LINK WRAY LIVE AT VINNIE’S
Thanks to Steve Williams for this rememberane of seeing Link and the Ray Men "back in the day" at the notorious "knife and gun club" - Vinnie's in Washington, DC.Thought I'd write a little bit about what it was like to see THE MAN at Vinnie's in D.C. in the early 1960's.
I first remember passing by Vinnie's, a run-down D.C. corner club which was a converted mom & pop grocery at 10th and H Streets, and just happening to notice the advertising in the window - a big styrofoam affair with Link's name in curvy 3-dimensional letters and all covered with glitter. I made a mental note to get back there with some I.D., since I was underage then and couldn't get in anywhere legally. It was always a game to try to get by the bouncer at clubs in town -- when they were hard up for customers they'd wave us through, draft card or no, but most of the time they'd stand in the dark entrance with a flashlight and shine it back and forth from our faces to the IDs. We tried really hard to look older than we were.
Some clubs were fairly safe places to go - we suburban high school kids could even take a date - the Rocket Room just up the street on New York Ave. next to the Greyhound bus station was just such a place, as were spots like the Hayloft, Rand's, the famous Famous, and, in a pinch, the seedier Benny's Rebel Room and even the Cap'n'Guys. These places often featured the best rock musicians in town, while the Georgetown clubs were OK but were more folk-hippie oriented. Not the kind of stuff we rock purists were looking for.
Vinnie's was not a place that anybody in their right mind would take a date to. It was shabby, dark, and smelled like sour beer twenty four hours a day. As you went in the corner entrance door and got by the bouncer you'd see a small, elevated stage on the left, really just the space where a plate glass window used to be. I first remember seeing Doug on the drums in the corner, Link just finishing up "Jack the Ripper," and Max in white jacket, black shirt and white shoes beating the hell out of a pair of bongos. The lights were set so that you could see the fellows on stage pretty well, but the rest of the club was in complete darkness except for the bar. It took a few minutes for your eyes to get used to the contrast. You could just make out all the glowing tips of cigarettes in the audience. While I was trying to figure out where to grab a chair, a loud, angry voice came out from somewhere in the dark, "Siddown, four eyes!" That helped me make up my mind right away. I dived into a booth someplace and tried to be inconspicuous.
I remember that I wanted to hear all Link's big songs, but I think they were in a different mood that night. Doug teased Shorty without mercy, but Shorty, who never cracked a smile, would keep up his dead-pan, grouchy look which made it all even funnier. Doug sang "Blue Eyes, Don't Run Away," one of many that he wrote and most of which he never wrote down or recorded. Link decided to play his version of "Autumn Leaves," which gave him the chance to use a lot of his trademark mandolin-style picking. In those days he was experimenting with old standards like "Autumn Leaves" and even "Liebestraum" which he turned into "Summer Dream." I think he was at the top of his talent then, and even though I didn't like those tunes I had to give him credit for trying to play something besides three-chord "hoodlum" rock, which, of course, he did better than anybody else. I can't remember which guitar he was playing that night but believe it may have been a Gibson Firebird, which he used for a while.
About the time that the fellows got into the mood to play some of Link's headliners, Doug decided instead that he wanted to sing "Eighteen Yellow Roses." Well, that old Marty Robbins tune always had the amazing effect of causing a fight to break out in the audience, for reasons that remain unclear even to this day. It was always the kiss of death for the set it was played in, and I'm sure that the owner of Vinnie's got nervous every time it came up. Maybe Doug got a kick out of seeing what would happen when he sang it. Anyhow, when I heard the crowd starting to get rowdy after the first few bars I headed for the back door - the last thing I needed was to get caught with somebody else's draft card in the middle of a riot, whether I had anything to do with it or not. The back door opened onto a dark parking lot where Ray used to park the old limo with the trunk full of records that he liked to peddle. Sometimes you had to step over a sleeping wino or two. As I got to safety on the sidewalk I could hear the muffled shouts and crashes coming from inside the building above the traffic noise on the street. Just as I went around the corner on 10th Street I saw two cops running toward the entrance with nightsticks in hand. I didn't hang around to find out how things ended. I think the police expected to have to go in there at least once a night and maybe even looked forward to it!
Vinnie's has long since been buried under part of the D.C. Convention Center. It's not easy to imagine how the neighborhood used to look. In some ways it was better then. And it was better than some of the other spots Link used to play in, like the 1023 in Southeast. But part of the attraction of Link's music was that it belonged in places like that - you expected to hear it in tough clubs and fire halls and not in hotel ballrooms. Link had no pretentions about playing upscale music in upscale places. I think even John Kerry would have thought twice about playing "Rawhide" at his inaugural party!