1958. Television was ruled by westerns. South Pacific was the biggest movie of the year. Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Our Man In Havana were published. The biggest song of the year was Tom Dooley, a murder ballad by The Kingston Trio that kicked off the folk music boom. The charts were full of The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Andy Williams, Connie Francis, with a smattering of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Duane Eddy. Elvis Presley was the King of Rock and Roll, but in March of 1958, he was inducted into the U.S. Army. While that haircut may not have taken his crown, except for a few shining moments Elvis was never quite the same.
But that didn’t mean rock and roll was done.
In April of 1958, the only instrumental song to ever be banned from the airwaves was released. Rumble by Link Wray was like nothing anyone had ever heard. It clanged and snarled, it stalked you with its menace, it blew kid’s minds and scared the hell out of their parents. In Rumble, Wray elevated distortion to an art, crowned fuzz as the dirtiest guitar sound in rock, and gave screaming birth to the power chord. Wray and Rumble were the link between the blues and metal, a towering inspiration for punk, thrash, and other hard-charging subgenres of rock. Link is beloved by countless titans of music, but not very well known outside the business. Certainly not as well known and loved as he should be. I mean, after all, we’re talking about the guy who invented the power chord here.
I first heard Rumble in the 90s when it was featured in the movie Pulp Fiction. After that, I knew who Link Wray was, but I didn’t really know anything about him. For instance, I didn’t know we owe the power chord to him. And I didn’t know he was part Shawnee.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World is a great award-winning documentary now on PBS. I watched it last week and got my mind blown by how many artists were of Native ancestry. I knew of some, like Jimi Hendrix and Charley Patton, but there were a lot I didn’t know about. And their influence! The influence of Native musicians is really amazing to learn about. One of my favorite clips in the film is about Patton, the undisputed grandfather of the blues, and the Choctaw influence on his sound. Then there’s jazz singer Mildred Bailey, originally from the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, who was a tremendous influence on both Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. The list goes on: Robbie Robertson of The Band, drummer Randy Castillo who was a member of Ozzy Osbourne’s band, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis who played with countless artists, folk pioneer Buffy Sainte-Marie, rock group Redbone, and many more.
This terrific documentary fills in a lot of gaps in the history of American music, and is well worth the time of any music fan. You can watch it on the PBS website, but it will only be available until February 5, so jump on it, and play it loud.