It takes a lot of swagger and confidence to play a couple of barre chords on a guitar, look like the coolest cat doing so, and revolutionize rock music while doing so. That’s Link Wray we’re talking about, and the song is the 1958 instrumental hit “Rumble.” It still sounds fresh today for the same reasons it was controversial at the time. It sounds sleazy, grungy, dirty. This is a song for a pool hall, or a biker bar, and just reeks of cigarettes and liquor. And from Pulp Fiction onwards, the song has popped up in many movies and TV shows, giving a scene a bit of cool danger.
The above video is from a one-hour gig that Wray and his band performed at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, 1974, the former ice skating rink that promoter Bill Graham turned into one of the primo music venues of its day. And Link Wray playing was like one of the gods of rock descending to anoint the crowd. Presley–though Wray defended him during his act–had dropped out of mainstream culture. The original rock and rollers, Wray’s peers, were either dead or nostalgia acts. So this appearance is magical, rock spirit made flesh, looking dangerous and sexual in all his swagger.
That swagger was well earned. Fred Lincoln Wray was born in North Carolina to a Shawnee mother, as a Cherokee and White father had returned from WWI with PTSD. In the mostly Black neighborhood where he grew up, he would hide underneath the bed when the Ku Klux Klan would come through on a terror campaign. “Elvis, he grew up — I don’t want to sound racist when I say this – he grew up white man poor,” Wray said in an interview. “I was growing up Shawnee poor.”
He suffered weak eyesight and bad hearing from childhood measles, and later when he served time in the army, he’d contract tuberculosis, lose one lung, and was told he wouldn’t have a singing career.
But he did have his guitar skills, which he’d learned as a child from a traveling Black guitarist called Hambone. Back from the army he formed a group with his brothers Vernon and Doug, and was going by the name Lucky. They gigged around Virginia and Washington, DC, and were asked by a local promoter to come up with a song similar to The Diamonds’ “The Stroll.” What they came up with was an instrumental called “Oddball.” It was a hit played live but when they went into a studio to record a demo, it just didn’t have “that sound”. Wray started punching holes in his speakers with a pencil and in one stroke created the fuzztone guitar sound.
The big labels wouldn’t bite, but Cadence Records’ Milt Grant said yes. Or rather, his teenage stepdaughter and her friends said yes, and Milt put aside his own distaste. Juvenile delinquents were at once both a “problem” and a way to sell product, especially with the hit musical and movie West Side Story. “Rumble” was a much better name than “Oddball,” and, on March 31, 1958, it was released.
Some DJs refused to play the single in cities where teenage gang violence was a problem. When Wray and his band played American Bandstand, Dick Clark didn’t mention the title. It didn’t stop the single from being a hit.
And it was influential. Wray pretty much invented power-chord riffing, and influenced Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, and countless others. Curmudgeon-genius Mark E. Smith of the Fall named him as one of the only two musicians he respected (the other was Iggy Pop).
Link Wray’s Cherokee and Shawnee heritage was not well known among the general public, but the recent documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World brought the influence of Native American musicians out into the open for celebration, connecting Link Wray with Robbie Robertson, Charlie Patton, Mildred Bailey, and Stevie Salas.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.