Link Wray - Guitar Innovator with the hit song, "Rumble"
Song Makes Adults Panic
There once was a time when a song was banned from the radio, claiming to cause juvenile delinquency.
The year was 1958. Rock and roll was still in its infancy, Elvis was in the army, and Buddy Holly was on the charts.
The song in question was Rumble, by guitarist Link Wray. How can a guitar instrumental cause supposedly rational adults to panic?
Rumble had a menacing sound. A rare, raunchy distorted guitar that was caused by Link punching holes in his amplifier speakers. Distortion in the 1950s was unheard of. It was that dark sound and repeating notes all played on the low strings that caused the trouble.
Little did those adults know that out there in the vast radio audience, young aspiring guitarists were mesmerized by Rumble. The song was a hit in the United States and Great Britain, where the teenage Jimmy Page, Pete Townsend, Dave Davies, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton Jimi Hendrix and countless others were influenced by it and were dreaming of rock and roll stardom.
Pete Townsend says of Link Wray:
"He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar. I remember being made very uneasy the first time I heard it, and yet excited by the savage guitar sounds."
Link Wray, of Shawnee Indian ancestry, was born in North Carolina in 1929. He learned his first guitar technique at age 8 from a carnival worker. His family moved around quite a bit, and Link ended up in San Francisco.
Link was the Army during the Korean War. While there, he came down with tuberculosis. He lost his lung due the disease. He was told he would never sing again, so he concentrated on the guitar. Eventually, he was able to sing again, but had a deep and scratchy voice.
After leaving the Army, Link, along with his brothers Douglas and Vernon, started Lucky Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers. They played mostly country music for many years until they were hired for a local version of American Bandstand. It was for this TV show that Rumble came to be.
They backed several popular bands such as Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson, who were on the charts and very well known. During one of these shows, they were trying to work up an arrangement of The Stroll, a hit song for the Diamonds. The version they came up with became huge hit with the audience. The new song soon came to the attention of record producers. The song got its name from Phil Everly, who said the song reminded him of a street gang fight.
Link recorded several other instrumental hits such as Rawhide, Apache, Jake the Ripper, Ace of Spades, Shawnee and Comanche. He was often billed as a surf guitarist, and was forced to record with an orchestra to fix his image from the controversy of Rumble.
Link’s popularity went back and forth after the mid 1960s. He retired for awhile, and then came back in the 1980s as guitarist with rockabilly artist Robert Gordon. I first saw Link with Robert Gordon on SCTV. He was wearing all black leather, wearing sunglasses and was playing a Gibson SG, a perfect guitar for him.
He had resurgence in popularity due to being his music featured in films such as Pulp Fiction, Independence Day, Breathless, Desperado and Twelve Monkeys and others.
He often toured Australia and Europe with great success, and eventually settled in Denmark when he married a Danish student who had been studying Native American culture. He passed away at age 76 on November 5, 2005 in Copenhagen.
Before his death, Link was named sixty-seventh on Rolling Stone’s Hundred Greatest Guitarists list. He should have been higher, as Link was the one who invented the power chord, which is a simple chord using only two notes. Much of the rock music recorded since has a power chord in it somewhere.
It was those distorted tones and power chords that got young kids excited about playing guitar, to the dismay and disapproval of the fearful adults.
Link has not been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many of his fans have complained and are actively campaigning to get him inducted. He deserves to be there. He is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.