Dick Dale is an American musician known as the “King of the Surf Guitar”. He pioneered the use of a tremolo arm on a guitar to produce a vibrato or “wah-wah” sound.
Dick Dale is an American musician and songwriter. He has been called the King of the Surf Guitar. His best-known songs include Misirlou, Miserlou and Let’s Go Trippin’ .
Dick Dale was dubbed “King of the Surf Guitar” for a reason: he almost created the style on his own, and no matter who tried to copy or build on his blueprint, he remained the most fiery, technically talented guitarist the genre has ever produced. Dale’s usage of Middle Eastern and Eastern European tunes (acquired organically via his family background) was among the first in any genre of American popular music, and two decades before such “foreign” scales were taught at guitar shredding schools. His single-note staccato plucking style was unmatched until it was adopted by metal virtuosos like Eddie Van Halen, and his wild showmanship left an indelible impact on Jimi Hendrix as a teenager. Dale was previously dubbed the “Father of Heavy Metal” for a variety of reasons. Working closely with Fender, Dale pushed the boundaries of electric amplification technology, assisting in the development of new equipment capable of creating the rich, well defined tones he heard in his mind at previously unimagined levels. He also pioneered the use of portable reverb effects, giving surf instrumentals a distinct sound texture. And, if that wasn’t enough, Dale managed to reinvent his instrument by playing it backwards and upside down — he swapped sides to play left-handed without having to re-string it (as Hendrix later did).
Dick Dale was born Richard Monsour in Boston in 1937, the son of a Lebanese father and a Polish mother. He was exposed to folk music from both cultures as a youngster, which influenced his sense of melody and the ways he could select string instruments. Dale also listened to a lot of big band swing and discovered his first musical idol in drummer Gene Krupa, who subsequently influenced a percussive approach to guitar so severe that he snapped the heaviest-gauge strings available and ground his picks down to nothing multiple times in the same song. He trained himself to play country tunes on the ukulele and then moved on to the guitar, which he also taught himself. His father supported him and provided professional advice, and the family relocated to Southern California in 1954.
Monsour used the stage name Dick Dale when a country DJ suggested it, and he started playing in local talent contests, where his growing passion in rockabilly made him a popular act. For the local Del-Fi label, he produced a demo song called “Ooh-Whee Marie,” which was subsequently published as a single on his father’s new Deltone label and sold locally. Dale became a surfer in the late 1950s and began working on methods to imitate the sport’s and the ocean’s surging sounds and emotions on his guitar. In his surfing buddies, he rapidly established a unique instrumental sound and found an eager, ready-made audience. Dale started performing regularly with his backup band the Del-Tones at the Rendezvous Ballroom, a now-defunct musical venue in Newport Beach; as word spread and more concerts were added, Dale became a very popular attraction, attracting hundreds of people to every performance. Deltone released Dale’s song “Let’s Go Trippin’” in September 1961, which is widely regarded as the first recorded surf instrumental.
“Let’s Go Trippin’” was a big success in the area, and it even charted nationwide. Dale went on to record a few more local singles, including “Jungle Fever,” “Miserlou,” and “Surf Beat,” before releasing his (and surf music’s) debut album, the seminal Surfer’s Choice, on Deltone in 1962. Surfer’s Choice was a smash hit in Southern California, resulting in a deal with Capitol Records and nationwide distribution for Dale. Dale’s performances on The Ed Sullivan Show and the Frankie/Annette picture Beach Party followed his debut in Life magazine in 1963. He followed up with the album King of the Surf Guitar and went on to record three more albums for Capitol between 1964 and 1965. During this period, he had a strong working connection with Leo Fender, who continued to build larger and better sound systems in response to Dale’s need for louder, more maniacally intense live performances.
Surf music became a national craze, with vocal groups like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean providing a vocal alternative to the surge of instrumental bands, all of whom owed something to Dale. However, the British Invasion took most of the thunder from Surf in 1964, and Dale was dismissed by Capitol in 1965. He remained a very famous local act until he was stricken with rectal cancer in 1966, forcing him to take a break from music for a while. He eventually overcame the illness and started pursuing other hobbies, including owning and caring for a variety of endangered species, practicing martial arts, building his parents’ dream home, and learning to fly aircraft. Dale became an environmental activist when a puncture wound he received while surfing off the coast of Newport Beach resulted in a pollution-related illness that almost lost him his leg in 1979. In addition, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he sometimes played across Southern California.
Dale tried to make a return in 1986. He initially recorded a benefit song for the UC-Irvine Medical Center’s burn unit (which had helped him recover from potentially life-threatening injuries), and then starred in the beach movie parody Back to the Beach the following year. Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan sang a duet on the Chantays’ surf classic “Pipeline,” which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental. Dale made a cameo appearance on an album by the San Francisco-based Psychefunkapus in 1991, and a successful Bay Area performance led to a deal with Hightone Records.
Dale’s return began with the publication of his album Tribal Thunder in 1993, but it was not fully realized until “Miserlou” was selected as the opening theme for Quentin Tarantino’s hit 1994 film Pulp Fiction. “Miserlou” became associated with Pulp Fiction’s ultra-hip sense of style, and was quickly used in a slew of advertisements (as were several other Dale tracks). Tribal Thunder and its 1994 sequel, Unknown Territory, drew a lot of attention as a consequence, garnering good reviews and unexpected sales. He joined the usually punk and ska-oriented Warped Tour in 1996 to promote the Beggars Banquet album Calling Up Spirits.
Dale refocused on traveling over the following several years after bringing his wife and young drum-playing son into his band. In 2001, he eventually released a new CD, Spacial Disorientation, on the tiny Sin-Drome label. Dale retired from recording following the album’s release, although he continued to perform regularly despite a slew of health issues, including diabetes, rectal cancer, and heart and kidney illness. When Dale died on March 16, 2019, at the age of 81, he still had a full calendar of performance appearances.
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