Rock & roll titan Dick Dale has played his last chord. Dead at 81 on March 16 after 50-plus years of battling rectal cancer, Dale’s thundering approach revolutionized early '60s electric guitar style, kick-started the fledgling surf music style and made him one of the most memorable and influential stylists in the idiom’s history.
Dale was the Paul Bunyan of big beat, one who blazed with an illimitable talent. Dale wasn’t just a musician, he was a carpenter (singlehandedly built his own house) as well as an “accomplished Horseman, Exotic Animal Trainer, Surfer, Martial Arts Expert, Archer and Pilot” and all around bad-ass.
Musically his offbeat mix of influences — he idolized swing geniuses Gene Krupa and Harry James, the lightning-strike picking of country kingpin Joe Maphis and the exotic Middle Eastern songs his Lebanese father introduced him to — created a distinctively singular sound, one enhanced by Dale’s oft-stated wish to incorporate the jungle cries of wild beasts and desire to aurally replicate the physical experience of surfing.
As unprecedented as it was groundbreaking, and taken with the fact that he was Leo Fender’s de facto “test pilot,” one who burned out or blew up a series of custom-made amps and was handed the first Stratocaster Fender produced, Dale’s extraordinary thatch of disparate elemental forces was woven together during a critical moment, one that enabled him to break out as both a stunningly dynamic force and serve as the bridge between Link Wray’s menacing primitive power chords and Jimi Hendrix's utterly liberated musicality and technical innovation.
He made an unlikely start in Quincy, Massachusetts, born May 4, 1937, as Richard Mansour, taking up the trumpet as a youth and winning “hundreds” of talent contests with his horn. After the family moved to Southern California, Dale initially wanted to be a cowboy singer, took his horn to KTTV’s Compton-based weekly country broadcast Town Hall Party's talent contest, and became a horn player in their house band until he discovered surfing, met Fender and was thrust into a creative vortex that resulted in the birth of surf music.
By 1962, he routinely drew thousands of rabid teen surfers to OC ballrooms with his infamous weekly Stomps but, naturally, it unraveled almost immediately. Dale’s gloriously naked aggression was ill-suited to folk revivalists, Merseybeat toe-tappers and easily confused flower children and he found himself, like Big Joe Turner and Frank Sinatra, an almost complete anachronism by the end of the '60s.
But his twin crown jewels, chronically thrilling surf battle cry “Let’s Go Trippin’” and his radically souped-up version of trad Middle Eastern melody “Miserlou,” stand as thunderingly immortal achievements.
Rock guitar during the early 1960s spoke with a relatively timid voice, one that squandered the power and glory with which Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley orated, but Dale’s frantic wail and profound blend of precision and passion not only recalled but damn near surpassed those mighty proclaimers.
Few are capable of operating at that altitude, and almost none maintain it, and the fact that Dale pressed on despite absolutely harrowing health issues truly reveals what an inescapable force of nature rock & roll is. The man toured relentlessly, in between hospitalizations and contending with chronic pain, always turning in high-velocity, PA-shredding performances that left his audience completely flabbergasted.
For all his bluster and posturing, Dale really had no choice. He was driven, a man possessed, a natural-born rock & roll monster. As he told me in 2016:
“Music is like building a house, it’s like going out deep into the desert to see what Nature is doing. It’s like painting, like Salvador Dali. I try to do that with my music, make it like a Salvador Dali painting.”