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Tribute to Link Wray

By Deke Dickerson, November 2005

Link Wray is dead. I don't know how best to put it into words, but he was one of my biggest guitar heroes and influences. I am writing my thoughts about his passing for no other reason than I just want to get them off my chest and out of my system. Link Wray meant a lot to me.

One of the first albums I ever owned was the "Rockabilly Stars" LP of the early '80s. On the back it showed Link's classic 1958 pose, with his two-tone black-and-white leather jacket and matching two-tone black-and-white shoes, holding a Danelectro Longhorn guitar. The image burned a hole in my head, along with Link's songs on the album. In my eighth-grade class we had an assignment to write a letter to a famous or historical person. Most kids wrote letters to the president. I wrote my letter to Link Wray. (Of course, he was living in Denmark by that time, so I could never find an address to send it to!)

After a nearly twenty-year absence from the States, Link started touring again in the late '90s. I caught him every chance I could. At that time I thought to myself, I'll never get to see him again, thinking he would go back to Denmark and never come back. I tried repeatedly to get his autograph, but his controlling wife would never let fans into the dressing room or let him sign autographs after the show. So at one particularly sweaty show at the Foothill Club in Long Beach, I brought along the rarest Link Wray album ("Link Sings and Plays Guitar" on Vermillion -- worth probably in the neighborhood of $250) and shoved it at Link through the crowd as he was exiting the stage. Link took a giant Sharpie and made a huge, sweeping, unreadable lightning bolt across the front cover! I couldn't help but smile.

Link Wray, Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, and Deke Dickerson, Minneapolis, 1998

A couple years later my band was touring with Southern Culture on the Skids, and it was announced that Link would be topping the bill at the Minneapolis show. A few memorable things about that night: I got up and played bass while Link and Rick Miller of SCOTS played together. SCOTS got together and bought Link a Danelectro reissue guitar, which they hoped he would play (he never did). And yes, I brought along my copy of "Link Sings and Plays Guitar" AGAIN, which I presented to Link in the dressing room. I tried to explain what had happened at the Foothill Club, and while I was trying to ask him to personalize it to me, Link turned the album over, pulled out his Sharpie, and made a huge, sweeping, unreadable lightning bolt across the BACK cover! Not content with having my album defaced twice, I asked Link to personalize the "signature" to me. He wrote "To Deke" UNDERNEATH his signature. I did learn a lesson that night: Always get your autographs BEFORE the show when dealing with a 70+ year old guitar legend!

Link Wray, Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, and Deke Dickerson, Minneapolis, 1998

Link Wray, Cuzzin Crispy of SCOTS, Deke Dickerson, and Rick Miller of SCOTS, Minneapolis, 1998

The next year, we were booked for a five-day tour of Spain as the opening act for Link. I thought this would be my chance to hang around and buddy with him, but this was far from the case, as Olive would never let Link hang out with anybody. The closest we got were a few backstage chats and snapshots. The oddest thing was how friendly and nice Link always was, and how willing to talk about old recording sessions and such, while Olive was trying to pull him away and not let him talk to anybody. I was immediately struck by how much of a genuine HILLBILLY Link was. I mean this as absolute praise and the highest compliment. He was a country boy to the bone, which most people would never guess by listening to his records.

Deke and Link on stage, Spain, 2000

Deke and Link on stage, Spain, 2000

During this five-day tour, the other guitarists on the bill and I were invited up to play with Link for the encore. As anybody who saw Link in recent years knows, his encore usually consisted of the entire set played again a second time. For the kid who tried to write Link in eighth grade, I still consider those few nights to have been magic, sharing the stage with my guitar hero. I'll never forget it. I mean, come on, I got to play "Rumble" with Link Wray, live on stage in Spain! Oh, and I got a few nice autographs on my other Link records, this time before the shows!!

Deke and Link on stage, Spain, 2000

Deke and Link backstage, Spain, 2000

I didn't see Link for a few years after that until his tour this past spring, which was both a blessing and a curse. For some reason it coincided with ours on at least a dozen nights, with Link playing down the street from us. The blessing was that I got to see Link at least three or four more times (though, musically, his tour was completely ragged, with a number of different pickup bands backing him up along the way). The curse was that we were competing with Link Wray for an audience... But how could I complain about that?

My most vivid memory of Link: We performed as the backing band at the Ponderosa Stomp festival this year in New Orleans. We were backing up Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. Scotty, of course, is also one of my biggest guitar idols. The house was packed beyond belief with people hanging off the walls and swinging from the rafters. I had Scotty on my immediate left, and I didn't dare look anywhere else as I wanted to do the best job backing him that I could. During a break between songs, I looked to my right for a second, and Link Wray was sitting on the steps of the stage watching the show. I literally had a hot flash... There I was, standing between two of my biggest heroes, Scotty Moore on my left and Link Wray on my right. I reached out to Link and he shook my hand. At that moment I could have died happy. It doesn't get any better than that!

I saw Link one more time, at the Hootenanny Festival on the July 4th weekend this year. Link was so weak that he had to have two people literally carry him from the trailer to the stage. The Hootenanny is also one of the few places you will ever see people like Lux Interior out in the bright afternoon sun. I had a bad feeling as Link was carried to the stage. Although I had seen him several times in the preceding months, seeing him in such bright light made me fear he wouldn't be with us much longer. As it turned out, that was his second-to-last show.

Iíve heard a lot of people complain about his recent shows being too loud, or too metal, or too sloppy. To me, it doesnít matter. That was still the guy who wore the two-tone leather jacket with the matching two-tone leather shoes holding the Danelectro Longhorn guitar in the picture from 1958. It really was like being in the presence of greatness, no matter how bad it got musically on stage. Besides, there was something perverse about a 75+ year old man swinging a guitar around while it howled feedback through a Marshall stack. I really liked that, actually.

The man is now gone. May he rest in peace. When my grandchildren gather around my deathbed and ask me what the proudest moment of my long life was, my answer will be:

"I got to play 'Rumble' with Link Wray." Enough said.

Deke Dickerson