Watch Link Wray Play a Downright Dirty Version of “Rumble,” the Only Instrumental to Be Banned on Radio (1974)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Only Instru­men­tal Ever Banned from the Radio: Link Wray’s Seduc­tive, Raunchy Song, “Rum­ble” (1958)

Two Gui­tar Effects That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Rock: The Inven­tion of the Wah-Wah & Fuzz Ped­als

The Sto­ry of “Wipe Out,” the Clas­sic Surf Rock Instru­men­tal

Quentin Taran­ti­no Explains The Art of the Music in His Films

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.

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