Dick Dale – King of Surf Rock and So Much More

 Dick Dale featured with a Fender south paw guitar circa 1961 – ’62. He did not string his guitar in the traditional way for a “lefty” guitar. The strings were arranged as they would be for a right handed guitarist. Technically, he played the guitar upside town. Photo credit: Jasmine.

On March 16th, 2019 the music world lost one of its most unique, inspirational and legendary guitarists, Richard Anthony Monsour. You will recognize him by his stage name Dick Dale. He was crowned the King of Surf Rock. But Dale would go on to acquire a few more honorable music titles before it was all said and done.

 Dale was born on May 4th, 1937 in Boston, Massachusetts. As a young boy, he was very fond of Hank Williams. Williams has been called one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century. You may be surprised to learn that the first instrument that Dale took up was not the guitar. It was the piano, which he started learning at the age of nine.

He considered the piano to be his favorite instrument to play. He could not read music. He also would learn the ukulele and the trumpet. The first song he learned on the ukulele was “Tennessee Waltz” due to being highly influenced by the way Hank William’s played the guitar. These are just the western instruments that Monsour learned how to play…

Hank William’s giving one of his only live performances. He performed “Hey Good Lookin” in 1951 on the Kate Smith Evening Hour. Before the song begins, he dedicates it to a twenty two year old June Carter. This gives a great example of William’s guitar playing style that Dick Dale grew up being influenced by.

As Dale got older he became interested in the guitar. He put down a deposit on one that a friend of his was selling. At the time was only making five cents an hour at a bakery. The cost of the guitar was a steep eight dollars. After making weekly scheduled payments of fifty cents, he succeeded in acquiring the instrument. In 1954, Dale moved to California with his family after graduating the eleventh grade in Quincy, Massachusetts. Dale discovered his passion for surfing at age seventeen.

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Originally, Dale aspired to become a country music musician and singer. He began playing in Honky Tonk bars and met a fellow named Texas Tiny. It was Tiny who would give Richard Monsour the stage name Dick Dale. Both men agreed that it would be the perfect name for an aspiring country music singer. Due to his maternal Belarusian and paternal Lebanese heritage, Dale was exposed to many wonderful rhythms, instruments and musical genres.

 His uncle taught him how to play the tarabaki drum a.k.a. the goblet drum. Dale said that mastering the rhythms on this drum would go on to influence every other instrument that he played. In his guitar playing it would translate into “the pulsation,” which was Dale’s unique, signature, alternate picking style that would ultimately make him a music legend.

Dale incorporated a lot of middle eastern scales into his guitar playing. This is perhaps best demonstrated in his song, “Misirlou.” Prior to this song no rock and roll guitar players were doing this. Dale was left handed and played a south paw guitar. Once again, Dale would create his own approach to playing a “lefty” guitar. 

Essentially, the way in which Dale technically played guitar was upside down because he chose to string his left handed guitars as you would if you were right handed. With the success of “Misirlou,” Dale could have retired and gone into the sunset. But, this was only the beginning for this man’s extraordinary career as a musician…

“Misirlou.”It could be argued that this is Dale’s most popular song. This song help Dale become a household name when he and his band performed it on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964.

Dale became a tester of new equipment for an American inventor named Leo Fender. This man’s guitars and amplifiers became the preferred choice of legendary guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and countless others. Incredibly, Leo Fender did not know how to play guitar. He considered himself an inventor – engineer and not a musician. In his obituary, Robby Slaugher from Guitar Player Magazine wrote this about him.

“Leo Fender neither drank nor smoked and had few close friends. He had no children. His guitars and amps, one associate said, those were his kids. He was described by more than one associate as something of a recluse. While he dabbled in photography, liked to play pinochle on a Saturday night, and owned an expensive boat, his only true hobby, perhaps his obsession was his work. He was a man of few words. He did not play guitar.”

Leo Fender, American inventor. 

Dale had a need for a loud sound! As a result of this, he wound up blowing up a lot of Fender amplifiers. After attending a show Leo Fender and an associate Freddie Travares acquired a customized fifteen inch loudspeaker. It became known as the Fender Single Showman Amp. It was the loudest amplifier available at the time. As a tester for new Fender products Dale said, “when it can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for human consumption.”

Dick Dale and his main guitar, which he called “The Beast.” He received this  guitar directly from his friend Leo Fender. Photo courtesy of Eric Ernest from Abalone Vintage

Dale also developed a preference for using heavy gauge strings. Dale is credited as being “The Father of Heavy Metal.” The shows that Dale and his band played in Balboa Beach, California became the most popular event in town. He was granted permission to play at the Rendezvous Ballroom, which had a three thousand person occupancy as long as there was no alcohol available and fans adhered to a strict dress code. Dale sold out the venue every time he and his band held a show. These “surfer dances” became known as “stomps.” 

In 1962, Dale released his first album called “Surfer’s Choice.” Dale commented about what surfing meant to him as a musician. “There was a tremendous amount of power I felt while surfing and that power was simply transferred into my guitar.” This primarily instrumental rock, saturated in reverb and known for its alternate picking techniques became highly popular.

“Surfer’s Choice.” This was the first album from Dick Dale and his Del Tones by the Deltone label and was released in 1962. This was Dick Dale’s own label. This picture represents Dale’s two passions – music and surfing. It was recorded live at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California. The song “Let’s Go Trippin” is considered to be one of the first surf rock songs.

In 1963, several of Dale’s songs were featured in the movie “Beach Party,” staring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. In 1964, Dale’s music was featured in the film “Muscle Beach Party.” The film was directed by William Asher and again starred Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello and Don Rickles. A thirteen year old Stevie Wonder would make his first film debut billed as “Little Stevie Wonder.” Surf rock became overshadowed by groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other British Invasion groups when they began dominating the American music airwaves and music charts. 

Around this time Dale was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Although the cancer went into remission, he retired from music and was not heard of for many years. One day while swimming, Dale had an accident and was injured. He almost lost a leg due to acquiring a pollution related infection. After this experience Dale became an environmental activist. In 1986, Dale recorded an album which would earn him a grammy nomination. The following year Dale would perform “Pipeline” in the movie “Back to the Beach with the late, legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. 

Dick Dale and The Del Tones and “Little Stevie Wonder” performing “Happy Street” in the 1964 movie “Muscle Beach Party.”

Quentin Tarrantino’s use of “Misirlou” in his cult classic film “Pulp Fiction,” essentially revitalized Dale’s career and exposed him to a whole new generation of fans. In 2009 Dick Dale was inducted into the musicians hall of fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2011, he was inducted into the surfing walk of fame specifically in the surf culture category. In his later years, Dick Dale was not a well man. The cancer that had been in remission resurfaced. He also had diabetes, renal failure and damage to his vertebrae, which caused him excruciating pain. 

He said that he had to keep touring in order to pay his medical bills. Dale did not drink or smoke and encouraged his bandmates and roadies not to either. He said it was because of health reasons. He was married twice and has a son James. Dick rarely saw his first wife or his son. James would go on to tour with his father’s band as the drummer. Dale’s wife Lana became his manager. On March 16, 2019 Dick Dale passed away. No specific cause of death has yet been disclosed.

Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan performing “Pipeline” together in the film “Back to the Beach” released in 1987. All you have to do is look into the eyes of Stevie Ray Vaughan to see how honored he felt playing next to Dick Dale. Dale had the ability to make other guitar legends become “awe struck.” Two incredible guitar players, who are now no longer with us.

According to dictionary.com a “Renaissance Man” is defined as, “a person with many talents or areas of knowledge.” I would say that this is the perfect way to define Dick Dale. He surfed, played guitar as well as many other instruments, road motorcycles was an activist and an animal lover and much more. He was a pioneer, an innovator and completely original. That is something that is hard to be in our world today. 

His unique approach to playing guitar created a whole new genre of rock music. His music would go on to inspire the creation of other genres of music including punk, garage rock, psychabilly, indie and goth music… If I had to talk about all the amazing musicians, who have been inspired by Dick Dale’s guitar playing this blog would probably get put into the Guiness Book of World Records in the category for world’s longest blog. Instead, I’ve chosen to feature some tributes from musicians who admired and or knew him.

“I’m sorry to hear about Dick Dale passing. Dick’s guitar playing was a big influence on all of us, and we covered “Misirlou” on our Surfing USA album in 1963. Love and mercy to Dick’s family.” 
Brian Wilson /The Beach Boys

“Dick Dale, who will forever remain a guitar God. May his spirit rest in peace. We will meet again brother…”
Rick Springfield

“It is saddening to hear of the passing of the incredible Dick Dale. I spent many moments learning his massive reverbed guitar licks in my bedroom, and still enjoy playing “Nitro” whenever I can. Sadly, I never got to meet him. A unique innovator of the guitar with pick melting style and swagger for miles. I can remember traveling up from Pontiac to Detroit by myself to watch him play when I was sixteen. That upside down gold sparkle Fender of his needs to be hung up some place special. Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar.”
Jack White III

I think Jack White III describes what a lot of other guitar rockers like Jim Heath a.k.a. the Reverend Horton Heat, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Setzer and other killer guitar players all did when they were first learning. They practiced and learned technique and tried to master songs by Dick Dale. I’m willing to bet money on that! For more info about Dick Dale go to www.dickdale.com. We here at Rock-n-Roll.biz send our thoughts and prayers to his family. 

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