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.
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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.
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.
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.