Link Wray, Hidden No More

By Ben Dumbauld, Research Associate and Project Manager

The history of popular music is rarely a smooth affair–it is punctuated by events that, seemingly out of the blue, forever demand recognition by musicians, audiences, and the music industry as a whole. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Woodstock. MTV’s first broadcast. Yet, not all such seminal events in music are so spectacular. Many operate under the radar, their importance known only to a small group of musical cognoscenti.

Up to now, this may well have been the case for guitarist Link Wray. In 1958, Link and his brothers Vernon and Doug were performing at a local record hop in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Soon into the show, the audience began to request “The Stroll,” a song made popular a month earlier by the vocal group the Diamonds. Link, having spent the previous year in the hospital recovering from tuberculosis, was unaware of the song, but nonetheless took on the challenge. As Doug kicked off the drumbeat, Link didn’t try to play “The Stroll,” but rather produced three distorted power chords that would forever change the landscape of Rock and Roll: “Rumble.”

With its power, its aggression, and its sparsity, the influence of “Rumble” is today undeniable. The song’s distorted guitar sound that Link created by piercing holes in his amplifier would go on to be one of the defining features of Hard Rock, Punk, and Heavy Metal.  Banned from being played on radio stations under fear it would incite teenage rebellion, the song nonetheless caught the ears of guitarists ranging from The Who’s Pete Townshend to Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. “‘Rumble’ had the power to push me over the edge,” says Iggy Pop, “and it helped me say, ‘I’m going to be a musician.’” Upon hearing “Rumble,” Wayne Kramer of MC5 recalled, “the sound of his guitar embodied all my aspirations.”

Like Elvis, Link Wray was born poor in the American South. But, as he often said in interviews, “while Elvis grew up white-man poor, I grew up Shawnee poor.” A child of the Great Depression, the guitarist’s native roots presented difficulties in his hometown of Dunn, North Carolina. As a child, Link’s Shawnee mother was attacked so severely that it left her crippled, well before authorities viewed hate crimes as a prosecutable offense. Some of his earliest childhood memories involve hiding under his bed with his brothers, while the Ku Klux Klan outside spread terror in his segregated neighborhood. Yet, as music writer Antonino D’Ambrosio states, “Wray took that bitterness, and created something that was not reductive, but proactive in his music.”

November is Native American Heritage Month. In honor of this, as well as Link Wray’s recent nomination as an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we are developing a variety of materials on our TeachRock site to better represent Wray’s role as a Rock and Roll pioneer. A clip of Wray’s groundbreaking song “Rumble” is now available on the website, and our popular lesson The Roots of Heavy Metal has been updated to reflect Wray’s undeniable role in the creation of the distorted guitar sound. Finally, as part of our recent partnership with the producers of the documentary film, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, we will be publishing a lesson solely on Link Wray, his Shawnee roots, and “Rumble.”

In Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys reflects, “every musician in the world loves Link Wray. I don’t know why the rest of the world hasn’t figured that out.” At the Rock and Roll Foundation, we hope to do what we can to to correct this oversight and spread the legacy of Link Wray to the world.