Dick Dale is a rock & roll colossus. Inarguably one of the most significant and influential electric guitarists of the 20th century, Dale is a force whose broad-shouldered shadow falls across rock & roll as far and wide as Charlie Christian’s silhouette dominates jazz. The 78-year-old lefty innovator’s upside-down guitar had more presence and personality than anyone had ever managed to unleash, and his recordings of “Let’s Go Trippin’” and “Miserlou” provided a radical redefinition of the instrument profound in its reach and implications.
Dale’s big-toned, destructo ax arrived at an evolutionary point when rock & roll guitar was still wedded to a watered-down blend of wannabe primitive blues and honky-tonk soloing (e.g. Link Wray, Duane Eddy). His style completely exploded the genre’s prevailing standards and practices. It was electric guitar run amok, a hammering, savage amalgam of personal atavism (his manifest desire to aurally recreate the physical sensation of surfing), his fixation on the percussive rapture of Gene Krupa’s drumming, and the impact of an exotic mutt musical background bestowed by his Lebanese father and Polish mother. All of these combined like nitroglycerin, and while the British Invasion quickly drove Dale into commercial stalemate, nothing could diminish his influence.
Dale has rocketed through American pop culture in a wildly colorful orbit. In a recent conversation, he lit up an anecdotal bonfire that included tales of Frank Sinatra (“He wanted to manage me, but the deal was for 70%. My dad said, ‘No, I’d put a bullet in his head before I let that happen.’”), Buddha (“When I was 18, I started to study martial arts. I loved it. And I was with the monks, learned the way of Buddha. It made sense.”), and his adversarial relationship with music: “Music, I loved because I am a sentimental person. I wanted to sing sad cowboys songs, like Hank Williams. I wanted to play the trumpet like Harry James. I learned my guitar picking rhythms from Gene Krupa. But really, my life had nothing to do with music.”
To hear Dale tell it, he was flim-flammed into it: “My dad tricked me into music, when I was a kid. He told me I had to play guitar behind my friend Billy at a talent contest — and I didn’t say no to my dad. He was very tough, from Beirut, Lebanon, where they’d cut off your hand if you stole something. So he told me to play guitar for Billy, but he also told Billy to get up and walk off the stage, to leave me there. And he did. But I never back off from a challenge, so I just stayed there and faked, kept on playing.”
Inspired by Harry James, Dale took up the trumpet and “did over a hundred of these contests, won ‘em all. Not with my guitar, I played trumpet and people loved it, they’d go insane.” After the family moved from Quincy, Massachusetts to Southern California, Dale discovered surfing, fell in with Leo Fender, and the stomping, celestial alignment that resulted in the birth of surf music roared into life.
“I was playing my guitar in this rinky-dink ice cream parlor and then this folk place, a coffeehouse, that was next door, and the surfers began lining up for blocks. And the old Rendezvous Ballroom was standing empty but we could not get the permits needed for electric guitar, they said it was ‘devil music!’”
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Newport Beach had shut down the Rendezvous two years earlier in response to the infection of rock & roll, but Dale and his father weren’t having it. “We went to the city officials, the PTA, everyone, asking, ‘Do you want your kids running the streets, drinking Thunderbird, or do you want to have them in one ballroom where you can control them?’” Dale remembers. “Finally they said, ‘All right, but only if they wear ties!’ What surfer wears a tie? So the first night at the Rendezvous, my dad bought a box of ties. Seventeen surfers showed up, so there they were, all barefoot and wearing a tie. That’s how it all started. And the rest is history.”