With Tidal Waves Music’s reissues of three early Link Wray releases — 1971’s Mordicai Jones, 1972’s Be What You Want To, and 1973’s Beans and Fatback — the label is opening up the iconic guitarist’s music beyond just the swampy instrumentals Wray recorded with the Ray Men in the ‘60s.
While those Link Wray and His Ray Men singles, such as the inimitable classic, “Rumble,” along with “Jack the Ripper,” “Comanche,” “Run Chicken Run,” and others, rightly deserve the place they have in rock ‘n’ roll history, the focus on those songs unjustly ends most folks’ musical knowledge of Wray sometime in the late 1960s. That’s unfortunate, because it was in the early ‘70s that things really started getting interesting.
Mordicai Jones and Beans and Fatback were recorded at Wray’s Shack Three Track studio. That studio, per the obi strip included with both records, was “converted from an outbuilding on his brother’s property on which his father used to raise chickens.” That brother — Vernon “Ray Vernon” Wray— was also one of the recording engineers responsible for producing the records which, given the circumstances, are shrouded in a veil of mystery.
That veil is especially applicable to Beans and Fatback. Originally recorded at the same time as Link Wray’s self-titled 1971 LP and Mordicai Jones, the 11 tracks which make up the album were allegedly stolen by producer Steve Verroca and sold to Virgin Records, who released the album in 1973.
Beans and Fatback is a little rougher than Mordicai Jones, lending a bit of credence to the fact that it’s supposedly stolen demos. The vocals are kind of buried, unlike the very prominent, Robert Plant-style vocals of Bobby Howard on Mordicai Jones. Still, while Jones does some very excellent classic rocking that would definitely appeal to those who prefer Led Zeppelin IV, Beans and Fatback is pure backwoods rockin’ — just listen to the 6.5 minute workout that is “I’m So Glad, I’m So Proud” or the gospel tent revival take on “In the Pines” titled “Georgia Pines.” You can’t help but wonder what those boys were getting into back in that shack.
The music on Mordicai Jones and Beans and Fatback, recorded as they were in the Shack, bear a certain rawness to them, but even that’s different. Bobby Howard, keyboardist and mandolin player, sings lead on Jones, whereas Link Wray sings lead on Fatback. Wray’s voice is tolerable, but by no means is it really distinctive. The songwriting on these albums and the musical production therein really defines this trio of records more than the vocals themselves, anyway. There’s something to the hodgepodge of Americana genres which went into these records.
Back to the obi strip: “blues, country, gospel, Native American chants, folk rock and traditionals” all make up the songs on the three LPs, and it results in music which is familiar in tone, but wholly new. It’s like the Band, but less of the ragtime singalong quality. There’s a rough and tumble quality to Wray’s music which doesn’t so much swing as bounce.
Reviews of Beans and Fatback and Mordicai Jones inevitably compare them to the self-titled 1971 album, recorded at roughly the same time, because of that album’s rather more personal lyrics and thus, its introspective nature, but the latter two records are really only latter in terms of release date. Link Wray is a great album, but with the other two, you get the likes of “Fire and Brimstone” multiple times. Mordicai Jones’s “On the Run” is a dirty piece of slide-guitar, jumped-up juke joint soul, with an undercurrent of funk that renders the whole tune just a little nasty. The band even manages to do the same with “Days Before Custer,” which is a fuzzed-out psychedelic funk rocker which also celebrates the Native experience before George Armstrong Custer came to the Little Bighorn.
Be What You Want To sounds a little different, and for quite a few reasons. Primarily, it was recorded at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, as opposed to a converted chicken shack in the Maryland woods, but there’s also quite a different lineup. That lineup doesn’t just differ on the album as a whole, but almost from song to song. Whereas the two Shack records in this trio were recorded with Doug Wray, Bill Hodges, Bobby Howard, and Steve Verroca as the core, Be What You Want To features a slew of session musicians, along with appearances by Jerry Garcia and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, among others. It’s a hodgepodge of a whole other sort.
It’s a cleaner hodgepodge, to be sure, too. Be What You Want To is a collection of Link Wray originals, but it’s augmented with covers of the Annita and Diana Northern Soul jam, “All Cried Out,” as well as the Lloyd Price smash, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The album’s a lot more polished, but it’s still a party, although it’s more a party in a club than back out in the wilderness.
The packaging for the three records is fairly minimal. Mordicai Jones gets a pretty great set of liner notes, which spell out the story of the Shack-recorded LPs, and comes in a gatefold jacket, featuring an obi strip. The other two albums, Be What You Want To and Beans and Fatback, are standard jackets with an obi strip. They all reproduce the original packaging, and look really great, pressed on heavyweight vinyl.
Essentially, these are three albums which show a side of Link Wray beyond the guy who recorded some reverby instrumentals: this was a man who had something to say, and a musical side which dug deep into his heritage and the musical history of the country itself. You might not know it now, but once you drop the needles on any of these records, you’ll immediately realize how very necessary this trio of albums is.
Also, and this is really for those who have seen Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World documentary — in the movie, the filmmakers put a lot of emphasis on Link Wray and how “Rumble” was this life-changing thing for so many musicians, and how important it was that Wray was Shawnee. However, the film never really connects the dots between Wray’s importance and the fact that he celebrated his Native heritage, and I think that’s important, because it’s readily apparent here, both on “Days Before Custer” and Beans and Fatback’s “Shawnee Tribe,” which updates drums and chants in the ‘70s the same way the likes of A Tribe Called Red would do when they came on the scene in 2012.