Tides Turned; Comeback a Success
“The staccato is so fast it heat-treats the strings.… [And] I grind so hard that the guitar picks just melt down,” Dick Dale told Jon Pareles of the New York Times in 1994. Still playing guitar in the frenzied, powerful style that spawned “surf music” in the late 1950s, Dale was riding a comeback wave in the 1990s.
Dale was born Richard Monsour in Beirut, Lebanon, in the late 1930s. Having immigrated with his family to the United States as a child, he grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and then moved to Los Angeles in his senior year of high school. The next year, Dale began his musical career by winning a “Rocket to Stardom” contest, but the electric guitar and California surfing had not yet influenced his music: he won as a country singer. The contest victory led to appearances in Los Angeles clubs and on such country television shows as Spade Cooley and Town Hall Party. His name change dates to this era; a disc jockey suggested Dick Dale, thinking it would make a good name for a country singer.
For the Record…
Born Richard Monsour, c. 1938, in Beirut, Lebanon; immigrated to the United States; married first wife, Jill; married second wife, Jeannie, c. 1967; remarried Jill; children: one son.
Began career as a country singer in California; won a local “Rocket to Stardom” contest, which led to appearances in Los Angeles clubs and on country music television shows; developed new guitar sound, “surf music,” in late 1950s; founded band Dick Dale and the Del-Tones and played to capacity crowds at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, CA, early 1960s; appeared in four Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello movies; popularity declined in the mid-1960s; took one-year hiatus to recuperate from rectal cancer, then played in clubs until 1976; achieved a small comeback in early 1980s, but retired again soon after; appeared in Back to the Beach, 1988; began performing again in early 1990s.
Addresses: Home —Twentynine Palms, CA. Record company —High Tone Records, 220 4th St., No. 101, Oakland, CA 94607.
Dale grew up a natural musician; he has been known to play piano, drums, trumpet, sax, and harmonica in addition to guitar during his shows. He taught himself the ukulele as a child using a book of chords. However, the left-handed Dale did not realize he was holding the instrument upside down and backwards. As a teenager, he bought his first guitar for eight dollars and proceeded to play it upside down as well. Not knowing what to do with the instrument’s extra strings, he began by simply muffling them and playing ukulele chords. Although he later learned to master all of the strings, he continued to play the guitar upside down.
Began Wave of “Surf Music”
Early in his career, Dale was transformed from a country singer who played rhythm guitar to an electric guitarist who favored feverishly picked, instrumental-only music. After Dale learned to surf, he tried to pattern his playing after the rolling and crashing of the waves. By the time he was hired to play at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California, in 1957, the majority of his fans were surfers. To insure that all the male members of his audience would meet the club’s dress code, on opening night Dale placed a box of ties at the entrance for the surfers who arrived. Despite that modest beginning, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones were soon playing to audiences of 4,000 at the Rendezvous.
Within a few years, Dale had released his first album, Surfers’ Choice, thanks to financing provided by his father. After the private-label album sold an astonishing 88,000 copies, Capitol Records signed Dale. The contract included a $50,000 advance—an outrageous sum in those days. His first hit, 1961’s “Let’s Go Trippin’,” firmly established the “surf music” sound and helped spread it across the nation. Dale followed with the hits “Surf Beat” and “Miserlou,” which combine a mideastern melody and descending sixteenth-note glissandi. His fame swelled quickly in the early 1960s; 21,000 fans attended his performance at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1961.
The innovative Dale sound set off a “surf music” craze. Patrick Ganahl described the often-imitated but never duplicated sound in Guitar Player: “A heavy, driving beat; an insistent, stomping bass; and, possibly for the first time in popular music, a focus on prolonged, reverb-laden electric guitar solos and instrumentals.” Oddly enough, Dale acknowledges no other guitarists as special influences on his sound; instead, he cites jazz drummer Gene Krupa as the inspiration for his style of guitar playing. Dale’s own influence, however, goes beyond the indisputable affect he had on surf bands such as the Ventures and the Beach Boys. Strip away the surf label, say some music critics, and Dale’s music can be viewed as a precursor to metal.
Dale worked directly with Leo Fender, the famed designer and manufacturer of guitars and amplifiers, to develop the type of equipment he needed to create his now-legendary sound. Fender designed “The Beast” for Dale, a customized Stratocaster guitar that could withstand the abuse Dale piled on his instrument. Sheer volume was an important component of Dale’s sound: after blowing up more than 48 amplifiers, Fender and Dale approached Lansing Speaker with specifications for a speaker that would not burn, flex, twist, or break on him.
Surf Craze Washed Up
Although Dale and his Del-Tones had achieved phenomenal popularity in the early 1960s, they faded almost as quickly in the mid-1960s. While partly attributable to Dale’s reluctance to tour nationally or to be promoted, the group’s decline more probably resulted from the sudden fame of the Beatles and other British-invasion groups. The final blow to the Del-Tones came in 1967 when Dale was diagnosed with rectal cancer. He stopped performing and recording to recuperate in Hawaii for a year.
Although Dale later returned to performing on a small scale, he refused to record further. “I quit recording because they could never capture my guitar the way it should sound. It’s so much more powerful and stronger.” He parlayed a small investment in real estate into substantial wealth and bought a 40-acre estate and a musical club in California. In 1976 he retired from the musical world completely and turned his attention to his family and his collection of wild animals, among them Siberian tigers and African lions. Dale returned briefly to the music scene in the early 1980s and released one last album before retiring again.
Tides Turned; Comeback a Success
Dale made a reappearance in 1988 with a cameo in the surf spoof Back to the Beach starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. Then in the early 1990s an old friend, Jim Selvin, called to congratulate Dale on the birth of his son and convinced him to travel to San Francisco to perform. Not only was that performance sold out, but so were the next five. Convinced that an enthusiastic audience awaited him, Dale returned wholeheartedly to touring and recording.
Dale used his old Stratocaster, “The Beast,” and his old amp, but took his new inspiration from his wild animals rather than the surf. “I’d think about the force of my mountain lion. My African lions, they’d roar at 5:30 and the ground would shake. I would feel that when I played on my guitar, and I would imitate that.” Whatever the source, the “Dick Dale sound” had returned. And fans, both old and new, were responding. Dale proved to be popular not only with reminiscing middle-aged listeners, but also with a new college crowd. Fans called the music “Dick-rock” and some sported T-shirts that read “I’m a Dickhead.”
High Tone Records released Dale’s Tribal Thunder in 1993 and Unknown Territory in 1994. “If possible, [Dale’s] reverb-soaked sound is better than ever,” assessed Billboard in a review of Tribal Thunder. A Guitar Player reviewer noted: “Dick’s first new album in nine years brilliantly merges shrill, powerful guitar playing with the thunderous rhythm section of double drummers Prairie Prince and Scott Matthews and bassists Ron Eglit and Rowland Salley.” For the first time, Dale toured cross-country and had plans to tour in Europe. He described his pleasure at performing again to New York Times writer Pareles: “I just go on sonic, nonchemical rides of sound.”
Tribal Thunder, HighTone, 1993.
Unknown Territory, HighTone, 1994.
Surfers’ Choice, Deltone.
King of the Surf Guitar, Capitol.
Checkered Flag, Capitol.
Mr. Eliminator, Capitol.
Summer Surf, Capitol.
Rock Out, Live at Ciro’s, Capitol.
Greatest Hits, GNP Crescendo.
Also contributed single “Pipeline” to soundtrack Back to the Beach, Paramount, 1988.
Billboard, January 16, 1993; June 12, 1993.
Guitar Player, July 1981; August 1993.
Musician, May 1982; August 1994.
New York Times, May 1, 1994.
Rolling Stone, October 28, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was provided by HighTone Records publicity materials.
—Susan Windisch Brown
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