While credit for inventing rock ‘n’ roll has been long disputed, Link Wray‘s contributions to the genre make a solid case for the title. With all due respect to the greats who preceded Wray, few had such a profound impact own rock’s sound as Wray and his distorted electric guitar power chords ringing out on the 1958 hit “Rumble.”
“Dad is the trunk of the rock and roll tree and that heavy metal, punk, all them just branched right off of it,” the rockabilly legend’s eldest of eight children Beth Wray Webb tells Billboard, paraphrasing what a fan of her father’s once told her.
After failing to make it in 2014, last week Wray — who died in 2005 — was again nominated for induction into he Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And this year his daughter says she likes his chances, thanks in part to his prominence in the Sundance award-winning documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.
“I’m just so thankful that he’s finally getting the recognition that he deserves and I’m thankful for the nominee committee, putting him in this time to be voted on. I’ve got a good feeling about this, I gotta just be honest,” says Wray Webb. “And I wish daddy was here, because he doesn’t realize how much influence he had on everybody.”
Wray is recognized for popularizing the sort of distortion and fuzz that would go on to define rock guitar, which he achieved by punching holes in his amplifier’s tweeters with a ballpoint pen. As also heard on “Rumble,” Wray’s innovations include the use of power chords that is now fundamental, something he came to in attempt to eschew the sort of jazz and country picking that was popular at the time.
By modern standards, Wray’s story feels like rock and roll lore that edges on pulp: As a child, he was raised in poverty in Dunn, North Carolina, and learned to play guitar from a vagabond bluesman named Hambone. Years later, he served in the military during the Korean War, where he lost a lung to tuberculosis. Doctors told him he would never be able to sing or even hold and play guitar again, recalls Wray Webb. Upon returning home, he and his brothers experimented in the country circuit before they discovered the “Rumble” sound, largely improvising the song during a concert where — legend has it — the crowd requested the band play it over and over again. At the time, the instrumental number felt violent enough that various radio stations banned it. Now, it resides in the Library of Congress.
“You know, he always said, ‘My lord Jesus Christ is the one who zapped “‘Rumble'” right into me.’ And so he proved all them doctors wrong, that’s for sure,” says Wray Webb. “And the rest is history, I guess.”
If inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Wray will also have the distinction of being one of the museum’s few Native American honorees, along with Jimi Hendrix and The Band’s Robbie Robertson. His mother was Shawnee Indian and he endured violent racism from the Ku Klux Klan growing up. He would recall in interviews, “Elvis, he grew up white-man poor. I was growing up Shawnee poor.”
Though Wray Webb remembers her grandmother telling them to hide their Native heritage and after her parents were divorced it was not discussed much, she says her father was “very proud” of his ancestry.
“If you listen to dad’s songs and everything, you can hear the Native American in his songs,” she says. “And he always told me, you were dancing before you were walking — and I love to dance.”
While Wray Webb feels her father should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “a long time ago,” like probably the majority of the population she admits to being naive about his influence until after his death — even after watching him play countless times in her childhood.
“Looking at him as a father, I knew he loved to create music and the sound and everything,” she says, “but I didn’t realize until people started coming up to me and saying, ‘Link Wray’s your father? He did this, he did that.'”
She adds, “He’s getting the recognition now and that’s all that matters to me. And I can’t be thankful enough And his fans… To me, dad’s got the best fans in the world. I have people that contacted me all over the world, I mean Brazil, France, you name the country, and I said, ‘Oh my gracious, he touched everybody!’ I was just blown away.”
With voting now underway for the five inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2018, Wray Webb says she’ll be working to “get the vote out” and hopes others will do the same.
“We definitely need to get that vote out and vote every single day until it ends. Anybody who knows anybody, you let them know, and whoever they know, let them know, to get this vote out,” she says. “And daddy’s gonna make it, they’re gonna help get him right in — I believe his fans will get him in there this time, I really do.”