Playbill

When Link Wray's song "Rumble" was banned from radio in 1958, the controversy had nothing to do with cursing, misogyny or cop killing. The guitarist merely played an instrumental filled with raw power and distortion, but given the tune's title and potency, some thought Wray was encouraging "teenage gang warfare." The result: Several stations refused to touch it. Regardless, "Rumble" climbed to No. 16 on national charts and became the stuff of legend.

With "Rumble" and the sides that followed, Wray earned his position as a power-rock guitar pioneer. While Dick Dale was the shredder, Wray was the white bluesman who bent the hell out of his strings and drenched his sound with distortion and feedback. Wray's influence on a legion of late-'60s rock guitarists is not only well documented, it's easy to hear. Take even a cursory listen to "Rumble" and "Raw-Hide," and you'll find the inspiration behind Pete Townshend's licks.

Yet Wray's career has not been an uninterrupted series of blistering power chords. He was the victim of mismanagement and poor career decisions, and by 1960 he was making records with strings. When those sessions failed to chart, Wray went back to playing dives and recording the violent, quirky albums that earned him his reputation.

But by and large Wray has been a cult figure; he's popped up here and there with recordings of varying quality that have kept his name afloat. Though he's viewed as a pioneer in some circles, Wray often has been relegated to footnote status. He is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Dale, Chuck Berry or other early rock guitar legends. Leave it to the movies to change that. When "Rumble" was used in Pulp Fiction and Desperado, Wray's status shot up several notches.

Today, at 71, he's getting more publicity than he has in decades, and a growing number of folks are beginning to acknowledge his influence. This rock and roll legend is taking advantage of his new fame by doing what he has always done: playing the guitar with the type of grit and attitude that got him kicked off the radio four decades ago.

Get ready to rumble.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul J. MacArthur