Dick Dale has reportedly died at the age of 81, and unless you’re a true aficionado of rock ‘n’ roll music you might not realize what a big deal that is. The undisputed “King of the Surf Guitar” only had a few hits and a couple of brief moments of mass popularity during his long career, but between his innate talent and very weird personality he had a far more significant influence on the evolution of American music.
For one thing, Dale was the creator and master of rock ‘n’ roll’s ultra-cool surf genre, which yielded some of the 20th century’s best music. Surf music was also the link between the twangy and bucolic and ultra-cool rockabilly style and the distorted and urban and acid-soaked ultra-cool psychedelic rock that followed shortly afterwards, and Dale’s aggressively percussive and extremely loud guitar playing showed the way. Dale also played an important part in the technological development of the electric guitar and amplifier, which of course played an important part in the musical development of rock ‘n’ roll, and he exemplified the weird sort of rugged individualism that makes rock ‘n’ roll so ultra-cool.
Although he was born as Richard Monsour in frigid Boston in the depths of the Great Depression, Dales family moved to southern California in the booming ’50s, where he became an avid surfer and rockabilly guitar player. All that surfing resulted in a buff surfer’s physique, and he started playing those fleet-fingered rockabilly riffs with a noticeable muscularity, trying to express the exhilaration of riding the waves and shooting the pipes toward a sunny California beach. He played it VERY LOUd, too, courtesy of his friendships with legendary electric guitar luthier Leo Fender, who had previously used western swing legend Eldon Shamblin of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys fame as a guinea pig for his latest musical inventions.
By the late ’50s southern California’s avid surfers were packing the Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach to hear Dale musically recreating their best rides on the waves at deafening volume on the very first Fender Stratocaster. By the early early ’60s pretty much every band in culturally influential southern California was playing surf music, producing such classics as The Chantay’s “Pipeline” and The Surfari’s “Wipeout” and The Markett’s “Surfer Stomp,” not to mention all those Beach Boys records the baby boomer’s still so dearly love, and Dale’s classic “Miserlou” and “Let’s Go Trippin'” and “Swinging’ and Surfin'” were among the genre’s nationwide hits. Dale even got to appear in some of the then-popular “beach movies” with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and shapely bikini-clad girls and shirtless boys with surfer physiques. Then The Beatles came along and the popularity of surf rock and beach movies waned, but the influence of Dale and the style he’d created lingered.
To our ears The Chantay’s “Pipeline” is the precursor of all that great electric piano playing Ray Manzarek did for The Doors, the preeminent Los Angeles rock band of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Beach Boy’s experimental “Pet Sounds” album pushed even The Beatles in a new direction. As the “King the Surf Guitar,” Dale had an even more outsized influence. One of the many weird things about Dale was that he was left-handed and thus learned to play the guitar upside down, which was one reason he became a mentor to the equally left-handed and upside down guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who is widely if incorrectly considered the most badass rock ‘n’ roll guitarist of them all, and such formidable players as Stevie Ray Vaughan also acknowledged his influence. Dale was the first guitarist known for literally shredding his extra-gauge guitar strings, and every rock ‘n’ roller who considers himself a “shredder” is an acolyte whether they know it or not.
Dale kept playing and wowing audiences through the lean years, including a memorable concert at Wichita’s Cotillion Ballroom in the ’80s. We were the music critics for the local newspaper at the time, and had the good fortune to interview him, although it wasn’t so much an interview as just letting him talk. He said he’d quit surfing as a result of a foot infection caused by the pollution on California’s beaches, but that he was snowboarding in Colorado instead, and he raved about the latest guitar technology, and had good and bad things to say about the latest music, and overall he struck us as quite a character.
He put on a memorable show at the Cotillion, and we remember walking out in the soaked and limb-strewn parking lot to see that there’d been a severe thunderstorm we’d not noticed because of how VERY LOUD and ultra-cool the performance had been. A while after that Dale had another fifteen minutes of fame when Quentin Tarantino used “Miserlou” to start off his big movie hit “Pulp Fiction,” and after that Dale kept playing VERY LOUD in ballrooms across the country to pay his mounting medical bills. He no longer had the buff surfer’s physique at that point, but by all accounts was still shredding the extra-gauge strings on his state-of-the-art Fender guitar. We’re not likely to hear the likes of Dick Dale again, but we look forward to hearing faint echos from the music of generations yet to come.
— Bud Norman