Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin's legendary lead guitarist, is in the middle of his living room, playing exuberant air guitar to the song that made him want to be a rock 'n' roller. "When I first heard 'Rumble,'" he says. "[I found] something that had profound attitude." His goofy grin says it all.
This memorable scene from the 2008 music documentary It Might Get Loud illustrates the lasting power of "Rumble," released in 1958 by Link Wray and his Raymen, an instrumental at one time considered so dangerous and subversive that it was banned on American radio—a tune so influential that it’s been credited with birthing both heavy metal and punk rock.
The man behind this seminal blast of noise—a black-haired, leather-clad guitarist of American Indian origin—spent his formative years in and around Coastal Virginia and came up with his most famous song at a Virginia sock hop.
"His rebellious look was functional," says Dana Raidt, author of the biography Link Wray: The First Man in Black, set for release in August from Bazillion Points Books. "He wore dark sunglasses because the light bothered his eyes … he had really bad vision. And he wore the leather jacket so he wouldn't catch cold (Military vet Wray only had one lung, the result of contracting tuberculosis during the Korean War). As for the open shirts down to his navel, I have no idea."
Link's story is a family affair, Raidt says. Oldest brother Vernon, aka "Lucky" and youngest brother Doug were longtime collaborators. Frederick Lincoln Wray, Jr. was born in 1929, of part Shawnee American Indian descent, in Dunn, N.C. "The family was poor, times were hard, and they were terrorized by the KKK for being Native American," Raidt says, "so it was a totally different life when Link's father got a job at the Portsmouth shipyard in 1943. Their fortunes improved."
The boys began playing country music in and around the region, first as the Lucky Wray Band and later as The Palomino Ranch Gang. "When Link first started on guitar, he learned from one of his brother's old guitars. A hand-me-down. Even when they weren't getting along, they still stuck together."
The boys relocated to Washington, D.C. in the mid-1950s, and Wray—who idolized Elvis—morphed into a rocker when the band got involved with local disc jockey and promoter Milt Grant. "'Rumble' was created at a Milt Grant house party, a teenage sock hop, in Fredericksburg at the Old National Guard Armory on July 12, 1957," says Raidt. Before a massive throng of teenagers, Grant asked the band to play a "stroll" (a slow, slinky groove inspired by a song of the same name by The Diamonds). Drummer Doug locked into a bolero beat, and Link—who always said he received divine intervention—came up with the power chords. Inspired, Vernon placed a microphone to Link's amp, creating wild feedback that merged raucously with the riffing.
“Everybody loved it,” the biographer says. “At the end of the show, the kids kept shouting: ‘Play that weird song, play that weird song.’” As her book recounts, when they took "Rumble" into the studio—with the working title of "Oddball"— the band had trouble recreating that same distortion so they ended up punching holes in the amplifier.
“Once ‘Rumble’ was released, it became popular in the U.K., and that's where the Jimmy Pages and The Beatles and the British Invasion musicians and when all of the guitar rock gods heard it," Raidt says. From its name—which meant a gang fight—to its sonics, it was clearly meant for teenagers. "It represented the lizard brain, lusty side of being an adolescent. Iggy Pop says he heard it just as he was about to enter college and he dropped out." "Rumble" never left pop culture and over the years has been featured on many movie and TV soundtracks, including Pulp Fiction and "The Sopranos," as its ragged, dangerous sound is synonymous with violence and intrigue.
Link Wray went on to pioneer and put his stamp on other kinds of music. The author originally got interested in her subject after hearing Link's self-titled 1971 solo album, a classic set of Americana, and his gloriously upbeat version of Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country." She hopes that Link Wray: The First Man in Black will shine a light on all of his accomplishments and dispel some myths. "He was known as a troublemaker, but he really wasn't. He didn't do drugs. He was a womanizer, clearly, but he didn't live up to the reputation people had in mind for him when they heard 'Rumble.'"
Link Wray: The First Man in Black will be published in August by Bazillion Points Books. For more info, visit BazillionPoints.com.