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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Dick Dale--An appreciation

"The King of the Surf Guitar" by the king himself, Dick Dale and his Del-Tones (background vocals by The Blossoms)

He was the King of the Surf Guitar, and when Dick Dale died Mar. 16 at 81, he left plenty of admiring subjects in his wake.

“He was an authentic original,” says Robert Kenison, former member of the fabled Midwest show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners, who later performed Dale’s 1962 hallmark surf-rock instrumental hit “Miserlou” in a band called The Channel Surfers.

“He developed a style of playing that was uniquely his own, with Middle Eastern melodic influences combined with his signature reverberated 16th note stiff-armed surf guitar,” notes Kenison. “It made for a sonic buzz saw.”

Born Richard Anthony Monsour of Lebanese descent in Boston, Dale did indeed draw on Middle Eastern music scales and experimental reverberation, most notably on “Miserlou,” a tune traced to the Easter Mediterranean and first recorded in 1927 as an urban Greek rebetiko pop song, with other versions emanating from Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Indian and Turkish sources, as well as Greek American and Armenian American communities.

Dale’s trademark take paved the way for surf-rock covers from the Beach Boys, Ventures and Trashmen (and other non-surf rock artists), and was famously revived in 1994 via the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction.

After learning piano at nine, Dale was given a trumpet, and later acquired a ukulele. An uncle taught him how to play the tarabaki (Arabic goblet drum), and this, along with Arabic music and non-Western scales, impacted his playing on all his other instruments, which also included the oud Arabic lute.

His use of reverb, loud amplfication and heavy gauge guitar strings, and unique technique of playing a right-handed guitar upside-down (since he was left-handed), were also important aspects of his pioneering surf guitar sound.

For versatile guitarist Jimmy Vivino, Conan bandleader and lead guitarist of Beatles super tribute group Fab Faux, “Dick Dale was bigger than life in real life.”

“He was the Zeus of surf music, epitomizing the California Sound,” adds Vivino. “Elvis could sing--but just held his guitar most of the time. Dick held his voice--and played the hell out of his guitar all of the time! It was his voice--and it was a loud, gold-sparkle Fender Stratocaster played through a Dual Showman Amp swimming in reverb. Bigger than life. I’m grateful I got to play music with him once--and the one time was enough for a lifetime.”

The Paley Brothers’ Andy Paley, who helped produce and write Brian Wilson’s self-titled 1988 debut solo album Brian Wilson, salutes Dale for being “incredibly innovative and an important influence on so many guitarists from the early ‘60s because of the actual sound he created, which had to do with his own inventions: He worked very hard and built and customized his guitars, but what was really significant was that he was a very musical left-handed Stratocaster player, and would use very heavy strings. Coincidentally, so did Hendrix.”

Jimi Hendrix, notes Paley, was also a left-handed Stat player who likewise used heavy strings.

“The difference was that Hendrix tuned his guitar down half a step—making it easier to play. Dick Dale didn’t do that, and achieved a very distinctive style and sound that was a huge sensation in Southern California. And then he recorded the song ‘King of the Surf Guitar’ [the 1963 titletrack hit from his second album, which featured backing by The Blossoms, the vocal group led by Darlene Love] and everybody went to see him. He was a phenomenon.”

Paley recalls playing on a session with Brian Wilson and Dale—whose recording of “Sloop John B,” incidentally, predates the Beach Boys’.

“He was a wonderful guy and really fun and interesting,” says Paley, though ‘60s Beach Party movie songstress Donna Loren, who duetted with Dale on “Muscle Bustle” in Muscle Beach Party (the song was produced and co-written by Wilson), says that Dale, according to his wife, had been pressured by his father.

Dick Dale and Donna Loren do the "Muscle Bustle" in "Muscle Beach Party"

“He never wanted to be a musician, but his genius leaked out to the world—and that became his career,” says Loren. “My humble opinion is that he was raging inside. Just listen to his music. That wasn’t the surf thundering behind him!”

Thunder, indeed. In NPR’s obituary for Dale, who had long suffered from numerous serious illnesses yet remained active on the concert circuit, Dale recalled how he’d been approached by Stratocaster creator Leo Fender (“the Einstein of the guitar and the amplifiers,” said Dale), who told him to “beat it to death” and then report back. Dale wanted it to be as loud as possible (“like Gene Krupa on drums”), getting the fat, thick and deep “rumble sound” that he heard when he caught a wave surfing.

And if Dale was in fact raging inside, he admitted blowing up over 48 speakers and amplifiers in experimenting with Fender’s Strat.

“They’d catch on fire, the speakers would freeze, the speakers would tear from the coils,” he told NPR, so Fender invented the Dick Dale Showman amplifier and the Dual Showman amp referenced by Vivino.

“I make my guitar scream with pain or pleasure or sensuality,” he told NPR. “It makes people move their feet and shake their bodies. That’s what music does.”

Fellow ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll legend Lou Christie had crossed paths with Dale back in the day at the various pop music shows of the time like American Bandstand and Hollywood a Go-Go.

“Maybe 10 years ago I was playing a Golden Boys show with Frankie Avalon and Fabian in Palm Springs--and Fabe fell off the stage while the three of us were doing a number!” recalls New York-based Christie. “Dick was there because he and Frankie had done all the beach movies and were good friends, and he told me he was coming to New York and to come see the show at B.B. King’s—and I was f**king blown away. All these years and I’d never actually seen him play!”

Seeing Dale in concert, even at his advanced age and challenged health, was on par with the Rolling Stones, continues Christie.

“There were just three people on stage—drummer, bass and him. That was the show, and it was like the Stones: That place was rocking like I’d never seen, and I was just in awe. From then on I got a Christmas card from him every year—and a couple guitar picks. But oh, my gosh! I was just blown away and couldn’t believe it after it was over.”

Christie feels that Dale might not have been as big on the East Coast as he was in the West.

“He was a good-looking kid, and no one took the beach party stuff seriously—other than to look at Annette [Funicello] and Frankie, because they were such a team,” says Christie. “Dick was just a surfer boy and sometimes did some playing.”

Then again, Christie wasn’t a guitarist. As Kenison, one of any number of guitar players who has given “Miserlou” a good go, points out, “there aren’t many guitarists who develop their own style who are easily recognizable as soon as you hear them.”

Dick Dale has been inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, and the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California. That he has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is considered a travesty by many.



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