Wray was born in Dunn, North Carolina, but grew up in Arizona, where he first heard slide guitar at age 8 from a black player named "Hambone". His family later moved to Accokeek, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. He currently lives in Denmark with his wife, Olive.
Wray and his brothers Doug and Vernon Wray had been playing country music and Western swing for several years when they took a gig as the house band on Milt Grant's House Party, a Washington version of American Bandstand. They played for many performers, from Fats Domino to Ricky Nelson. When attempting to work up a backing for The Diamonds' "The Stroll", they came up with "Rumble", which they called "Oddball". The song was an instant hit with the live audience, which demanded four repeats that night.
Eventually the song came to the attention of record producer Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records, who hated it, particularly after Wray poked holes in his guitar speakers to make it sound more like the live version (see "Rocket 88"). Bleyer's daughter, however, loved it and renamed it because it reminded her of West Side Story. It became a huge hit, not only in the United States, but also Great Britain, where it has been cited as an influence on the Yardbirds and The Who, among others. (Pete Townshend wrote liner notes for a 1974 Wray album.)
The band had several more hard-rocking instrumental hits in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including "Rawhide", "Ace of Spades", and "Jack the Ripper", the latter named after a "dirty boogie" dance popular in Baltimore at the time.
Wray's career has been in and out since those days, with periods of retirement followed by renewed popularity, particularly in Europe. He toured and recorded several albums with retro rockabilly Robert Gordon and continues to tour under his own name.
His music has been featureed in numerous films, including Desperado, Independence Day 12 Monkeys, This Boy's Life, Johnny Depp's Blow, Brad Pitt's Johnny Suede, and Pink Flamingos by John Waters, which is set in Baltimore.