RIP Dick Dale: The Other Father of Surf Music

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
RIP Dick Dale: The Other Father of Surf Music

The Beach Boys may have perfected surf music, but Dick Dale invented it. Dale, who died of heart and kidney failure Saturday at age 81, singlehandedly created the distinctive surf-guitar sound that was echoed by instrumental groups such as the Ventures, Marketts and Surfaris, and that was eventually the foundation for vocal groups such as the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean and the Honeys. His influence was felt decades later in the surf-guitar subtext of the Ramones and Green Day.

Like the families of so many surf-music pioneers, Dale’s came from somewhere else. The former Richard Monsour was an immigrant twice over—once as part of a Lebanese-American family new to the U.S. and then as a New England ethnic new to the melting-pot culture of Southern California. Like many new arrivals there, more than the kids whose parents had grown up there, Dale was a zealous convert to the vision of the beach as a kind of utopia. Unlike those other newcomers, Dale was able to funnel that vision into the sound of a guitar.

Few songs capture that utopian yearning better than Dick Dale & the Del-Tones’ 1962 single, “Miserlou.” Dale bursts out of the gate with a galloping run of 16th notes on his left-handed Fender Stratocaster with just enough syncopation to keep the tune leaning ever forward. Each note was soaked in reverb, like the sound of notes bouncing off the walls of a teenager’s private refuge, the bedroom—or off the wave towering above a surfer as he crouched on a board. Dale was a die-hard surfer himself, and he wanted to translate that experience into song: the roar of the ocean, the splash of the foam, the vibration of board as it surges beachward.

“It’s wonderful, spiritual experience,” the guitarist told me in 1993, “to stand in the water at five a.m. and face the majesty of those waves. You paddle out to a 15-footer, stand up, and the wave comes over your head, going ‘tiddle-tiddly-dee.’ Then you’re sucked down in a roll in a big roar. When you witness the power of mother nature that way, it makes you humble.”

He found the perfect vehicle for that experience in an old Mediterranean folk song called “Misirlou.” He remembered hearing his father and uncle play “Misirlou” on oud in Arab-American nightclubs, and the exoticism of the tune’s Mideastern intervals seemed perfect for the eerie feeling of riding a big wave—always on the brink of disaster even as one is taken for a thrill of a ride. Dale Americanized the song by speeding it up and Californized it by amping it up. He respelled it “Miserlou” and released it as his third single on his father’s Del-Tone Records.

Amid whoops of excitement, it begins with low, fat-toned notes, mimicking the early curl of a wave. Half a minute later, Dale’s guitar leaps up an octave, spraying trebly notes like the top of a wave’s bubbly crest. Half a minute after that, a trumpet solo (played by Dale as well) suggests the dizzying momentum as the board picks up speed. Half a minute after that the guitar reappears, joined this time by manic piano and pounding drums. After two minutes and 11 seconds of breathless motion, it’s over. This was the song, more than Dale’s first two singles, that captured the idealized beach life.

He had discovered that life as the new kid in town as a high school senior in El Segundo. He took to surfing immediately. “When I was in the water,” he told me. “amid the rumble of the ocean and roll of the waves, you hear this tremendous sound of mother nature. So I played like that.”

Dale didn’t set out to become a guitar instrumentalist. He wanted to be Elvis Presley. He got his first break in 1956 when he won an Elvis Presley Sound-Alike contest in Los Angeles. He even played an Elvis-like character in Marilyn Monroe’s 1960 film, Let’s Make Love. Dale bought his first reverb unit not for his guitar but to make his voice sound like Elvis’s in the Sun Studios’ echo chamber. But when he used that unit on his guitar, his fellow surfers got excited as they never did about his voice.

In 1961 Dale started playing for his surfer pals at the Rinky Dink Ice Cream Parlor in Balboa, Calif. He quickly outgrew that and his business-minded father rented out the Rendezvous Ballroom, a huge palace from the big-band era, right on the beach at the end of the peninsula. Only 17 paying customers showed up for the first show on July 1, but within four months 3,000 youngsters were crowding into the Rendezvous every Friday and Saturday, slapping their sandals on the hardwood floor, creating a dance they called the “stomp.”

“We started with 17 surfers coming into ballroom,” he recalled, “and we built it up to 4,000 people a night. The city officials said the kids had to wear ties—which was ridiculous, who ever heard of surfers in ties?—but I bought a box of old ties and handed them out at the door. We had to put in 13 new fire exits. We blew up more than 48 amps. But we kept going.”

This success led Dale’s father to start his own Del-Tone label and release the instrumental “Let’s Go Tripping.” The single sold enough copies in Dale’s Southern California stronghold to reach #60 on the national charts. It was the first true surf-music record, the first to transmute the sound of Mexican-American rock ’n’ roll into the brittle staccato, heavy reverb and tricky solos of Dale’s personal vision. It was the first to evoke the sensation of trying to stay atop a surfboard as it hurtled beachward, and nearly everyone in the California surf scene—both the hard core and the wanna-bes—recognized their own experience in that sound and responded accordingly.

To recreate the sounds of surfing on his electric guitar, Dale invented a whole new way of playing. To reproduce the “tiddle-tiddly-dee” of the ocean spray, he developed a staccato eighth-note picking style. To replicate the rumbling roar of the undertow, he played the fattest strings he could buy on the fullest sounding amplifiers he could find. To mimic the rise, fall and forward momentum of the waves, he led his rhythm section through fast, rolling phrases.

The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson, one of Dale’s most important disciples, revealed the technique to me in 1982: “You play the melody down in a lower register. You play an up stroke on the one-and beat, but everything else is down. To get that clipped sound, you mute the strings a bit with the palm of your picking hand; that gives it a more percussive sound. These kids would buy these huge Marshall amps, crank them up and those simple little melodies would just roar. But Dick Dale was different from the rest, because he had more control and more bite. Ooh, Dick Dale; that’s who you wanted to sound like if you were a guitarist in L.A. in those years.”

Just as Californians transformed the surfboard with technology, they did the same with the electric guitar. To get the sound in his head, Dale kept trying to make his guitar louder, because when a guitar gets louder it not only increases in volume but also changes its tone. The overtones become easier to hear at higher volumes, and the tone acquires that resonant, buzzing sound.

In nearby Fullerton, California, a Greek-American named Leo Fender invented a solid-body guitar called the Stratocaster in 1954. That got Dale closer to his goal, but the amplifiers couldn’t handle the volume he wanted. So the teenager went to Fender directly and asked for bigger speakers. Fender, always eager to experiment with working musicians, started giving Dale amplifiers and he blew up dozens of them. Finally, to satisfy the demanding youngster, Fender built a 15-inch speaker with a 100-watt transformer that he called the Showman amp. At last Dale was pleased. He bought six of the amps, stacked them and blasted the crowds at the Rendezvous. He claims, not without cause, that this was the birth of hard rock.

Capitol Records signed Dale for a $50,000 advance, more money, albeit in 1961 dollars, than RCA had paid for Elvis Presley, and released five albums by Dale between 1961 and 1965. None of the songs became big hits, not even “Miserlou,” and Dale claims none of the records ever captured his real sound. But Dale’s lack of success on the national charts shouldn’t distract one from recognizing his dominance, according to every witness on the scene, as L.A.’s top live act from 1961 through 1963. Virtually every surf act of any consequence—including the Beach Boys—launched their career as an opening act for Dale.

“I was never recorded properly,” he insisted. “I was always fighting with engineers who’d tell you how many years they’d been in school, how you couldn’t do this, and you couldn’t do that. So I did what they said, and when I heard the records, I hated them and smashed them against the wall. At a certain point, I got fed up and said, `If people are going to hear me, they’re only going to hear the way I sound on stage.’ So I quit recording.”

That may be true, but it didn’t help that Dale refused to tour, because he didn’t want to leave behind his surfboard and his growing menagerie of exotic animals—lions, tigers, ocelots, cougars and hawks. Nor did it help that he was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 1967 (at age 29) and had to retire from music for a while. It was left to his imitators to reap the commercial rewards of his musical breakthroughs.

He disappeared to Hawaii for a while. He learned to fly. He played on Keith Moon’s solo album. He won a Grammy nomination for his duet with Stevie Ray Vaughan on the 1987 soundtrack for “Back to the Beach.” He joined Brian Wilson and Joe Satriani for a cut on Paul Shaffer’s 1989 album. Finally Dale was coaxed up to Slim’s nightclub in San Francisco where he was surprised by the cheering, sold-out crowds. The small Oakland label, Hightone Records, approached him about making another album. He decided to give it another shot, and he moved himself, his second wife Jill and his infant son Jimmy into San Francisco’s Brilliant Studios for two weeks.

“The producer, Scotty Matthews, asked Ry Cooder, `If you were going to produce Dick Dale, how would you produce him?’,” Dale recounts. “I had just played with Ry at the Guitar Player magazine 25th anniversary show, and Ry told Scotty, `Don’t infect Dick Dale’s brain with what’s going on today, because he doesn’t care what’s going on today. Just plug him in, let him play and don’t let the needles go into the red.’ That’s what they did and that’s why it worked.”

That was the 1993 album Tribal Thunder, and it got Dale touring nationally for the first time ever, a habit that he never lost until he died (though that was partly self-preservation—“Sure, I’d love to stay home and build ships in a bottle and spend time with my wife in Hawaii,” he told the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2015, “but I have to perform to save my life.”) He made three more albums between 1994 and 2001 and was still playing live shows a month ago. When director Quentin Tarantino used “Miserlou” in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, a new generation realized what an original, influential musician he was. He was never as famous as the Beach Boys, but the Wilson brothers could never have climbed as high as they did without standing on Dale’s shoulders.

“I’m not some great guitarist like the Satrianis and the Van Halens,” he told me in 1993. “I never went to school and learned music theory. When I play, I go, `This sounds like a tiger; this sounds like a volcano; this sounds like the lip of the water coming over my head when I’m surfing.’ My bass player says, `When I stand behind you, I don’t just see your arms moving, I see your shoulders shuddering, your back straining. That’s because I put all my physical force into my playing. I take people for a ride on a non-chemical wave of sound.”

Listen to Dick Dale perform “Miserlou” at the Laguna Seca Raceway in 1995: