Dick Dale, Surf Guitar King, Dies at 81

Dick Dale, the “King of the Surf Guitar” who formulated the sound and attack of the Southern California-bred instrumental style in the early ‘60s, has died. He was 81.

His bassist, Sam Bolle, confirmed the news to the Guardian.

Dale’s self-released records with his band the Deltones led the way for countless other acts — the Chantays, the Surfaris, Eddie and the Showmen and the Pyramids among them — who emulated his reverb-soaked, “wet” sound and aggressive attack in their own hits.

In his “The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music,” writer and latter-day surf guitarist John Blair described the genesis of Dale’s distinctive and unprecedented sound.

“He attempted to musically reproduce the feeling he had while surfing, and the result of this somewhat nebulous and certainly subjective approach was the surfing music genre,” Blair wrote. “The feeling was one of vibration and pulsification, which he produced by a heavy staccato sound on the low-key strings of his guitar accompanied by a heavy thunder-like beat.”

In his foreword to Blair’s book, southpaw player Dale acknowledged the impact of Fullerton, CA-based guitar and amplifier manufacturer Leo Fender and his designer Freddie Tavares’ equipment on his sound.

“It was the two of them who never gave up as I blew up and destroyed countless amplifiers and speakers, which ultimately led to the creation of the 100 watt Dual Showman [amp],” Dale wrote. “Leo would always say to Freddie, ‘If it can withstand Dick Dale’s barrage of punishment, it is ready for human consumption.’”

Fender built the first left-handed edition of his solid-body Stratocaster model guitar to Dale’s specifications. The musician, who had codified his instrumental approach on the 1961 single “Let’s Go Trippin’,” further refined the surf style by applying Fender’s outboard reverb unit on his trend-setting 1962 45 “Miserlou.”

Dale was never a huge record seller — “Let’s Go Trippin’,” his biggest single, peaked at No. 60 nationally, while his bestselling LP “Surfers Choice” topped out at No. 59 — but his packed live shows at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium inspired dozens of local teens to start their own instrumental surf combos.

Dale’s career went into eclipse as the British Invasion pushed the surf sound to the side, and health problems pushed him into retirement in the late ‘60s. He made periodic returns to the spotlight, however; in 1994, amid a nationwide resurgence of interest in instrumental surf music, “Miserlou” was famously used as the title music for Quentin Tarantino’s feature “Pulp Fiction.” His subsequent independent label releases and touring brought his pioneering style to a new generation of listeners and players.

He was born Richard Anthony Monsour on May 4, 1937 in Boston. His father, Jim, was Lebanese, and as a boy he played the Middle Eastern tarabaki drums at local community festivals. As a boy he played trumpet and ukulele. He began playing guitar in emulation of his idol, country star Hank Williams.

At 17, he moved with his family to El Segundo, CA. He worked at Hughes Aircraft after graduating from high school. At the urging of his father, he began to compete in local country music talent shows. He credited local DJ T. Texas Tiny with suggesting the stage name “Dick Dale.”

Dale’s father issued a handful of unsuccessful pop and R&B-influenced singles on his indie Del-Tone label. By early 1961, Dale had moved to the Balboa Peninsula south of Los Angeles, where he opened a record store, gave guitar lessons, played small gigs in a local ice cream parlor and, fatefully, began to surf. Assembling a band of like-minded locals, the Deltones, he began playing at the Rendezvous, a derelict big-band venue, in July 1961.

Dale’s “stomps” (dances) at the Rendezvous were soon drawing thousands, and many in his audience were members of the local surfing community. Dale tailored his instrumental sound to his audience, with which he identified personally.

He later told surf music historian Robert Dalley, “The style of music I developed, to me at the time, was the feeling I got when I was out there eating it on the waves. It was that good rambling feeling I got when I was locked in a tube with the white water caving in over my head. I was trying to project the power of the ocean to the people.”

With its titular invitation to ride the surf, “Let’s Go Trippin’” became a regional and then a national hit in late 1961. By 1962, Dale had added Fender’s reverb unit to his arsenal, and he employed it to staggering effect on “Miserlou” (alternatively spelled “Misirlou”), a traditional song of Egyptian origin that had been a notable hit for Lebanese musician Clovis el-Hajj in 1944. The Beach Boys would subsequently record a version of the number on their debut Capitol Records album, released in late ’62.

The Del-Tone album “Surfer’s Choice” became a regional hit, thanks largely to sales at Wallichs Music City in Hollywood, then Southern California’s biggest independent record store, to which Dale directed his fans onstage. Recorded mostly live at the Rendezvous, the LP’s success led to a contract with Capitol, which re-released it nationally.

Dale released four studio albums and a live set on Capitol from 1963-65. During that time he graduated from the Rendezvous to the larger Pasadena Civic, and appeared as himself in the B exploitation pictures “A Swingin’ Affair” and “Muscle Beach Party” (in the latter alongside beach-movie stars Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon).

The LPs spawned such classic surf instrumentals as “The Wedge,” “Hava Nagila” (a rocking rearrangement of the Israeli folk song), “Night Rider” and “Banzai Washout,” and the self-celebrating “King of the Surf Guitar.” However, Dale grew discontent about playing with such Hollywood studio pros as Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, and the albums were a not always comfortable mix of professionally-crafted surf and drag racing numbers.

Instrumental surf music was decidedly out of fashion by the time Dale’s final Capitol album, a live set captured at Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip, was issued in March 1965. The label, which then had its hands full meeting demand for the Beatles’ records, dropped the guitarist.

Soon thereafter, Dale was diagnosed with rectal cancer. Thought to be terminal, he underwent successful surgery, but the dispirited musician moved to the big island of Hawaii for five years. There he confined himself to playing in a small club, aptly named Surf City.

Dale returned to Southern California, and for the next two decades he would sporadically reappear as surf music enjoyed periods of renewed interest. In the early ‘70s, he was a star attraction at DJ and promoter Jim Pewter’s L.A. surf and oldies shows. He rematerialized again in the early ‘80s, playing club gigs before devoted fans in clubs in L.A.’s South Bay and Orange County. He appeared largely content to pursue environmental concerns and maintain his menagerie of wild animals, including lions and tigers, at his Riverside County compound. (The latter enthusiasm was commemorated in the title of an independent 1983 release, “The Tigers Loose.”

In 1987, Dale returned to the big screen, opposite Funicello and Avalon, in William Asher’s beach movie spoof “Back to the Beach.” Wearing a gaudy red suit and a bizarre fright wig, he blasted through a version of the Chantays’ “Pipeline” opposite Texas guitar-slinger Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The revival of Dale’s career began in earnest in the early ‘90s, just as dozens of post-punk surf bands began to explore the sound he had pioneered. He recorded a pair of albums, “Tribal Thunder” (1993) and “Unknown Territory” (1994), for the Northern California independent label Hightone Records. His last new studio album, the self-released “Spacial Disorientation,” was issued in 2001.

Dale is survived by his second wife Lana, who served as his manager, and his son James, who worked with him as a drummer.

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