Gone but not forgotten: Surf guitar pioneer Dick Dale, 1937-2019

We knew him as the “King of the Surf Guitar,” the 1960s rocker whose version of Miserlou in the film Pulp Fiction revived both his career and the entire instrumental surf genre in the 1990s. But he was so much more than that.

He was an American music icon, the originator of a style and sound that has endured for more than a half-century, and a true hero for fighting medical hardships that kept him on stage and performing into his eighth decade on Earth. Dick Dale left this world on March 16, 2019, at age 81.
More below: Dick Dale in South Florida
* Check out our tribute featuring South Florida remembrances and photos

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Dick Dale, Skinny Jimmy Stingray at Churchill's in Miami in 2012
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Dick was still performing right up until his death, though the circumstances were less than ideal due to extensive medical bills. His website still lists the dates he would have played had he not succumbed to the diseases that wrecked his seemingly indestructible body. The final show that was posted would have been just this month (Nov. 9), ironically in one of the world’s surfing capitals: Malibu, Calif.

Dick Dale at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach, June 13, 2011.

Dick Dale at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach, June 13, 2011. (Atomic Grog photo)

He had survived several bouts with cancer and related diseases, including a near-fatal incident in the 1960s that inspired Jimi Hendrix to pen the lyric “we’ll never hear surf music again” in Third Stone from the Sun (1968). But Dick’s final battle was not one he could win.

Heart and kidney failure finally did him in after a lifetime of battling – and overcoming – every physical obstacle that came before him.

Born Richard Monsour in Boston on May 4, 1937, he first learned the ukulele and absorbed the traditions of his Lebanese father and Eastern European mother. He has said that he also learned the trumpet, banjo, piano, organ, harpsichord, trombone, saxophone, harmonica, xylophone and accordion. But once he heard big-band drummer Gene Krupa, it was all over and his course was set. Not on drums, an instrument he also mastered, but as a guitar pioneer.

When his family moved to Los Angeles in the 1954, he dove head-first into Hollywood. His first on-screen role was an uncredited bit as an Elvis Presley impersonator in the Marilyn Monroe movie Let’s Make Love. He started in the music biz in 1955 as a DJ, then played alongside Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb and Gene Autry on a country music TV show. The stage name Dick Dale was reportedly given to him by radio/TV host Texas Tiny Cherry.

Dick Dale performs at Grand Central in Miami on April 25, 2013

Dick Dale performs at Grand Central in Miami on April 25, 2013. (Atomic Grog photo)

But surf music became Dick Dale’s claim to fame, a sound he invented to emulate the surge of the ocean. He developed a guitar style featuring melodies that crisscrossed the beat like a surfer on a wave. His intense staccato picking style, combined with Eastern scales from his childhood influences, made for a sonic experience like no other.

“I don’t call myself a guitar player,” Dick told The Atomic Grog in a 2013 interview. “I’m a manipulator of an instrument. I just make a guitar scream with pain or pleasure.”

To match his sonic fury, he needed equipment that didn’t even exist at the time. Electric guitar pioneer Leo Fender joined forces with Dick to build a new instrument – dubbed “the Beast” – that could withstand the onslaught. To complete the package, they developed the first 100-watt amplifier, loud enough to fill any venue Dick Dale played.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones rode the wave of instrumental rock to the top of the charts. In 1963, he performed Misirlou, an adaptation of a traditional Arabic song, on The Ed Sullivan Show, one of the most influential TV variety shows of the day. He was the first rock guitarist invited to perform on that national stage, though he was later eclipsed by The Beatles, who famously made their U.S. debut on that same show.

“Until The Beatles came along, there was nothing that drove the audiences as wild like Dick Dale and the Del-Tones,” according to music industry veteran Chris Darrow, who saw Dick perform in the early 1960s. “The only real surf guitarist for me is Dick Dale,” he told The New York Times. All the rest are imitators.”

Dick Dale at Churchill's Pub in Miami, April 22, 2012

Dick Dale at Churchill’s Pub in Miami, April 22, 2012. (Eduardo Ford, INTI Photography)

Misirlou also paved the way for Dick Dale’s big comeback in 1994, when the song was featured behind the opening credits and became the anthem of Quentin Tarantino’s influential film Pulp Fiction. After a long hiatus from the musical spotlight, Dick started recording and touring again in the ’90s and continued right up until his death.

But even when he wasn’t playing, Dick took life by the horns and rode it for all it was worth. He was a martial arts master, a professional pilot, and a wild animal trainer. He told me his secret was to stop short of mastery. “I’d rather be a master of none and be a jack of all trades,” he said in the 2013 interview. “If you’re a master of one, you’d be awfully dull at a gathering of people, wouldn’t you?”

Rolling Stone ranks him as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. But, not surprisingly, Dick said he doesn’t live and breath surf guitar. “I never play my instrument when I’m home,” he told me. “I don’t practice. I make it all up when I’m playing.”

“The only thing I sit down with, sometimes, is my piano. I love my piano because I’ve always liked to play all types of music, like beautiful Latino songs for my mother. … I very rarely pick up the guitar, except when I’m going on stage.”

It’s that signature image of Dick Dale on stage, attacking his guitar like a tiger, that we’ll all remember … even if the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t.

GoFundMe page seeks backing for memorial

Dick Dale performs at Grand Central in Miami on April 25, 2013

Dick Dale performs at Grand Central in Miami on April 25, 2013. (Atomic Grog photo)

Dick made his struggles with health problems well known. Not as widely known was the simultaneous battle to pay for his care. That’s part of the reason he continued to tour into his 80s. He loved playing for his fans, but only extended tours could raise enough money to pay for expensive treatment.

After Dick’s death, a GoFundMe page was launched on behalf of his widow, Lana Dale-Monsour. It was initially created to raise money for medical expenses along with a burial plot and headstone. In the end, it was decided to follow Dick’s wishes to be cremated, and Medicare covered most of the medical bills.

Some of the money that had been raised was used for a memorial service, but the remainder and any additional donations will be used to pay for one or two bronze statues to honor Dick. Click here for more info and to make a donation.

Dick Dale in South Florida: The grip of steel, the wall of amps

A remembrance by Jim Hayward

I got my first taste of Dick Dale in the clubs of South Florida, where he often played during his 1990s comeback in the wake of Pulp Fiction. When the opportunity came up for Slammie Productions to book a date on his 2007 tour, I jumped at the chance. My partner confirmed Dick for Valentine’s Day at Churchill’s in Miami, and tickets sold fast.

The crowds flocked to see the King, and the concert was pretty much a sellout with more than 300 packed into the small club near downtown. Unfortunately, I was so busy managing the door, I could only pop in to see Dick tear up the stage for just a short time. But the scene was memorable. It turned out to be one of the most highly regarded shows in the 40-year history of the venerable venue.

Dick Dale at The Vagabond in Miami, June 12, 2011.

Dick Dale at The Vagabond in Miami, June 12, 2011. (Atomic Grog photo)

Just when Dick’s popularity and touring were hitting another upswing (thanks to a hit song in 2005 by the Black Eye Peas that heavily sampled Miserlou), his health became an issue.

A cancerous tumor was removed from Dick’s intestinal tract in 2008. Rounds of chemo and radiation treatment made him too weak to tour, and he cut back his performing schedule. With Dick now in his 70s, it would have made sense to just give up the road.

But aging rockers don’t have pensions and retiree health-care plans. So Dick had to make money the best way he could: touring and selling merchandise at the shows. By 2011, Dick was recovering and ready for an extended tour at age 74, but he needed a little help. Fiercely independent, he had long given up on record labels and booking agents, preferring the DIY approach.

Enter Laramie Dean, a surf guitarist and mainstay on the South Florida scene who had befriended Dick and moved to Los Angeles. Dean set up the 2011 tour featuring Dick’s 19-year-old son, Jimmy Dale, playing drums for both his dad and Laramie’s band. When Laramie reached out to me about booking some dates, I was thrilled to help out. We booked two shows in South Florida – Miami and West Palm Beach – to maximize Dick’s payday.

Even though they were on off-nights (Sunday and Monday), both concerts went off great and were well attended. More significantly for me as a fan, I arranged for the venues to manage the door so I could enjoy the shows and finally get to meet the King. To say that his reputation preceeded him would be an understatement.

The first show was at The Vagabond in Miami, a small club that attracted a hip crowd for its DJs and loungy atmosphere. But live music was also appreciated, and the large stage and low ceiling made for an intimate performance that found Dick and his band in great spirits. I captured a short video during Shake N’ Stomp that I’m sharing here for the first time, more than eight years later:

Monday night’s turnout in West Palm Beach was better than expected at the much larger Respectable Street, a club Dick had played quite a few times over the years. As the band set up, I got an up-close peek at the famed wall of amplifiers that produced Dick’s massive guitar sound.

Did he use all those amps or were some for show? Nobody seems to know for sure, but it was impressive nonetheless. During the show, I stood in the dead center of the room, marveling at how the audience became totally immersed in the whirlwind of sound. His band was just a three-piece, with Jimmy Dale on drums and Ron Eglit on bass, but it sounded much bigger.

Dick Dale at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach, June 13, 2011.

Dick Dale at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach, June 13, 2011. (Atomic Grog photo)

Veteran South Florida guitarist Charlie Pickett was also amazed by the Dick Dale sound. “He doesn’t even need the PA,” Pickett observed. Indeed, he didn’t. Even though I hired one of the best sound companies available to bring in gear for the band, Dick used it only for his vocals. His stacks of amps overpowered the PA … and everything else. But the sound was never piercing, never uncomfortable, and never had the slightest bit of feedback. When Dick walked through the crowd, then right out the front door and into the street while continuing to play through his wireless setup, it was a sight to behold.

I’ve booked many, many bands over the years and encountered quite a few prima donnas who spent hours noodling around during sound check, only to sound merely half as good as Dick Dale. More amazingly, Dick didn’t even bother to sound check. His band got everything set up and did a quick check before doors opened, but Dick spent the time resting up in the hotel. And deservedly so. After all, he was usually the guy behind the wheel of the main touring van, a custom Mercedes Sprinter that he and his wife Lana would take from show to show.

The King would just show up shortly before his set time, plug his axe into that wall of amps, and play. No bullshit, just pure rock ‘n’ roll.

Adding to the mystique was his one-of-a-kind technique and use of exotic scales. A lefty, Dick simply flipped his right-handed Stratocaster upside down. Hendrix did the same thing, but Jimi had to restring his guitar in order to play it. Dick kept his strung the way they were designed, with the heaviest strings on the bottom, enabling him to achieve his signature staccato picking style. He kept this style and stringing even when he later started using left-handed guitars.

Dick Dale with son Jimmy Dale on drums at Churchill’s Pub in Miami, April 22, 2012. (Eduardo Ford, INTI Photography)

I also remember shaking his hand for the first time, encountering a grip of steel that was natural and not meant to intimidate, even though it had that effect. He was legendary for playing some of the largest strings you could fit on his custom Fender guitars. Armed with a heavy pick, he attacked the instrument with a ferocity that would make men half his age wilt. In the ensuing years, whenever I met Dick, I made sure to reach out my hand, immediately feeling inspired.

Sure, Dick was gruff and tough to deal with, exactly as you’d expect him to be with a promoter he’d never met. But I could also see that he was gracious and happy to meet his fans, staying late to sign every record and piece of memorabilia that the long line of customers bought at his merch booth. Lana was always at his side, his co-pilot in business as well as life.

“I don’t just play and leave,” he told me later in a 2013 interview. “I stay until everybody leaves. I’m signing and I’m talking with families, and I’m talking to people with diseases. I make them laugh about it.”

Both of those 2011 concerts left everyone in attendance, me the jaded promoter included, rooting for Dick to recover and continue his comeback. Our wish came true less than a year later, when Dick was eager to return to his old stomping grounds. Back to his old DIY ways, this tour was booked by Dick and Lana, and I was surprised and flattered when Dick called me personally.

We quickly confirmed another two-night stand, this time including a return to Churchill’s along with Respectables in April 2012. Our dates were just a small sliver of a grueling 50-show tour that included nine Florida concerts.

http://www.slammie.com/atomicgrog/blog/2012/05/03/concert-review-dick-dales-comeback-revs-into-overdrive/

Dick Dale at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach, April 21, 2012. (Atomic Grog photo)

Jimmy Dale was back on drums, teaming with one of his dad’s longtime touring bassists, Sam Bolle. Dick was even more playful on stage this tour than the last, feeding off the tightness of the band. During a key moment of the show, Dick grabbed a pair of sticks and joined Jimmy on drums, leading the band through a rhythmic interlude that recalled his idol Gene Krupa.

The crowds were a bit smaller but still numbered several hundred per show. These were the dedicated disciples of Dick Dale, who would return again and again over the coming years no matter what.

A year later, Dick was back again for a 2013 tour with Bolle on bass and another longtime sideman, Dusty Watson, on drums. This was a return to his veteran lineup and a sign that Dale was indeed back in the groove for the long term. I promoted one of the South Florida dates: April 25 at Grand Central in Miami. The massive venue was a little too big for Dick, but the lineup was strong with Miami’s Gold Dust Lounge and Fort Lauderdale’s Skinny Jimmy Stingray opening the show.

The massive venue and high-end production were a fitting tribute to Dick’s return to the limelight. It was the culmination of the previous two years of Dick battling back to reclaim his rightful place on the big stage.

Dick’s loyal fanbase was there. And though new fans were not flocking to fill the void, it was still heartening to see the King back in his well-earned place in the spotlight. (Note that South Florida is hardly typical, sometimes infamous as a live rock graveyard. Dick continued to draw huge crowds, often numbering in the thousands, at clubs and special events across the country.)

Hurricane Hayward with Dick Dale

Hurricane Hayward with Dick Dale after his Miami concert in April 2013. (Atomic Grog photo)

This 2013 concert, which turned out to be the last of Dick’s that I promoted, was also a bit more laid back than the previous tours. I remember fondly spending some easygoing downtime with Dick and Lana backstage at Grand Central, where I was gifted a signed poster and one of Dick’s picks while also taking time to pose for photos. A few weeks earlier, Dick granted me a rare interview, which I was honored to feature on The Atomic Grog.

Dick continued to tour and made multiple appearances in South Florida in the ensuing years, including a prestigious main stage slot at the massive SunFest in West Palm Beach in April 2014. Every spring, fans looked forward to his return to the area. Sadly his 2019 tour never came to be, but we have plenty of memories of Dick prowling the stage in South Florida.

More below: Remembering Dick Dale
* Obituaries, tributes from media outlets
* Social media reaction: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
* On stage, in the studio: Top YouTube videos | Discography

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Photos, memories of the King of the Surf Guitar in South Florida
Dick Dale in South Florida
The Atomic Grog and Slammie Productions had the pleasure of booking and promoting six of Dick Dale’s South Florida concerts over the last decade of his career. It was truly an honor. He will be missed.
Here’s are links to all of our stories, including exclusive photos and a rare interview:
* Dick Dale: The most interesting man in rock ‘n’ roll
Exclusive interview, photos: Cancer survivor and rock legend Dick Dale: ‘I had both feet in the grave’
* A Dick Dale concert is always the best way to celebrate another year of The Atomic Grog
Concert review, photos: Dick Dale’s comeback revs into overdrive
* South Florida welcomes Dick Dale, but when will the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
* Nothing can stop surf guitar king Dick Dale
* The Atomic Grog celebrates first anniversary with the return of Dick Dale
Concert reviews, photos: Dick Dale shreds all doubts with sizzling shows
* Dick Dale, playing the tour of his life, hits South Florida
* What makes Dick Dale the ‘King of the Surf Guitar’?
* Dick Dale’s 2011 tour was seven years in the making

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Obituaries, tributes from media outlets
* The New York Times
* Asbury Park Press
* Rolling Stone
* Hit & Run blog
* The father of surf: 7 essential Dick Dale facts (Fender)
* The Beach Boys remember Dick Dale (Billboard)
* How Dick Dale changed the sound of rock guitar (Pitchfork)

Social media reaction: Fans, peers mourn, post remembrances

Dick Dale was widely admired, from his worldwide fanbase built up over decades of touring to his many fellow musicians and friends in the industry. They all took to social networks in the days following the guitarist’s death to share both their grief and their undying admiration:

TWITTER

INSTAGRAM

View this post on Instagram

Thank you for being such an amazing inspiration to us all ??????? #ripdickdale #dickdale #kingofthesurfguitar

A post shared by The Surfrajettes (@thesurfrajettes) on

* More Instagram posts: #RIPDickDale

FACEBOOK

Live and loud: The top 10 Dick Dale videos on YouTube

Dick Dale’s legend was built on stage, where he ruled during a staggering seven different decades. You had to see him live – and be immersed in the ear-splitting volume, the amazing dexterity and ease at which he performed – to truly appreciate his work. But luckily there are many video clips available to relive those memories. Here are the top 10 clips from YouTube, based on total views, at the time of his death. (We excluded duplicates and those that were audio only or that didn’t predominantly feature live footage.)

1. Dick Dale & His Del-Tones perform Misirlou in the 1963 film A Swingin Affair:

2. Dick Dale and his band perform Misirlou in 1995 on Later with Jools Holland, a British television show:

3. The 1987 music video for Pipleline, performed by Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan:

4. Dick Dale and his band on a Guitar Center Sessions for an evening of insight, dialogue and music (posted in 2009):

5. Live on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963:

6. Harmony Central interview, posted in 2011:

7. Music video for Nitro, circa 1993:

8. Dick Dale and his band performing Miserlou at the 2008 Fender NAMM Gala:

9. Dick Dale and son Jimmy performing Misirlou at the Newport Beach Centennial Party in 2006:

10. Dick Dale and his band performing Nitro live on KEXP in Seattle in 2009:

Discography: Dick Dale’s recordings through the years

Dick Dale’s recorded output wasn’t as prolific as some of his peers, but he still has a back catalog of music that’s worth seeking out. Note: This list includes albums only, new material noted in bold.

* Surfers’ Choice (Deltone, 1962; Capitol, 1963; Sundazed, 2006)
* King of the Surf Guitar (Capitol, 1963; Sundazed, 2007)
* Checkered Flag (Capitol, 1963; Sundazed, 2007)
* Mr. Eliminator (Capitol, 1964; Sundazed, 2007)
* Summer Surf (Capitol, 1964; Sundazed, 2007)
* Rock Out with Dick Dale & His Del-Tones Live at Ciro’s (Capitol, 1965; Sundazed, 2010)
* Dick Dale & His Del-Tones – Greatest Hits 1961-1976 (GNP Crescendo, 1975 and 1992)
* The Tigers Loose (Balboa, 1983; Rhino, 1987)
* King Of The Surf Guitar: The Best Of Dick Dale & His Del-Tones (Rhino, 1986 and 1989)
* Tribal Thunder (Hightone, 1993)
* Unknown Territory (Hightone, 1994; Shout Factory, 2008)
* Calling Up Spirits (Beggars Banquet, 1996 and 2011)
* Better Shred Than Dead: The Dick Dale Anthology (Rhino, 1997)
* Spacial Disorientation (Dick Dale/The Music Force, 2001; Big Deal Records, 2016)
* Guitar Legend: The Very Best Of Dick Dale (Shout Factory, 2010)
* Dick Dale & His Del-Tones – Singles Collection ’61-65 (Sundazed, 2010)
* Dick Dale at the Drags (Rockbeat, 2013)
* Live on the Santa Monica Pier (Floating World, 2016; Rockbeat, 2017)
* Misirlou: Dick Dale & His Del-Tones (Jasmine, 2018)

More Dick Dale discographies: DickDale.com | Discogs | Wikipedia

Whatever you do, continue to support Dick Dale’s music and expose it to future generations. And by all means, turn it up loud!

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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