“Harlem Nocturne” sheet music cover from Shapiro Bernstein Music Publishers, Hal Leonard Corporation.
“Harlem Nocturne” is a saxophone-saturated song born in 1939 that has had a long shelf life –a song that found pop fame 20 years, and again nearly 50 years after its first release. Perhaps most notably the song came to wide popular notice in the early- and mid-1960s in a rendition by a group called The Viscounts. But “Harlem Nocturne” would rise again in the 1980s, used for the TV series Mike Hammer and a related Hollywood film. In its musical sojourn, “Harlem Nocturne” became one of those classic and timeless instrumentals that filled the airways and nightclubs over the decades in many cover versions, even to this day. But the original “Harlem Nocturne” has its roots in late 1930s’ jazz and the big band era. Here’s some of that lineage.
Earle Hagen wrote and composed the song, along with Dick Richards. Hagen played trombone with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and the Ray Noble Orchestra, where he became an arranger in the late 1930s. On the road with Noble, Hagen composed “Harlem Nocturne,” and the song became a jazz standard. Initially, Hagen wrote the song as a tribute to saxophonist Johnny Hodges, known for his solo work with Duke Ellington’s band. In writing the tune, Hagen had been inspired by Duke Ellington’s band. Johnny Hodges (1907-1970), meanwhile, became a legendary saxophonist
“Harlem Nocturne” -1959-1966
Hagen also intended the piece to be used by Jack Dumont, a saxophonist then with the Ray Noble Orchestra where Hagen worked. By 1941, “Harlem Nocturne” was also used as a theme song for the Randy Brooks Orchestra. In 1945, Johnny Otis recorded it as an early single on the Savoy label. In the early 1950s, saxophonist Herbie Fields released “Harlem Nocturne” as a single, then becoming one of the first popular jazz versions. And not long after that came a raft of cover versions by virtually every sax player in the R & B business. According to one source, there may be as many as 500 versions, making it one of the most covered songs in history. Among the many artists who have covered the song are: Duke Ellington, Harry James, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Lounge Lizards, Earl Bostic, Quncy Jones, Boots Randolph, guitarist Danny Gatton, the Ventures, and others.
Cover art for 1965 LP version of “Harlem Nocturne” by The Viscounts, issued on the Amy record label.
But it was the Viscounts, a New Jersey band, that put the song on the musical map in a new way in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Viscounts were an instrumental quintet consisting of Harry Haller on tenor sax; Bobby Spievak, guitar; Joe Spievak, bass; Larry Vecchio on organ; and Clark Smith on drums. The Viscounts’ recording of the song in 1959 added a new twist — an eerie guitar echo effect that’s been retained in many subsequent versions.
The Viscounts’ version was first released on the Madison record label — a New York city label started in 1958. The Viscounts’ “Harlem Nocturne” was recorded in 1958. By January 1959, “Harlem Nocturne” was climbing the pop charts and had risen to No.52. Despite the Viscounts’ mediocre showing with “Harlem Nocturne” on the music charts, it remained one of the most recognizable instrumentals of that era. The Viscounts, meanwhile, followed with two other instrumentals on the Madison label — “Night Train” and “Wabash Blues.” Then six or so years passed, and the same Viscounts’ version of “Harlem Nocturne” was reissued on another record label, Amy. This time, in January of 1966, the song rose to No. 39, cracking the Top 40 for a brief one week stay. Music critic Dave Marsh includes the Viscounts’ version of “Harlem Nocturne” in his 1999 book, The Heart of Rock & Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.
Screen shot from the 1980s’ TV show “Mike Hammer” with Stacy Keach in the lead role.
Earle Hagen, meanwhile, who had written “Harlem Nocturne” in the late 1930s, became quite successful in songwriting for television. He began writing music for TV shows in 1952 with partner Herbert W. Spencer. In 1953 while Hagen was writing the music for the Danny Thomas show Make Room for Daddy, he met TV producer Sheldon Leonard.
Leonard liked the idea of using original soundtracks for his shows rather than canned studio music, and soon made use of Hagen’s talents to produce music for a number of 1960s’ TV shows including: The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), I Spy (1965-68), and The Mod Squad (1968-1973). But in the 1980s, Hagen returned to his 1930s tune, “Harlem Nocturne,” using it as the signature theme for the television series Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in 1984, and also for the 1986 film, The Return of Mike Hammer. The version of “Harlem Nocturne” used for the Mike Hammer shows, however, was not the Viscounts’ version.
One of the few photographs of The Viscounts, on a 1960s compilation album.
Hagen would later write books on music arranging and scoring, including, Scoring for Films: A Complete Text. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of, was published in 2000. Hagen died of natural causes in May 2008. He was 89.
As for the Viscounts’s history after “Nocturne,” the Pop History Dig has not yet been able to locate more detail on the group, but will update this page as new information is found. The Viscounts had other songs, of course, including jazzy versions of “Summertime,” “September Song,” and “Sophisti- cated Lady.” More hard rocking versions of their tunes include “Rock,” “Dig,” “Night Train” and others. One CD of their music, containing 30 of their songs, is reviewed song-by-song at Reverb Central.com. For more music stories at this website, visit the “Annals of Music” category page.
Cover of 1993 CD, “Rumble! The Best of Link Wray,” Rhino compilation.
A guitar tune written in 1958 has the distinction of being the only instrumental song ever banned for radio play in the U.S. The song’s name was “Rumble,” performed by a guitarist named Link Wray and his band, the Wraymen. The offensiveness, apparently, had to do with the fear that the song might incite gang violence. More on that in a moment. First, some context.
In January 1958, there were live dance nights held in Fredericksburg, Virginia hosted by the popular Washington, D.C. television disc jockey named Milt Grant — of Milt Grant’s House Party, a teen dance show similar to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in Philadelphia. At one of these live dance events that January, Link Wray and his band, a local group from the area, were being urged to come up with a song like “The Stroll,” then a popular hit by The Diamonds. What Wray and his group came up with instead was an instrumental, power-guitar driven, blues type song that would later become
known as “Rumble.”
Old poster of Fredericksburg, VA arena, where Link Wray & band first performed the song “Rumble.”
At the dance that night in Fredericksburg, the song was quite popular, as Wray and his band did four requested encores. The dance crowd’s reaction to the song made Wray and his band think — along with disc jockey Milt Grant, their de facto manager — that they were on to something. So they set about trying to get the song on tape for a demo to shop it around to record labels. However, when they tried to record it, they could not quite duplicate the sound they had on the dance night, especially frustrating Wray. That’s when he started moving speakers and mics around to get feedback, and then took a pencil and began punching holes through an amplifier to get the sound he wanted. What Wray had done in his frustration was “invent” a new sound, a sound that would later be known as “fuzztone guitar.” There was also some novel use of reverberation on the track as well. The song they had recorded on their demo was then using the name “Oddball.” And they began shopping it around to record labels, but there were no takers. Capitol and Decca Records both turned down “Oddball.”
Milt Grant then took the demo to Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records in New York. When Bleyer first heard the song, he hated it and the novel sound that Link Wray had created. Still, he recorded some demos, not sure what would happen next. Bleyer’s stepdaughter and some of her teenage friends, however, loved the song. One story has it that she was the one who suggested naming it “Rumble” because it reminded her of West Side Story, a popular stage play about rival New York street gangs. West Side Story had debuted on Broadway in 1957 and “rumble” was then the popular slang term for “gang fight.” Another account credits one of the Everly Brothers with coming up with the same name for the song. In any event, the tune became “Rumble” and Bleyer decided to release the song despite his dislike for it. Quoted in a promotional article in Billboard magazine at the time, Bleyer reportedly said something to the effect: “Rumble, schmumble, who cares, as long as it’s a hit?”
Link Wray’s 1958 hit “Rumble” on the Cadence record label – a short lived venture for Wray, who would later move on to other record labels.
“Rumble” wasn’t exactly the lightest, easy listening fare of the day, true enough. Still, rock ‘n roll by then was finding its voice and raucuous edge. Although the term “rock and roll” dates to song lyrics from the 1920s and 1930s, a Cleveland disc jockey named Alan Freed in 1951 is credited with introducing the term to a much larger audience, especially through his play and promotion of African American rhythm & blues (R&B) music in the 1950s. New white artists, picking up on the R&B sound in some of their recordings, were also finding an audience. Bill Haley had “Rock Around the Clock” by mid-1955, and Elvis Presley had “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” by the fall of 1956. Both Haley and Presley had riled convention with their own rock ‘n roll styles. Still, rock ‘n roll music was by no means the dominant sound of the day. There was still plenty of more sedate, “easy listening” music to be found on the Billboard top twenty in the mid- and late-1950s — music from artists such as Andy Williams, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Tab Hunter, and others. “Rumble,” by comparison, was all instrumental, but a tune that had a distinct “attitude” about it. The guitar riffs in “Rumble” stood out, and went well beyond the moment. The musical sound created by Wray, and his distinctive playing, would soon have a direct effect on the future of rock and guitar music. “With one mean D-to-E chord change,” observes writer Angie Carlson in a 2007 Gibson.com article, “Link Wray changed the electric guitar forever.”
“Rumble” Not Played
But in the late 1950s, radio disc jockeys had the power of determining what music was played and what wasn’t. And in some cities and towns, including radio stations in Boston and New York City, “Rumble” just wasn’t played for fear it could incite gang violence or be an influence on juvenile delinquency. Even Dick Clark of American Bandstand was careful to avoid mention- ing the song’s title when introducing Wray on his Saturday show. The song’s title — “Rumble” — was a stumbling block for some DJs; they just couldn’t get past it. However, the song itself, an instrumental, had no lyrics of course, so there was no language per se to incite kids; no fiery rhetoric. Still, those aware of the controversy took precautions. Even Dick Clark of American Bandstand, the popular TV dance show, was careful to avoid mentioning the song’s title when he introduced Wray and his band as guests in May 1958.
Rock ‘n roll music was not always welcomed back then, and in fact, there were some efforts nationally to block the more objectionable sounds, suggestive lyrics, and loud or raucous music. Band leader Mitch Miller was one of those who helped put a damper on the more raucous forms of rock ‘n roll. Miller was then head of A&R — “artists and repertoire” — for Columbia Records, and as such, had the power to determine which musicians and songs would be recorded and promoted at Columbia and beyond. Miller had some of his own hit tunes on the Billboard charts of the 1950s. But he also had broad influence at the time, and was publicly critical of rock ‘n roll and Top 40 radio stations that played rock ‘n roll. Miller, however, did allow for some lighter forms rock ‘n roll, such as the 1957 million-selling hit by Marty Robbins, “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” which he helped produce.
“Rumble” scene from the 1957 stage production of “West Side Story” -- Jets leader vs. Sharks leader in knife fight.
In addition, West Side Story’s gang scenes had permeated popular culture by 1957-58. In fact, a dance scene in Act 1 of the play is titled “The Rumble,” and other scenes also showed the activities of the play’s two featured gangs, the Jets and Sharks. “Juvenile delinquency” was a national topic of discussion by then as well, even attracting the attention of the U.S. Congress. There was also proposed legislation in Congress in 1957 that song lyrics be screened and altered by a review committee before being broadcast or offered for sale. That legislation, treading on free speech, never became law, but it was a sign of the times and part of the broader cultural concern then revolving around gangs and juvenile delinquency. In 1958 the Mutual Broadcasting System dropped all rock ‘n records from its network music programs, calling the music “distorted, monotonous, noisy music.” Link Wray’s instrumental was part of the music that became entangled in those fears and prohibitions.
Link Wray performing later in his career.
Nevertheless, despite all the tiptoeing around “Rumble” as a musical instigator of teen trouble, the song became a huge hit, rising to No. 16 in May 1958 and remaining in the Top 40 for 10 weeks. Despite Dick Clark’s care not to mention the song’s title at Wray’s earlier 1958 appearance, Bandstand did give the song enough air time to help it along, and Clark would freely use the song’s title in subsequent appearances by Wray in 1959 and 1963. In fact, the attempted suppression of the song by some radio stations likely contributed to its success, as Wray himself would later surmise of the radio bans. “Rumble” went on to sell more than one million copies in its prime, with some estimates as high as four million, though it’s not clear what time frame is involved and whether sales of albums with the song are also included.
Link Wray, however, would not get a giant share of the royalties or music publishing fees from “Rumble.” Milt Grant, the DJ, was one co-author of the song, appearing on the Cadence label with “L. Wray.” But Link’s share, according to one account, appears to have been assigned to his father. Link would later say that he did receive enough money to buy his mother a house, but that he was generally spared the details of the “paperwork,” which appears to have kept his share lower than it might otherwise have been. He may have fared better with subsequent songs.
Meanwhile, back in the late 1950s, Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records — the guy who had first produced “Rumble” since his stepdaughter and her friends liked it — was getting some external criticism for releasing the song. Bleyer was charged by some critics with “promoting teenage gang warfare.” Bleyer, nevertheless, thought he could “clean up” Link Wray and his group. Bleyer’s plan was to have the group record in Nashville, Tennessee under the guidance of the Everly Brothers’ production team. But the Wrays didn’t like that idea, and decided to part company with Bleyer and Cadence Records. They soon joined Epic Records, recording a 1959 follow-up to “Rumble” called “Rawhide,” also an instrumental, which rose to No. 23 on the pop charts. In subsequent years, the group also had other notable songs, including “Jack the Ripper” (1961), “Black Widow” (1963), “Big City After Dark” “Run Chicken Run” (1963), “Ace of Spades” (1965), “Switchblade,” and “Red Hot (1977). Thereafter, Link Wray would not hit the pop charts in quite the same way again, but would have influence in other ways.
Link Wray, undated photo.
Fred Lincoln Wray was born in Dunn, North Carolina in 1929. According to some accounts his parents were semi-literate and engaged in street preaching from time to time. Wray was also reported to be part Shawnee Indian. He is quoted in one Associated Press story of 2002 saying: “I’m half Shawnee Indian, born to a Shawnee mother. I had a Shawnee dad, and he was in the First World War…and he was shell-shocked…. I had to go to work when I was 10 years old to help feed the family. This was Dunn, North Carolina, in a different era, you know, during the Ku Klux Klan days, you know…really bad in the South,” Wray said, explaining he shook with fear at KKK raids. In Dunn, they lived in a black neighborhood. “I seen the sheets come,” Wray would recount in another interview, referring to the KKK, “pull out the black people, tie ‘em to a tree, and beat…’em. We’d hide underneath the bed, hopin’ they wouldn’t come for us.” For a time, Wray’s family slept on the floors of barns under the protection of Cherokees and ate whatever they could find. “Elvis, he grew up — I don’t want to sound racist when I say this — he grew up white-man poor,” said Wray, comparing his experience to that of Elvis Presley. “I was growing up Shawnee poor.” An early bout with the German measels had also left Wray with weak eyesight and hearing.
1960 LP album, "Link Wray & The Wraymen," issued by Epic Records. ("Wraymen" was later changed to "Raymen").
When Wray was about age 8, a traveling black guitarist and sometime circus performer named Hambone introduced him to the blues, giving him guitar lessons on his front porch, and showing the young boy a few chords and how to play slide guitar. Wray’s father later worked in the dockyards of Portsmouth, Virginia, and the family moved there from North Carlina, which for young Link was a welcomed development. “It was like moving from one world to a whole ‘nother,” he would tell one reporter years later. “I couldn’t believe it — all of the sudden I could turn on a stove and it was gas fire, I could turn on a switch and it was electricity.” In 1951, Wray was drafted into the U.S. Army, sent to Germany and Korea, where he contracted tuberculosis, which later led to the removal of his left lung. But when he first returned to the U.S. in 1953 after his Army hitch, he ordered a Gibson Les Paul guitar. It was then he developed his own style, playing louder, in part, because of his bad hearing.
By 1955 Wray started playing as a member of Lucky Wray & the Palomino Ranch Hands, a country music band formed in North Carolina with his brothers Vernon and Doug, and later one other member. The Wray brothers soon moved to just outside of Washington, D.C., and recorded some songs on a local label named Kay and also for Starday Records in Texas. By 1958, Link Wray’s brother was doing the vocals in the band, while Link focused on the guitar. Cast a bit in the “Elvis look” of that era, the band dressed in black leather and began playing the local record hops.“…[A]ll of a sudden” in the 1950s, this guy in a black leather jacket “plays this loud chord that practically tears your eyebrows off your face…” – Michael Molenda Guitar Player magazine Wray became inventive in a hunt for his “own sound,” such as poking holes in an amplifier to get the sound he wanted in “Rumble.” He was also one of the first guitarists to take a major chord and run it up and down the fret board, creating the sound known as the power chord.
Music historians of the late-1950s-early1960s era would observe some years later that there probably was a bit of “juvenile attitude” in Wray’s “Rumble.” Dan Del Fiorentino, historian for the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California told the Los Angles Times in a 2005 interview that “Rumble” added “more of a zing, more of a delinquency, if you will, to rock ‘n’ roll.” Michael Molenda, editor-in-chief of Guitar Player magazine, also noted in the same article: “Fifties rock was pretty clean, and you’ve got this guy — he’s got a leather jacket, he looks scary — and all of a sudden he plays this loud chord that practically tears your eyebrows off your face…It was extremely sexy and aggressive, and it kind of paved the way for the next level of rock and roll.” Without the power chord that Wray more or less invented with “Rumble,” explains Dan Del Fiorentino, “punk rock and heavy metal would not exist.” And Wray is revered by a number of the most famous guitar-wielding rockers. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Jeff Beck all count Link Wray as an influence in their own careers. Bob Dylan is reported to have called “Rumble” one of the best instrumentals ever.
Link Wray’s “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades” were used in the 1994 film, “Pulp Fiction.”
Film & TV Music
By the early 1970s, a few of Link Wray’s songs were finding their way into other venues. Wray’s “The Swag” was used in the 1972 film, Pink Flamingos. “Jack the Ripper,” another of his instrumentals, was used as the music behind a high-speed car chase in the 1983 film, Breathless, with Richard Gere and Valérie Kaprisky. In Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, both “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades” were used. In the 1995 film, Desperado with Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas, “Jack The Ripper” was used. In 1996, Independence Day, the highest grossing film that year, Wray’s “Rumble” made another appearance. “Rumble” was also used in the January 1999 pilot episode of HBO’s The Sopranos. A first use of Wray’s music in TV advertising also came in 1999 with excerpts of “Jack the Ripper” used in a Taco Bell commercial. In 2001, “Rumble” was used in the film Blow, starring Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz. “Rumble” was also used in 2009’s It Might Get Loud, a documentary on the history of the electric guitar by film-maker Davis Guggenheim. These film uses of Wray’s music brought the Link Wray sound to a new audience, gave it another shot in the market and renewed appreciation by fans and other artists.
Over the years, there have also been various cover versions of Wray’s songs in new music, such as the song “Killer in the Home” (based on “Rumble”) by New Wave group, Adam and the Ants, included on their Kings of the Wild Frontier album of 1980. The guitarist for this group, Marco Pirroni, has cited Link Wray as a major influence.
Wray’s legacy is found not only in the U.S., but also in Great Britain, where his music has been cited as an influence on The Kinks and The Who, among others. Pete Townshend has reportedly stated that “if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I would have never picked up a guitar.” Townshend also said of his first impression on hearing the song: “…Link Wray never toned the music down. He was always ready to Rumble…” – Richard Harrington Washington Post “I remember being made very uneasy the first time I heard it, and yet excited by the savage guitar sounds.” Ray Davies of The Kinks also cites Wray as an influence. In 2003, Rolling Stone’s entry for Wray in their “100 Most Important Guitarists in History,” called him the man behind “the most important D chord in history.” Wray was ranked at No. 67 on that list. The Rolling Stone entry also credits Wray with creating “the overdriven rock-guitar sound taken up by Townshend, Hendrix, and others.”
Link Wray’s “Mr. Guitar” album, a two-CD set of 63 songs, his Swan recordings, released by Norton in 1995.
In 1980, Wray married his fourth wife, Olive, a Danish student who had been studying Native American culture. He then moved to Denmark and began some recording for the foreign market. By the 1990s, Wray’s older music had caught the attention of grunge musicians, as some of this work was also reissued under various labels. Wray himself continued to perform and record, turning out two albums — Shadowman in 1997 and Barbed Wire in 2000. Link Wray continued performing his music into his 70s. “He just loved playing,” said Michael Molenda, editor-in-chief of Guitar Player magazine, who had seen Wray perform in 2005 in San Francisco. “He wasn’t like a guy who was 76 years old,” Molenda told the Los Angeles Times. “He was like a 19-year-old in a 76-year-old body.” Wray lived his last years with his wife Olive on a Danish island. He died of heart failure in Copenhagen in early November 2005.
“Link Wray never toned the music down,” wrote Richard Harrington of the Washington Post at Wray’s death. “He was always ready to Rumble.”
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Rumble Riles Censors, 1958-59,” PopHistoryDig.com, May 10, 2010.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
1990 and 1997 LP and CD versions of Link Wray album, “Missing Links, Vol. 2: Big City After Dark,” Norton record label.
In the 1970s, frustrated with the music business, Wray turned a family chicken coop into a crude, three-track studio, where he & friends experimented with sounds & styles. This 2005 two disc album by Acadia Records captures some of that.
1973 Link Wray album, “Be What You Want To,” Polydor.