The Power Chord – Parts I & II

“In guitar music, especially electric guitar, a power chord (also fifth chord) is a colloquial name for a chord that consists of the root note and the fifth. Power chords are commonly played on amplified guitars, especially on electric guitar with distortion.”

Dick Dale and the Del-Tones gained fame in southern California in the late fifties, working from their home base, the Rendezvous Ballroom near Newport Beach. The story goes that in 1962, on a bet that he couldn’t play a song using only a single guitar string, Dick Dale (née Monsour) reached back into his Lebanese roots and remembered his uncle playing a song on one string of a lute. Dale upped the tempo – and the volume – several magnitudes. The song was “Misirlou,” (or “Miserlou”) meaning “Arab Land.” The song had been recorded many times since the 1920s, but never like Dick Dale. “Misirlou” entered the rock canon and established Dale as “King of the Surf Guitar.”

A fight with rectal cancer and the British musical invasion of the mid-sixties combined to push Dale out of the spotlight. His career resurged in the nineties. Dale’s recording of “Misirlou” was featured in the soundtrack for the movie Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s paean to violence and profanity. That, and his subsequent appearance on David Letterman’s show, brought international popularity. Now in his eighties, Dick Dale is still performing – and is still loud.

Cat Stevens is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; the artist who gave surf music to rock & roll is not. Rolling Stone magazine rated Dick Dale number 74 on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists.

But before Dick Dale, there was Link Wray, inventor of the power chord and the only artist to have an instrumental record banned from the radio. “Rumble,” hit the charts in 1958. Grown-ups feared that the menacing distorted guitar chords blasting from the radio would turn teenagers into delinquents.

Wray, a Shawnee Native-American, grew up in rural North Carolina in a house with dirt floors and no electricity. The story goes that a black itinerant musician taught the young  Wray to tune and play guitar.

Wray, with brothers Vernon and Doug, began performing in 1955 as Lucky Wray & the Palomino Ranch Hands. “Lucky” Vernon handled vocals; Link had lost a lung from tuberculosis while in the army during the Korean War era. They had some success, opening for such as Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean, Patsy Cline and others. Then Link Wray & the Wraymen and “Rumble” blasted over the airwaves.

Despite selling a million records, or maybe because of the controversy, the record company wanted to make Link and his brothers less threatening, having them record treacly songs, sometimes backed by an orchestra. Wray bridled at this control. He took charge of his destiny and had a thirty-year recording career, much of it with his brothers.

Link, Vernon and Doug lived together in an old house in rural Maryland and set up a rudimentary recording studio in an outbuilding where their father had raised chickens. Link did much of the singing. They produced several albums, but never matched their earlier success.

Vernon, racked with cancer, committed suicide in 1979. Doug suffered a heart attack and died in 1984. Link and his fourth wife moved to her native Denmark in 1980. He continued to perform until his death at age seventy-six in 2005.

The recent documentary film, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, features Link Wray. The Oxford American magazine’s latest annual music issue focuses on North Carolina and includes an illuminating piece about the life and times of Link Wray.

Black Sabbath is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; the artist who gave the power chord to rock & roll is not. Rolling Stone magazine rated Link Wray number 45 on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists.

One thought on “The Power Chord – Parts I & II”

Leave a Reply