Link Wray's unmistakable "Rumble" is a defining moment in early rock and roll. But its performer had to hide the fact that he was Native American.EXPAND
Link Wray's unmistakable "Rumble" is a defining moment in early rock and roll. But its performer had to hide the fact that he was Native American.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber/MFAH Films

RUMBLE Rocks with a Very Native Sound

The sound was unlike any other emitting from a radio or stereo speaker. A sustained, strong series of forcefully strummed guitar chords with a little picking on the tail and some stinging runs over an ominous drum beat. It was the sound of greasy pompadours, danger and lust, and of gangs with switchblades facing each other in the dark and menacing night.

The instrumental “Rumble” by Link Wray and His Ray Men is just as jarring, emotive and atmospheric in 2017 as it was in 1958 upon its release in the early, halcyon days of rock and roll. That Wray was of direct Native American descent was something he kept quiet at the time.

So it’s only fitting that his song and story is ground zero for a new documentary on the influence and impact of Native American music and musicians on rock and roll. RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World. The film directed by Catherine Bainbridge will have several screening at the MFAH.

“The sound of his guitar embodies all my aspirations. It was the sound of freedom,” Wayne Kramer of the MC5 says of Wray’s song heard round the world onscreen.

Co-executive producer Stevie Salas is also an author and composer. But he’s best known as a guitarist who has appeared on record and onstage with Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, George Clinton, Justin Timberlake and many others. The film is an extension of an exhibit he worked on for the Smithsonian; to say it’s a passion project would be underselling the concept of passion.

“I played everywhere – including Houston’s Summit – and I looked around and wondered why there weren’t any other guitar players who looked like me,” he says. “But I never thought of myself as being different from anybody else. My goal wasn’t to show there were people treated unfairly due to racism. I wanted Native American people to see some role models in music and what they accomplished.”

Salas gathers an A-list of talking heads here, as performers of Native American descent (Robbie Robertson of The Band, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rhiannon Giddens, Pat Vegas from Redbone, Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas) and other musicians (Steven Tyler, Iggy Pop, George Clinton, Jackson Browne, Little Steven, Slash, Derek Trucks, Dan Auerbach) and journalists (Gary Giddins, David Fricke) discuss the subject. Salas says he sought non-Indians out on purpose to discuss the Indian influence in rock so it wouldn’t seem self-serving and thus subject to arched eyebrows.

“It was important to me to include musicians and not just scholars," he says. "You might not believe a scholar you’ve never heard of about Native Americans in rock, but you’ll believe it if Steven Tyler tells you!”

Deceased Native American musicians or of descent like bluesman Charley Patton, jazz singer Mildred Bailey, ‘70s guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, and metal drummer Randy Castillo are featured. Jimi Hendrix – at 1/8 Native American – seems to be shoehorned in, his Indian influence more from wearing the hippie garb of the day than his music.

But perhaps the most compelling story of a Native American musician is that of Jesse Ed Davis. In the 1970s, the talented, charismatic guitar player was a go-to musician for stage and studio and pal so many classic-rock greats: Lennon, Starr, Richards, Townshend, Wood, Dylan, Clapton. That’s Jesse Ed standing right behind George Harrison in The Concert for Bangladesh. That’s his memorable solo on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” – a run he did not even practice once and played only the single time you hear it on the record.

But he was also very troubled and has issues with heavy substance abuse. After getting clean, he relapsed and in 1988 was found dead in a laundromat, evidence of heroin use was evident. He was 43 years old.

Salas says many of those megastars wrote him with uniformly warm memories of Davis. But either due to scheduling or a reluctance to revisit their own druggie days, none of them were filmed – though Salas tried mightily. Ironically, while he was on tour with Rod Stewart in the ‘80s, Salas found himself playing the exact guitar parts that Davis had played on record.

Stevie Salas onstage with Rod Stewart. He found himself playing the same parts on some songs that Native American Jesse Ed Davis did on record.
Stevie Salas onstage with Rod Stewart. He found himself playing the same parts on some songs that Native American Jesse Ed Davis did on record.
Photo from StevieSalas.com

“I knew his name from reading it on liner notes, but I had no idea he was a Native American. And I saw that Bangladesh footage a million times. He looked like a big Indian! And I never put it together,” Salas says.

In between segments on rock, the film cuts back and forth between historical segments of Native American culture and assimilation. Like how in 1890 the U.S. Army slaughtered more than 300 “Ghost Dancers” whose riled-up singing and movements – which they thought would make them impervious to bullets — could start trouble.

One fascinating side trip is to New Orleans and the story of how black women, whose men had been sent away as slaves, bred with Native American males through the years. Their “Black Indian” descendants would become a huge part of Mardi Gras celebrations and a Louisiana subculture.

“It’s mind-blowing to me when Cyril Neville said to me the Mardi Gras Indians were really Native Americans passing themselves off as black people, but they couldn’t celebrate in their costumes. So that’s how they started dressing up during Mardi Gras,” Salas says. It says something that given the choice between being considered by society of Black or Indian in the Deep South, many chose the former as easier.

Both the film and Salas do sometimes make fairly large-scale and not wholly convincing theories in terms of Native American influences in everything from classic blues and the guitar work of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. It is sometimes positioned as the primary influence instead of one of many.

Still, RUMBLE is a fascinating and crucial music documentary on an area of rock and roll which has never before been explored. Until now.

RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World screens 7:30 p.m. Thursday, September 28; 7 p.m. Friday, September 29; and 5 p.m. Sunday, October 1 in the Brown Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7515 or visit mfah.org/film; tickets are $7 to $9. More information also available at rumblethemovie.com.

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