanks. And yet, all of a sudden, here he is, sailing from the tiniest intimacies to brawling, primal haymakers, his voice beating through the entire human emotional registry. I submit to you “Black River Swamp,” a song of lament for a lost world, and among the earliest tracks cut at the Shack. It’s no coincidence, I think, that in his first serious stab as a vocalist, Link returned to Dunn and his North Carolina beginnings. In a few bars, he manages to express the inexpressible dread and wonder of childhood: 

I can hear them bullfrogs croaking 
In the blackness of the night 
Calling me back to my childhood 
Down here in Black River Swamp 

Saw my name carved on a big oak tree 
Down there by the fishing hole 
And the smell of old Black River 
Where the waters are deep and cold 

 

In Accokeek, Link’s life took a thrilling, meandering turn, the thwarted promise giving way to a long-awaited second wind. It lasted three, four years, tops. I wanted to see it, this place that bears so crucially on one of the most storied recording sessions in American music. Also, I had questions for Steve Verroca, who lived down the coast. So I booked a flight, found murky directions to the Shack online, and flew to D.C. 

Driving south, I passed through a mid-Atlantic desert of loneliness: freshly minted residential grids, tumbledown Jehovah’s Kingdom Halls, graveyards vanishing into kudzu. I found the Shack, or what I thought was the Shack; it certainly looked like the Shack, judging from recent photos that, again, I dug up online: sloping corrugated roof, mismatched windows, smaller shed crabbed onto the side. Set just off the road on an arrowhead of grass, it was tucked behind massive pines and oaks on a few acres that backed up to the Potomac. The Wrays cleared out long ago, but things seemed pretty much the same, though the Shack had been painted, along with the house and barn, various shades of khaki. Nobody was around. I should clarify that by “nobody” I mean a man was sitting in a chair right in front of the Shack when I pulled up, but he quickly rose and vanished into the trees. I took it as a hint to observe the NO TRESPASSING sign staked in the crabgrass. 

When Vernon bought the property in ’63, Accokeek was the D.C. outback, as yet undevoured by the suburban colossus. Today it’s fast succumbing to the tract-housing mire. The Wrays recorded in the house’s basement at first. Then they swept out the shed and built a room off of it, installing Doug’s high school drum set and a wheezy piano. They called it Wray’s Shack 3 Tracks. They loved letting the tape roll to see what they could come up with. Link, though, was fortyish and unhappy. He was being scandalously underpaid to churn out the old hits at military nightclubs. Doug ran a barbershop, Vernon a grocery store and pool hall. They were struggling. Waiting for something better to come along. 

The Shack appeared now to be pulling double-duty as a garage/mancave. I could see, through a gap in the door, a mini-fridge, toolbox, gardening tackle. Out of context, it felt like a husk. About the music it revealed absolutely nothing. How could it? The smell of mulched earth reached me, the sound of crickets. I passed a quiet moment and left. (Two weeks later, I talked to Sherry, who spent her teenage years at the Shack property, and who told me I had bogus information: the Shack was behind the house; I wouldn’t have been able to see from the road. Thanks, Internet.) 

I arrived at Verroca’s house on a busy, sun-struck street in Colonial Beach, Virginia. He met me on the front lawn. A carnival was winding down in an adjacent park. Verroca, squinting, swatted it away. “Normally it’s much quieter here,” he said. We went upstairs. There was a gold record on one wall for the eighties Canadian synth-pop group Promises, which Verroca had produced. On his desk was an ancient Rolodex that he let me flip through. The first name I landed on was “Richard ‘Ringo Starr’ Starkey,” written out like that. I committed the number to memory, making a mental note to prank-call Ringo when I got home. 

Verroca, seventy-eight, has a highly explosive laugh. Graying hair hangs to his shoulders, and he cut a sauntering beach-bum figure in sweatpants and sandals. He’d been in a car accident a few months earlier that had damaged his hearing. Later, when he played me music from the Shack, the volume was earth-shattering. We talked for several hours, sitting next to each other on a couch, watching the carnival workers cart away the Tilt-A-Whirl and bumper cars. Fifty years had passed. His memory of the Shack differed from Sherry’s on almost every count. 

Verroca’s production credits reveal a long and enigmatic body of work: doo-wop (Little Nat, the Gleams), English new wave (Kevin Coyne), ambient pop (Mike Oldfield), country-rock (Brinsley Schwarz), and obscure, unlistenable prog-rock (Broth). He also worked with Phil Spector during his Ronettes phase (“What an asshole!” he said). I got the sense that Link loomed over it all. As a teenager, Verroca had revered Link. His family moved to Queens, New York, from Rome when he was sixteen, two summers before “Rumble,” and the song partly inspired his career. “He was one of my heroes,” he said. “‘Rumble’ was the start of everything.” 

By the late sixties, he’d assumed, like many, that Link was dead. Until one day Vernon approached him at Mercury Records in New York, where Verroca was mixing an album by a country-rock band called Laramie. He was clutching a demo of Link’s, a few dashed-off Elvis covers that Verroca didn’t think much of. But Vernon persuaded him to come see Link play at a bar in Virginia. “A really nasty place,” Verroca recalled. “Full of whores and drunken sailors. On top of the bar was space for three musicians”—Link, Doug on drums, and friend Billy Hodges on Farfisa bass pedal. “They were doing four sets a night of Elvis songs and Link’s hits, ‘Rumble,’ ‘Raw-Hide,’ that sort of thing. But nobody paid attention to him. He was like a live jukebox.” 

During a break, Vernon waved Link over. “He wouldn’t shake my hand,” Verroca said. “He looked at me like he wanted to fucking hit me in the face. He thought I was there to steal his material.” 

But Verroca spent the night at the Wrays’ in Accokeek. The next morning, Mema prepared what Fred Sr. called a “poor man’s breakfast”: beans and fatback and cornbread. “I’d never eaten anything like it,” Verroca said. “It was delicious. The title of the third Shack album, Beans and Fatback, came from that first breakfast we had.” 

Link, a brooding presence, yanked Verroca aside. 

“You have to understand, Link was very frightening when he was angry. He was a sweet guy, but he could be violent, and he carried a pretty big switchblade in his pocket.” (Others mentioned Link’s switchblade to me.) “He said, ‘What do you want from me?’ I told him, ‘Look, I believe you’re the greatest rock and roller who ever lived. Zeppelin, the Who, Hendrix, they love you. If it wasn’t for you, there would be no rock & roll.’ He’s looking at me like I’m full of shit. He had no idea. He thought his time was over. Nobody wanted to know about Link Wray, the has-been.” 

Verroca was intrigued and, before returning to New York, asked Link to record an album with him. “What attracted me was how pitiful the whole situation was: this guy who did so much for rock & roll and doesn’t know it. It broke my heart.” 

Link must’ve felt himself to be at a turning point. The pain and frustration of the years, a desire to be heard again, came bubbling up. Two days later, he phoned Verroca with a list of demands: no more fucking clubs; you pay the expenses (groceries, utilities, all that); and I want an advance. Verroca agreed to the first two. A serious collector of southwest Native American jewelry and artifacts (“It was the sixties,” he explained), Verroca sold most of it off, including a belt that had belonged to Cochise, the Apache leader, to finance the recording. 

The notion to record in the Shack was a no-brainer. Link was comfortable there. Verroca thought it might yield something strange and loose. Again, it was the sixties. A return to simplicity was in the air. But the Shack was also an acoustic fish tank: maddeningly percussive and clunky. Link’s guitar was so loud it bled into the drum and piano mics. Verroca came up with an idea of placing Link’s amp out in the yard and miking it from the window, which had the odd result of broadening the guitar’s range while also effecting a sonic down-surge. 

That’s how you got the Shack sound?” I asked. 

“That, and we tuned to a detuned piano!” he said. “The piano was rusty because rain came through the roof. It was impossible to tune. Most of the pearls were gone. We threw blankets over it to keep it dry. Billy said, ‘Steve, why don’t we mic the piano under the blankets?’ Problem solved.” 

The window, being paneless, admitted all manner of insects. And it was hardly surprising that the chickens, having been banished, found their way back inside. Fred Sr. nailed up some chicken wire that proved intermittently effective. It’s tempting to hear the yawp of insects and irate fowl on Link Wray, but it could just as easily be, I don’t know, bagpipes, a humpback whale? Part of the thrill of listening to the album comes from the sense that there are so many unexplained sounds. It’s a work of fleeting impressions that feels stripped of much of what we’re accustomed to hearing, what we’re taught to listen for. 

They didn’t have headphones. Most everything was borrowed, rented, secondhand. On cold mornings, Mema brought in buckets of hot coals; on muggy afternoons, buckets of ice. “Primitive isn’t even the word,” Verroca said. What the sessions boiled down to, more or less, was guesswork. And “guessing,” as Auden put it, “is always / more fun than knowing.” 

“Nothing was ever planned,” Verroca said. “We were never like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do this.’ We just went along, did whatever we wanted to do. It all happened with a feel.” 

They worked symbiotically, Link coming up with licks, Verroca embellishing lyrics, and Vernon at the controls. “Steve had the ideas for the songs, and we’d finish them up,” Bobby Howard remembered. 

So as not to rouse snoozing kids, the recording was done in the day, with the sun pressing through the windows and the tin roof ticking rhythmically. Instruments were passed from musician to musician. Verroca played drums here, bongos there. Howard, piano, mandolin, guitar. Doug, guitar and drums. Hodges, piano and organ. Everyone sang. No more instrumentals. 

The first song they cut—a lusty barroom romp by Willie Dixon called “Tail Dragger”—was done in one take. The second, “La De Da,” written by Verroca, was done in two. During the playback, Link was thunderstruck. Doug said, “Link, this is the best stuff you ever done, man.” Mema wept. 

For “God Out West,” Link plugged directly into the three-track. As Verroca writes in an unpublished memoir, Link then asked Mema for a knife and fork from the kitchen. Slipping the knife under his guitar strings, he used the fork handle to pry the knife up and down along the neck, eliciting the raspy Dobro bark of a treed raccoon. The bass drum was jettisoned for a floorboard clomp. “Ice People,” written by Link around the time of the Kent State shootings, is the closest he ever came to a protest song: 

You wear your hair long, as Jesus did 
They’ll crucify you 
You’re not part of the establishment 
You stand up for your rights 
They’ll call you a fool 
If you do not go to war you’re not living by the golden rule. 

There’s a can of nails being strangled to death on “Fire and Brimstone,” and an oddly pretty piano on “Juke Box Mama” that serves to accentuate the song’s porch-stomp throb. 

They took their time. “People think we knocked out the stuff at the Shack in three or four days,” Verroca said. “It was four years!” 

When shopping the Shack material to labels, one of their first stops was the Beatles’ Apple Records. According to Verroca, John Lennon was crazy about Link. He wanted everything they’d done at the Shack, to record there himself, and for Link to tour with him. But Apple had hit some distribution snags and couldn’t guarantee a release date for Link Wray within a year. So Link wound up signing with Polydor, a British imprint of a German behemoth known mostly for the Who. The deal, according to Verroca, was $500,000 for five albums (Bobby Howard said it was $360,000; Sherry said Verroca pocketed it all and the Wrays never saw a dime): two albums by Link, one by Bobby Howard, one by Billy “Jukebox” Hodges, and one of Link, Vernon, and Doug together, with options for more albums down the road. 

While Link Wray was being overdubbed in New York, Verroca and Link conceived the album cover. Link wanted something that embodied his Indianness. Verroca had some last pieces of Indian jewelry lying around—turquoise necklaces and a striped black-and-orange headband. Link put them on and Verroca snapped a picture of him in profile. “It was spur of the moment,” he remembered. “Link loved it right away.” Polydor used it to create a very cool gatefold with Link’s profile swinging open to a photo of Vernon and Howard sitting in front of the Shack. It became known as the “Indian Head record.” 

Link Wray sold respectably. Two more Shack albums followed, Mordicai Jones (1971) and Beans and Fatback (1973). Each had a touch of magic about them. But neither captured the scope and heart-stopping beauty of Link Wray. Mordicai Jones was supposed to be Bobby Howard’s record. There’s a long story involving Howard either falling out with Verroca over $600 or Howard freezing in front of the mic. Either way, a guy named Gene Johnson cut the vocals. He sounds, on songs like “Scorpio Woman,” like a deranged Bon Scott. 

In 1972, Link, Vernon, Steve, and their families relocated to Tucson, Arizona, where Vernon had bought property. Fred Sr. followed, but Doug and Mema stayed back east. Such was the magic of the Shack that Vernon took the exterior boards and used them to rebuild a facsimile studio in the desert, upgrading from three to eight tracks. While they tinkered with the remaining Shack material—namely, Beans and Fatback—Vernon recorded two albums of his own, Wasted and Superstar at My House, both slight, mournful classics that sold poorly. They were some of the last music Vernon would make. 

After that, things were never the same. Probably it would’ve worked out fine had it not been for Polydor shenanigans. High off Link Wray’s success, the label persuaded Link to cut an album in San Francisco with Jerry Garcia, Commander Cody, and David Bromberg. The catch was they didn’t want Verroca to produce it or the rest of the band to play on it. As Verroca tells it, Link was hesitant but caved when Polydor advanced him $50,000. The album, Be What You Want To (1972), bombed. Link loathed it. His voice and guitar were buried. Polydor never reprinted it. The fiasco precipitated bad blood between Link and Verroca, Link and Vernon, and everyone and Polydor. 

“I loved Link,” Verroca said. “My only disappointment with him, and I don’t know if I should say this, but he could be selfish. That’s why he went to San Francisco to do that album. They gave him $50,000 to play with the big stars.” 

Around then Verroca took Beans and Fatback to a fledgling Virgin Records, which led inevitably to charges that he’d stolen the masters from Link and peddled them to the highest bidder (which is partly why, until last year, Beans and Fatback never had a U.S. vinyl release). When I put this to Verroca, he sat up and screeched: “How could I steal something that I owned!?!” Having bankrolled the Shack sessions, he said, the masters were his to do with what he pleased. Sherry, however, blamed Verroca and the allegedly purloined masters for the family animus that ensued. When we talked, she wouldn’t speak Verroca’s name. 

The quarrel between Link and Vernon is tougher to parse. It was mostly about money, but also the slow blendered boil of familial tension that rises and seethes over the years. Legion are the tales of Link’s crippling poverty while Vernon burned through cars and booze. True, Link took an unhappy backseat with the finances, which Vernon handled, even going so far as to put the publishing rights to most of Link’s catalog in his name. But Sherry insisted her dad was looking out for Link, who had no mind for business. “It was a horrible set of circumstances,” she said. “We had all been so close. They didn’t hate each other. But it took the heart out of my dad.” 

Vernon, dying of cancer, committed suicide in 1979. He willed the publishing rights to Sherry. Lawyers descended, frothing over Link’s estate, pitting Wray against Wray. In 1980, Link settled in Denmark, where he lived out his years, playing and touring up until the end. All told, he was married four times and had eight children. In his final decade, he had scarce contact with his American family. His last wife, a Danish woman named Olive, did little to endear herself to Link’s family and friends. Deke Dickerson, who toured with Link in 2000, told Jimmy McDonough that “Olive was the most annoying, self-centered, horrible person I’ve ever met. She kept Link from his friends, his family and his fans.” Link died in 2005, age seventy-six. 

Doug suffered a heart attack and died in 1984. That year, Link gave the fullest emotional accounting of his life and career that I’ve come across: “There was another young guy down in Nashville, Tennessee, doing what I was doing,” he told an interviewer, referring to Elvis. “The only difference is, he got Colonel Tom Parker and became a millionaire.” A few seconds later, he drew a short breath and said, “I’m going through a lot of pain, my two brothers I just told you about, they just passed away. I’m the only one left in my family. But I’ve been very happy.” 

 

Verroca said he had something he wanted me to hear. He dug around in a stack of CDs and emerged grinning and wagging a jewel case. “The Billy ‘Jukebox’ Hodges record,” he said. He slipped the CD into the stereo. “No one else has ever heard this.” A Hodges album had been part of the Polydor deal. But I’d never read anything more about it. I assumed it never happened. Hodges vanished in the late seventies, supposedly killed during a robbery in Tucson. “Billy was an amazing guy,” Verroca said. “He lived and breathed Creedence. He tried to get Link to swing that way, but when he played ‘Susie Q’ for him, the only thing Link liked was the guitar solo.” 

This took a minute to register. Hold it. There’s another Shack record? One that nobody’s ever heard before? 

“The last album,” Verroca said, suddenly moony. “Recorded in Tucson. It’s Link in all respects, except Billy’s singing.” 

“You’ve had it all this time? Sitting here? Do you plan to release it?” 

“Eh. When the time’s right.” He queued it up. 

“Billy liked barrelhouse blues. Link was more . . . spiritual,” he said. “But it’s the Shack. The feeling is there.” 

“Like Mordicai Jones?” I asked. 

“Better.” 

I put on a pair of headphones. 

“I gotta tell you,” Verroca shouted. “It’s the best album of them all!” 

He held a slip of paper. On it was a handwritten track list. My eyes stopped on the second song from the bottom: “Temptation w/ New Rumble.” I never loved the original “Rumble,” true. But to hear it retooled, squeezed through the Shack boards, all these years later? I steadied myself on the edge of the couch, as if to absorb an impact. 

“Link plays both guitars, and bass!” Verroca screamed. “Listen.” 

He hit PLAY

 

 


“What Will I Do? (Demo)” by Vernon, Doug, and Link Wray is included on the North Carolina Music Issue CD.

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John O'Connor is from Kalamazoo, Michigan, the original home of Gibson guitars. His writing has appeared in Open City, Post Road, Quarterly West, the New York Times, GQ, Saveur, Men’s Journal, and the Financial Times. For two years he was a foreign correspondent for Japan’s largest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. He teaches journalism at Boston College.