Thursday, May 28, 2009

“Rumble, Part Two”

c. 2009 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: What follows here is a second installment in my coverage of the effort to have legendary guitarist Link Wray inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. At the tribute concert, I was invited to sit with Beth Wray Webb and her family. It was a night that I will cherish forever.

Writing can be tedious work at times. One may need to bring together diverse bits of information to form a coherent story. Yet on other occasions, the craft is easy to embrace.

Some features simply seem to write themselves.

Offering thoughts about our most recent visit to the former Croatian Liberty Home on Waterloo Road in Cleveland was the latter sort of experience.

Acts performing at ‘The Beachland’ have been numerous over the past decade. But last week, Liz and I were treated to a show unlike any other.

For your inspection, allow me to present the article that resulted:

Native Visions Fill The Beachland Ballroom In Link Wray Tribute

CLEVELAND – It was a homecoming of sorts.

Fans rocked and remembered Link Wray on a recent Saturday night at The Beachland. It was appropriate because Alan Freed held his groundbreaking ‘Moondog Coronation Ball’ in this city by Lake Erie. And because the late performer had played this venue before, most recently in 2003.

But attendees experienced something more than simply a well-organized tribute to the late guitar shaman born in Dunn, North Carolina.

They felt the touch of an intangible force greater even than Rock ‘n’ Roll.

To be sure, musical energy echoed throughout the ballroom, as provided by a hero’s roster of performers. Included in the event were The Topcats, Wraygun, Link Wray's
Raymen, Chris Webb with Stuck In Gear, and Webb Wilder. Each delivered passionate testimony to the artistic worth of the world’s most iconoclastic axeman.

Yet many fans agreed that an unseen participant hovered over the stage - one who boasted the mesmerizing power of his Shawnee ancestors.

His photographs loomed large as a background. But Link’s spirit was also there.

The release of ‘Rumble’ in 1958 defined his legacy forever, as a pioneer without equal. By developing the use of unique tonalities and chord structure, he inspired generations of popular and unpopular musicians. Still, greater success and stardom went to those who followed his wandering path.

Link was content to live the life of a Native American scout, stealthily crossing uncharted artistic territory with swiftness and self-confidence.

Eric Moore, who organized the concert, expressed this conundrum in simple language. “He (was) Rock and Roll's greatest underdog.” An ongoing petition to have this influential guitarist inducted into the ‘Rock Hall’ has become his life’s work.

Beth Wray Webb, daughter of the twangy troubadour, brought an extra measure of credibility to the show with her presence. She was persuasive like a spirit guide. Yet humble and gracious to everyone who approached for their own bit of inspiration.

“People say I’ve got my daddy’s personality,” she observed.

Link first learned to play guitar from a little known circus performer called Hambone. Later, he became a master of the plectrum while playing Country & Western music, a popular genre at the time. Then, he was struck by tuberculosis as a result of serving in the Army. The loss of a lung threatened to end his career. But he refused to succumb. Instead, the guitar legend was transformed by that near-death experience.

With ‘Rumble’ his place in Rock iconography was secured.

“We didn’t know daddy was such a big thing until all these people started coming around,” Beth confessed.

Link had run through eclectic musical disciplines that included Jazz, Blues, and the popular tuneography that sired Elvis. Yet he augmented this individualistic style with a dose of low-tech experimentation.

“He put pencil holes in the speaker of his amplifier,” Beth reflected.

The result was a sound never heard in mainstream society. A sort of mystical ‘call of the wild.’ It made him seem like one in the throes of a vision sent from the mountaintops.

“Daddy was very religious,” his daughter observed. “He would say ‘That’s not me playing the guitar. That’s (from) God.’ He always put his heart and soul into his music.”

The scope of his artistic influence eventually overcame all boundaries. Bob Dylan, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and Davie Allan all drew creative energy from his recordings.

With their tribute performance on Saturday, Link Wray's Raymen demonstrated how he developed from a rebellious toneslinger into a soaring Thunderbird. Compositions like ‘Good Time Joe’ and ‘Switchblade’ provided evidence of a spiritual and artistic journey in progress.

The creator of ‘Rumble’ was not one to rest on his past accomplishments.

Link’s rhythmic bloodline continued when Beth’s son, Chris Webb, was born. “Daddy said Chris would be the one to carry on his legacy,” she recalled. “You know that old saying about giving away the ‘shirt off his back?’ He did that. He believed in giving everybody a break. He was a very humble man. Chris is the same.”

Indeed, his performance at the tribute seemed uncannily like those once delivered by Link himself. Chris exuded a stage presence that evoked the unflagging zeal of his notable grandfather.

His performance quickly had the audience cheering. But perhaps the night’s most surreal moment came when he rendered ‘The Shadow Knows.’ Each burst of laughter that punctuated the tune reverberated with authenticity, as if coming from the great beyond.

Anyone still doubting was moved to believe.

Link knew that his followers had gathered in Cleveland. Chris provided the connection by plugging in his Stratocaster guitar.

Gary Small, on bass, seemed to concur. “This is living history… the grandson of the reason why we are all here!”

The Beachland’s cheering audience seemed to agree.

Eric Moore was upbeat when reviewing the event. “I was happy… all the bands played excellent sets. There were several Rock Hall execs there and I'm sure that the show did help the cause of getting Link inducted. He made the music that makes this all worth fighting for.”

But most poignant was the observation of Kit Slitor, a fan for many years who didn’t make it to Cleveland. After reading about the petition effort, he assessed the situation in bold terms.

“Making a plea that Link Wray be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame is about like pleading that any of Christ's disciples get included in the New Testament,” he said. “It is like… OBVIOUS!”

After composing this feature, I forwarded a copy to Terry Stewart, President and CEO of the Rock Hall. It seemed best to keep him informed of public desire to have the iconic guitarist recognized by his institution.

Yet afterward, I was struck by a conundrum of sorts.

Link was a heroic figure for fans around the world. His legacy remains clear. The ‘Hall’ would greatly increase it’s own credibility by giving inclusion to one who contributed so much to the musical genre.

I realized that, in a sense, Link didn’t need the Rock Hall… it needed him!

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