Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were strummers; their lead guitarists, Scotty Moore and Luther Perkins, were pickers. But Link Wray was rock 'n' roll's first thrasher. His archetypal instrumental "Rumble," which peaked at number 16 on the national charts in 1958, opened the door for every guitarist since who's put raw attitude and a coarse sound ahead of tidy execution: to dirty up his tone, Wray says, he jabbed holes in his amplifier's speaker cones with a pen. The single would've guaranteed him a place in rock 'n' roll history even if he'd never pressed another platter, but its success was only the first big break in a career that now spans nearly 50 years. The new double-disc set Slinky! The Epic Sessions '58-'61 (Sundazed) compiles 46 of his subsequent recordings, documenting Wray's association with the Epic label. It's mixed fare, with blacktop-melting instrumentals in the "Rumble" mode and a punchy, hyperventilating take on Jimmy Reed's "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby" (though he'd lost a lung to tuberculosis, Wray sometimes still sang) backed up against rank corn like "Golden Strings" and "Trail of the Lonesome Pine," which the suits at Epic pressured him to record when the good stuff didn't chart. After his Epic contract ended and he hooked up with Swan Records, Wray still cut novelty tunes like "Batman Theme," but his playing got wilder and his sound got rawer; the only thing corny about tracks like "Ace of Spades" and "Run Chicken Run" are their flavor of potent, paint-stripping moonshine. Swan folded in 1967, and in the intervening years Wray has tried his hand at country rock and accompanied rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, as well as taking a few extended breaks from music; he's now 73, and since the 80s he's lived in Denmark with his wife and son, reportedly without a telephone. When he played at Chicago's House of Blues in 1997 he leaned heavily on his old hits, but the show was no tired nostalgia trip. With his long ponytail and well-worn leather jacket, Wray stalked the stage like a great gray wolf reclaiming his territory; he'd take the mike to roar out the title of each tune, and then his guitar would roar even louder. Sunday, July 7, 9 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace; 773-478-4408.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Dilworth.