March 16, 2019 – Dick Dale was born Richard Monsour in Boston on May 4, 1937 1937; his father was Lebanese, his mother Polish. As a child, he was exposed to folk music from both cultures, which had an impact on his sense of melody and the ways string instruments could be picked. He also heard lots of big band swing, and found his first musical hero in drummer Gene Krupa, who later wound up influencing a percussive approach to guitar so intense that Dale regularly broke the heaviest-gauge strings available and ground his picks down to nothing several times in the same song.
He taught himself to play country songs on the ukulele, and soon graduated to guitar, where he was also self-taught. His father encouraged him and offered career guidance, and in 1954, the family moved to Southern California.
At the suggestion of a country DJ, Monsour adopted the stage name Dick Dale, and he began performing in local talent shows, where his budding interest in rockabilly made him a popular act. He recorded a demo song, “Ooh-Whee Marie,” for the local Del-Fi label, which was later released as a single on his father’s new Deltone imprint and distributed locally. During the late ’50s, Dale also became an avid surfer, and soon set about finding ways to mimic the surging sounds and feelings of the sport and the ocean on his guitar. He quickly developed a highly distinctive instrumental sound and found an enthusiastic, ready-made audience in his surfer friends. Dale began playing regular gigs at the Rendezvous Ballroom, a once-defunct concert venue near Newport Beach, with his backing band the Del-Tones; as word spread and gigs at other local halls followed, Dale became a wildly popular attraction, drawing thousands of fans to every performance. In September 1961, Deltone released Dale’s single “Let’s Go Trippin’,” which is generally acknowledged to be the very first recorded surf instrumental.
In the space of a few short years, the Boston-born, Southern California transplant had merged the laid-back, sun-blasted lifestyle of the surf scene with a blistering rhythm of rockabilly and early rock-and-roll. As the mad scientist behind what was dubbed surf rock, Dale was, in the words of a 1963 Life magazine profile, a thumping teenage idol who is part evangelist, part Pied Piper and all success. The music Dale and his band the Del-Tones made poured out of radios, sound-tracked popular beach movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and lit inspirational fires in other musicians like the Beach Boys. Fans crowned him The King of the Surf Guitar.
Dick Dale wasn’t nicknamed “King of the Surf Guitar” for nothing: he pretty much invented the style single-handedly, and no matter who copied or expanded upon his blueprint, he remained the fieriest, most technically gifted musician the genre ever produced. Dale’s pioneering use of Middle Eastern and Eastern European melodies (learned organically through his familial heritage) was among the first in any genre of American popular music, and predated the teaching of such “exotic” scales in guitar-shredder academies by two decades. The breakneck speed of his single-note staccato picking technique was unrivaled until it entered the repertoires of metal virtuosos like Eddie Van Halen, and his wild showmanship made an enormous impression on the young Jimi Hendrix. But those aren’t the only reasons Dale was once called the father of heavy metal. Working closely with the Fender company, Dale continually pushed the limits of electric amplification technology, helping to develop new equipment that was capable of producing the thick, clearly defined tones he heard in his head, at the previously undreamed-of volumes he demanded. He also pioneered the use of portable reverb effects, creating a signature sonic texture for surf instrumentals. And, if all that weren’t enough, Dale managed to redefine his instrument while essentially playing it upside-down and backwards — he switched sides in order to play left-handed, but without re-stringing it (as Hendrix later did).
“I once made a million dollars a year with my career,” Dale reminisced to the Los Angeles Times magazine in 2001. “I made $10,000 for three minutes work on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1963.”
Dale’s signature guitar style was the result of a happy accident. Most guitars are strung for a right-handed player. Dale, a lefty, originally picked up the guitar upside down so he could play naturally without restringing the instrument, leaving the thicker strings on the bottom of the fret board. “Nobody told me I was holding it wrong,” Dale explained to the Orange County Register in 2009. “I just taught myself to play it like that. It was hard at first.”
“Let’s Go Trippin'” was a huge local hit, and even charted nationally. Dale released a few more local singles, including “Jungle Fever,” “Miserlou,” and “Surf Beat,” and in 1962 issued his (and surf music’s) first album, the groundbreaking Surfer’s Choice, on Deltone. Surfer’s Choice sold like hotcakes around Southern California, which earned Dale a contract with Capitol Records and national distribution for the album. Dale was featured in Life magazine in 1963, which led to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and the Frankie/Annette film Beach Party. Surf music became a national fad, with groups like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean offering a vocal variant to complement the wave of instrumental groups, all of which were indebted in some way to Dale, who released the follow-up LP King of the Surf Guitar and went on to issue three more albums on Capitol through 1965. But the British Invasion began to steal much of surf’s thunder, and soon Dale was dropped by Capitol in 1965. He remained a wildly popular local act, but in that same year he was diagnosed with rectal cancer, which forced him to temporarily retire from music.
Doctors told the guitarist that without aggressive surgery, he could be dead in a matter of months. He survived, but the cancer bout whittled Dale from 158 pounds to 98 pounds, and also drained his bank account of his pop star proceeds. He moved to Hawaii and stayed away from music for a number of years. He beat the disease, however, and soon began pursuing other interests: owning and caring for a variety of endangered animals, studying martial arts, designing his parents’ dream house, and learning to pilot planes. In 1979, a puncture wound suffered while surfing off Newport Beach led to a pollution-related infection that nearly cost him his leg; Dick Dale soon added environmental activist to his resume. In addition to all of that, he performed occasionally around Southern California throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
In 1986, Dale attempted to mount a comeback. He first recorded a benefit single for the UC-Irvine Medical Center’s burn unit (which had helped him recuperate from potentially serious injuries), and the following year appeared in the beach movie Back to the Beach. The soundtrack featured a duet between Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan on, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental. In 1991, Dale did a guest spot on an album by the San Francisco-based Psychefunkapus, and a successful Bay Area gig got him signed with Hightone Records.
The album Tribal Thunder was released in 1993, but Dale’s comeback didn’t get into full swing until “Miserlou” was chosen as the opening theme to Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster 1994 film ‘Pulp Fiction’. “Miserlou” became synonymous with Pulp Fiction’s ultra-hip sense of style, and was soon licensed in countless commercials (as were several other Daletracks). As a result, Tribal Thunder and its 1994 follow-up, Unknown Territory, attracted lots of attention, earning positive reviews and surprisingly strong sales. In 1996, he supported the Beggars Banquet album Calling Up Spirits by joining the normally punk- and ska-oriented Warped Tour.
Adding his wife and young drum-playing son to his band, Dale refocused on touring over the next few years. He finally returned with a new CD in 2001,’ Spacial Disorientation’, issued on the small Sin-Drome label. Dale stepped away from his recording career after that release, but he continued to play out frequently, even as he struggled with myriad health problems, including diabetes, rectal cancer, and heart and kidney disease. Dale still had a busy schedule of concert dates on his schedule when he died on March 16, 2019, at the age of 81.
Tributes have begun popping up online, with many celebrating his distinctive sound. But the musician’s life story was also a constant struggle against health problems — and to pay medical bills. After his first cancer diagnosis in 1965, Dale continued to battle the disease. Up until the end of his life, Dale was explicit that he toured to fund his treatment.
“I can’t stop touring because I will die. Physically and literally, I will die,” he told the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2015. “Sure, I’d love to stay home and build ships in a bottle and spend time with my wife in Hawaii, but I have to perform to save my life.”