Danny & The Juniors – from left, Danny Rapp, Dave White, Joe Terranova, and Frank Maffei – rose to fame in the late 1950s with “At The Hop.”
They began singing on Philadelphia street corners in the mid-1950s. They were just young kids at the time — 14 and 15 years old, attending John Bartram High School. They were a foursome: Danny Rapp, Dave White, Frank Maffei, and Joe Terranova.
Dave White had helped form the group early on. He was the son of a show business couple who did an acrobatic routine. Dave had hung out with some black kids in the area who were then singing a new kind of harmony. “I knew church music, and I knew how to read music,” White would later recount to the Los Angles Times. “They taught me the R&B and rock ‘n’ roll element. I was so excited about it that I went around and found guys in my neighborhood who could sing.”
The four boys sang at school parties and other local functions. They practiced whenever they found time — in their cars, in the school hallways, wherever. One night they decided to go to a street corner where a local record producer named John Madara lived. After telling the boys to “get lost” a few times, Madara finally went downstairs for a listen. The boys weren’t bad, he thought to himself. In fact, they were good enough for an introduction to local disc jockey, Larry Brown, and his partner, Artie Singer, who had a record label, Singular Records. It was 1957.
The young and hopeful Danny & The Juniors in a recording studio, 1957.
At the time, the boys called themselves the Juvenaires, and they had come up with a couple of songs. One was a ballad titled “Sometimes.” Another was a dance tune titled “Do the Bop,” written by group member Dave White. Artie Singer liked “Do the Bop,” and had the group soon cut a demo for him to test with local DJs. Singer took the record to a friend for an opinion — a friend who happened to be Dick Clark of the new Philadelphia TV dance show, American Bandstand.
Clark, in addition to hosting Bandstand, was also a radio DJ. Danny and the Juniors’ member Joe Terranova, who later renamed himself Joe Terri, recalled that the Philadelphia record business at that time was pretty hot. Producers were turning out new recordings by the dozens. And when the local DJs would give them air time, “they would sell 50,000-60,000 copies,” said Terri. “They really didn’t care if it was a national hit or not. They were making money doing it that way.”
The first recording of “At The Hop” in 1957 was on the Singular Records label of Philadelphia.
Dick Clark liked what he heard in the music that Artie Singer had brough him, but he offered two suggestions: that the boys shorten the name of their group from the Juvenairs to the Juniors, and that they change the term “bop,” used in “Do The Bop,” to something else. Clark explained that the kids on Bandstand were then doing a dance called the Bop. “But these dances come and go quickly,” said Clark, suggesting that the group change the word “bop” to “hop.” Record hops, said Clark, “are gonna be around for a long, long time.” In fact, part of Dick Clark’s lucrative career in the 1950s and 1960s involved sponsoring record hops, or “sock hops” as they were sometimes called. In any case, with Clark’s advice, the Juniors’ song was renamed “At The Hop.” It was then re-recorded and the group also changed their name to Danny & The Juniors. Producer Artie Singer put the record out on his Singular Records label. In a 2007 You Tube clip, from a longer documentary on Dick Clark and the payola scandal, Singer says on camera that Dick Clark asked for 50 percent of publication rights to “At The Hop” as a condition for playing the record. But when “At the Hop” first came out, it didn’t get much attention. That would soon change, however.
After Danny & the Juniors appeared on ‘Bandstand’ in Dec 1957, ABC’s Paramount record label acquired the rights to “At The Hop,” which became a No.1 hit, selling 2 million copies.
Dick Clark’s Bandstand TV show, meanwhile, had taken off. Beginning as a locally-broadcast Philadelphia show, Bandstand had become the highest rated local daytime show in the nation. Network TV executives in New York had taken notice. The ABC network decided to take the show national. By August 1957, now called American Bandstand, ABC began broadcasting the show nationwide at 3 p.m. for an hour-and-a-half. Within six months of going national, American Bandstand was picked up by 101 stations. Twenty million viewers were now tuning in, and 20,000-to-45,000 fan letters were arriving each week. Teenagers came from all over the country to dance on the show. But Bandstand was also a place where new talent could be seen; a place where aspiring artists could get their start. Danny & The Juniors, still laboring in the back bench of struggling Philadelphia singing groups, were about to get a big break.
Danny & the Juniors appearing on “American Bandstand,” with Dick Clark at the podium, 1950s.
On December 2, 1957, Singer got a somewhat frantic phone call from Dick Clark. A singing group scheduled to appear on Bandstand — said to have been Little Anthony & The Imperials — had cancelled and Clark needed a fill-in act imme- diately. Singer sent over Danny & the Juniors who did an on-air lip-sync performance of their new song, “At the Hop.” After the performance, the Bandstand switchboard lit up with hundreds of callers wanting to know about the group and the new song. ABC’s Paramount record label quickly became aware of the popular new song, bought up the master recordings, and re-issued the single under its ABC-Paramount label. By December 9th, 1957– a week after Danny & The Juniors had made their “emergency” fill-in appearance on Bandstand — “At The Hop” hit the Billboard pop chart, and within a month it was the No. 1 record in America.
Record sleeve for Danny & the Juniors’ extended play 45 rpm with four songs: "At The Hop," "Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay," "Sometimes" and "School Boy Romance," 1958.
“Overnight, we went from being unknowns to music stars,” Joe Terry would recall years later. “At the Hop” topped the U.S. charts for five weeks and sold 2 million copies around the world, reaching the No. 1 spot on the pop, country, and R& B charts. Danny & the Juniors were labeled Best New Group of 1957. Early in 1958, Dick Clark presented Danny & the Juniors with a gold record for “At The Hop” during an American Bandstand TV show — the show where the boys had made their national debut. According to one listing at Billboard magazine, “At The Hop” is ranked the 23rd all-time, best-selling record. On Band- stand, meanwhile, Danny and the Juniors became frequent guests on the nationally- telecast show, reportedly making dozens of appearances. They also appeared on other television shows. On January 2, 1958, they appeared on “The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom” singing “At The Hop.” They also made appearances on “The Patti Page Big Record Show” and “Nashville Now,” among others. And they toured with famous radio DJ, Alan Freed, and his rock ‘n roll revue. In June 1958 they made their Hollywood debut in the Columbia Pictures’ film, Let’s Rock, starring Julius LaRosa, who plays a mainstream singer attempting to fight off the rising new sound of rock ‘n roll music.
Danny & the Juniors performing in the late 1950s.
After “At the Hop” had risen to top the charts, and the group had a national hit, life for the four young Philadelphia teenagers quickly changed. In a retrospective interview with Joe Terry (Terranova) years later, some of the group’s early experiences were described:
Q: “How did life change for you when ‘At The Hop’ went to number one?”
A: “We had some major decisions to make. Myself, being that I was still in high school, so I had to decide whether I was gonna’ come out of high school and forego a college education and go into show business. So, life changed drastically. My goal was to go to Drexel University and become a draftsman / architect. That was a big decision that we all had to make. Dave had a scholarship to one of the universities. I don’t think Frank had any college plans, nor Danny. We went into a world where we were working tours almost every night for at least a year and a half. So, you give up your teen-age youth and become an entertainer. And that’s what happened…”.
Record sleeve cover for Danny & The Juniors’ 1958 song, “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.”
The follow up to “At The Hop” was a song called “Rock ‘n Roll Is Here to Stay,” which also has its own asterisk in rock ‘n roll history. In 1957-58, rock ‘n roll music wasn’t being well received throughout all corners of America. On T.V. in 1957, for example, Ed Sullivan’s producers decided that Elvis Presley could only be seen on camera from the waist up, as they considered his hip movements too suggestive. In Chicago that year, Car- dinal Stritch of the Catholic archdiocese, prohibited all rock ‘n roll music from the church’s schools, fearing that “its rhythms encourage young people to behave in a hedonistic manner.” And in January 1958, St. Louis radio station KWK, had all rock ‘n roll music banned from its play list. The disc jockeys there — during a much-promoted “record-breaking” week — ceremoni- ously gave every rock ‘n roll record in the station’s library a “farewell spin” before smashing them to pieces. The station manager, Robert Convey, called the action “a simple weeding out of undesirable music.”Danny & the Juniors’ “Rock ‘n Roll Is Here to Stay,” was written in re- sponse to St. Louis KWK radio station’s ban on rock ‘n roll music and its on-air smashing of records. Danny and Juniors “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Stay” was reportedly written in response to the radio station’s actions, and for a time, the song became something of a rock ‘n roll anthem. Written by Dave White, the song rose to No.19 on the music charts and became the group’s only other U.S. Top 20 hit. The song would also be used in the 1978 film soundtrack for Grease.
In 1960, Danny & the Juniors were signed to Dick Clark’s Swan Records label and they released “Twistin’ USA,” which made it into the Top 40, becoming their final hit single. They went on to release more singles, including “Pony Express” and nine other songs that would chart on Billboard’s Hot 100 list, but none of these repeated the success of their first two songs. “At The Hop,” however, would live again in future years, and would come into vogue on several occasions as rock ‘n roll nostalgia emerged in the U.S. and U.K.
In the 1973 movie, American Graffiti, which was set in part the late 1950s rock ‘n roll era, a scene at a senior class dance is featured with a look-alike band playing Danny & the Juniors’ “At the Hop” song. In 1976, nearly 20 years after its debut, “At the Hop” was re-issued in Britain where a wave of 1950s nostalgia had taken hold, propelling the tune back on the charts, reaching No. 39.
CD label for “Back to the Hop,” a collection of 26 various recorded and studio cuts of Danny & The Juniors’ music with Swan Records during the 1960-1962 period, by Roller Coaster Records, U.K., 1995 and as MP3 in 2003.
In later years, after their prime-time hit-making, the members of Danny & the Juniors went their separate ways, some not far from Philadelphia or the music business. For a time in the 1970s Danny Rapp and Joe Terranova had an “oldies” show on WCAM radio in Camden, New Jersey. Frank Maffei went on to become an optometrist. Dave White continued co-writing music with John Madara in Philadelphia, producing hit songs such as: “The Fly” by Chubby Checker; “One, Two, Three” by Len Barry of The Dovells; and “You Don’t Own Me” by Leslie Gore. Lead singer Danny Rapp became assistant manager at a toy factory for a time, and would return to performing in the early 1980s up until the time of his April 1983 death (by suicide, see below) in Parker, Arizona.
Dave White Tricker (his full name) and Madara split up in the mid-60s, and White hit the skids for a time and couldn’t pay the rent. So he moved to a New Jersey farmhouse and began working with a rock band called Crystal Mansion. About that time, his old singing buddy, Danny Rapp made him an offer to join a reunited Danny and the Juniors for some Las Vegas work organized by Dick Clark. “Danny called me up and said, ‘We can get $10,000 a week,’ and I didn’t have two cents,” White said, describing the call in a later interview. But White decided not to rejoin Danny, and in 1971 released a solo album in the mellow singer genre, but it was not a chart-buster. Then in 1978, rock ‘n roll nostalgia took off, and “At the Hop” found its way onto the hit soundtrack for Grease, yielding songwriting royalties for White. His Crystal Mansion group, meanwhile, signed a recording deal with 20th Century Fox records. White then went to Los Angeles and pumped his royalty money into his new band. But soon, the money ran out. “All of a sudden my sixty grand that I got from Grease [was] gone.” Crystal Mansion, meanwhile, was put on the backburner at Fox and White then took some film courses at UCLA. In 1982, White again met Danny Rapp, this time at a Lake Tahoe lounge where Danny was then performing with a new lineup of Juniors. The brief reunion went well, and White even went onstage and sang a couple of numbers with the group, but decided against going back with Danny, although tempting at time. White had resolved to himself he would only go back on the road if he had to, as a last resort. His songwriting royalties from what he had written in the ’50s and early ’60s was enough to keep him afloat.
Danny’s Suicide 1983
In early April 1983, in a motel room in Quartzsite, Arizona near Pheonix, the body of Danny Rapp was found. He was the victim of an apparent gunshot suicide. Rapp had been doing some performing in the early 1980s, and was then in Pheonix for a schedule of shows. But Rapp had not been seen for a few days, and failed to appear for scheduled performances in Pheo- nix. As the frontman for Danny & the Juniors, Rapp sang lead with the rock n roll group until they broke up in the mid-1960s. In the 1970s he briefly had a radio show in Camden, New Jersey. In later years, he became assistant manager in a toy factory. Rapp was born in Philadelphia in May 1941. He was 42 years old at the time of his death.
Joe Terry, meanwhile, had received a phone call from Danny Rapp in Arizona around Christmas of 1982, shortly before his suicide. “He was just on the road, pounding it out,” Terry said. “He said, ‘I’m tired, I’m coming off the road.’ There was no hint, other than the fact he was tired, that he was going to do anything like that.” White and Terry later described Rapp as troubled, given to drinking binges on occasion and other out-of-control behavior. “He had a lot of personal problems — a divorce he never quite got over,” Terry would say.
By the late 1980s, Dave White was trying to score with some music video work. Still, his old music was keeping him afloat. The songs he had written with Madara in the 1960s would be periodically revived by new artists, helping his songwriter royalties to flow again. In 1988, “You Don’t Own Me,” originally scored in the mid-1960s, had a lucrative revival in a new version by the British group Blow Monkeys — a song that was also included on the megahit Dirty Dancing sound track album. That one song produced more than $50,000 in royalties for White, with more in the offing. At the time, White then moved from a North Hollywood trailer park to a Newport Beach condo. He acknowledged that the periodic revival of his songs was “like an annuity or something,” helping to pay the bills. “It’s kept me going for 30 years, and I really appreciate it, ” he explained in 1988. “But you never know what you’re going to make next year. There was a time in there when I hardly made any money. Nostalgia wasn’t in…. Now, it’s hot again, but nostalgia could go into a decline. That’s why I’ve been trying real hard the last few years to come up with new hits.”
In later years, a reformed Danny & the Juniors featuring Joe Terry (Terranova), Frank Maffei and his brother, Bobby Maffei, began performing on the oldies circuit. This group has continued performing into the 2000s. In 2002, for example, they performed in Honolulu, Hawaii at the Blaisdell Arena in a nostalgia-filled show that also featured the reformed oldies groups including the Coasters, Bill Haley’s Comets, and the Drifters.
CD cover for “Whole Lotta Sha-Na-Na” album of 2006, first issued, Nov 1997.
Other progeny of the “At-The-Hop” sound and the Danny & the Juniors legacy would continue in the musical world in various forms — if only as part parody. In addition to Dave White’s songwriting and later hits, the group’s saxaphonist, Lennie Baker, helped form a rock ‘n roll nostalgia/parody group named Sha-Na-Na. This group played “At The Hop” at the historic Woodstock concert in 1969. The new group was relatively unknown at the time and were performing covers of ’50s hits and “doo-wop” songs, including Danny & The Junior’s “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” At Woodstock, their performance of “At The Hop,” which preceded Jimi Hendrix, helped launch their career. Sha-Na-Na, among other things, would go on to have their own TV show, running from 1977 to 1982. They also appeared in the movie Grease and performed several songs in that film, including “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Sha-Na-Na, in fact, would release 21 albums and remain active, with varying personnel, into the 2000s.
Theater marquee announcing acts in an Alan Freed rock 'n roll show, 1950s.
For more stories at this website on the history of popular music and its various uses in advertising, politics, and film, go to the “Annals of Music” category page, or visit the Home Page for other story choices. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle.
A documentary film, The Wages of Spin, chronicles the Philadelphia music scene from 1952 thru 1963. Dick Clark and American Bandstand are covered in the film, as well as the payola scandal of the late 1950s, including some film clips of the Congressional payola hearings. A clip from that film is available at You Tube. See also CharacterDrivenFilms.com.
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.