Dick Dale Biography

Richard Monsour, 4 May 1937, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. (Note: Dale himself has been quoted in interviews as saying he was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and that his family emigrated to Quincy, Massachusetts, when he was a child. Now, however Dale denies that story and claims to have been born in Boston.) Dale is usually credited as the inventor of the instrumental surf music style and the major influence on surf guitar. With his band the Del-Tones, Dale’s early 60s records sparked the surf music craze on the US west coast, and his guitar-playing influenced hundreds of other musicians.

Dale started out as a pianist at the age of nine, and also played trumpet and harmonica, before switching to the ukulele and then finally guitar. His first musical interest was country music and his idol was Hank Williams. Dale’s family moved to El Segundo, California in 1954 and he took a job at an aircraft company after graduating from high school. Having learned country guitar, he entered talent contests, still performing under his real name. The name Dick Dale was suggested to him by a Texas disc jockey named T. Texas Tiny. Dale gained popularity as a local country singer and also appeared in concerts with rhythm and blues artists. He also gained a small role in a Marilyn Monroe movie, Let’s Make Love.

Dale’s first record was ‘Ooh-Whee-Marie’ on the Deltone label, which his father owned. He eventually recorded nine singles for Deltone between 1959 and 1962, and also recorded for the Cupid label. One of those Deltone singles, ‘Let’s Go Trippin’’, released in 1961, is generally considered to be the first instrumental surf record. According to Dale, he and his cousin were riding motorcycles to the beach on the Balboa Peninsula in southern California, where Dale befriended the local surfers. There he also began playing with a band at a club called the Rinky Dink. Another guitar player showed him how to make certain adjustments to the pickup settings on his Stratocaster guitar to create different sounds, and that sound, aided by other sonic developments and featuring Dale’s staccato attack, became his trademark. Although he was still playing country music, he moved closer to the beach and began surfing during the day and playing music at night, adding rock ‘n’ roll to his repertoire.

By then Dale had formed his own band, the Del-Tones, including piano, guitars, bass, drums and saxophone, and shifted his home base to the Rendezvous Ballroom down the beach from the Rinky Dink. The band, like most others, performed vocal compositions, until one patron asked Dale if they could play an instrumental song. Inspired by his surfing hobby, Dale composed a tune that he felt captured the feeling of riding the waves and the power of the ocean. Once the band began adding more instrumental songs in this style to its repertoire, the crowd grew in size until the Rendezvous was packed to capacity. At one point city officials tried to run Dale out of town, believing that his music was having a negative effect on the local youth. Playing left-handed without reversing the strings, Dale started to fine-tune the surf guitar style. He met with Leo Fender, the inventor of the Fender guitar and amplifier line, and worked with him on designing equipment that would be more suited to that style of music (Dale helped to develop the popular Showman amp). Along with other innovations, such as the first outboard reverb unit, which helped define the surf sound, the JBL speaker and the Rhodes piano, Dale was able virtually to reinvent this new style of rock ‘n’ roll as he went along. ‘Let’s Go Trippin’’ was the first instrumental recording by Dale, and one of only two singles to make the US national charts (at number 60, based entirely on local sales in California), with ‘Shake ‘N’ Stomp’ and ‘Misirlou’ (a rewrite of a traditional Greek song written by Nicholas Roubanis) also popular early Dale singles on Deltone.

Dale released his first album, Surfer’s Choice, also on Deltone, in 1962. Recorded live, it was one of the first albums to feature a surfer (Dale) on the cover. (At the same time, vocal surf music, as pioneered by the Beach Boys, began to take off, but the two styles had little in common musically. Moreover Dale’s first recording preceded theirs by two months.) The instrumental surf music craze was initially largely confined to the Orange County area, but its popularity there became so overwhelming that Los Angeles radio stations began playing the music of Dale and the other new surf bands. In 1963, after Surfers’ Choice made the national album charts (number 59), Capitol Records signed Dale to a seven-album contract (only five were released). One of Dale’s singles for Capitol, ‘The Scavenger’, made the US charts, as did the Checkered Flag album that year, but Dale never charted again, remaining almost entirely a local phenomenon while becoming a major influence on other musicians. Dale appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on US television and received national press coverage, but his reluctance to travel, combined with the brief popularity of surf music, hindered his career advancement. He appeared in the 1964 movie Muscle Beach Party but that same year, with the arrival of the British beat bands, Capitol had shifted its priorities and Dale was dropped from the label less than two years after signing to it.

Dale continued to record sporadically throughout the rest of the 60s and 70s for numerous labels but a cancer scare, which he overcame, effectively sidelined his career. His music was rediscovered in the 80s, and he recorded a scorching duet with Stevie Ray Vaughan of the old Chantays surf instrumental ‘Pipeline’ in 1987 for the movie Back To The Beach. In 1989, Rhino Records released a compilation of Dale’s best recordings, and in the early 90s Dale signed with the US label HighTone Records. His 1993 album Tribal Thunder and the 1994 follow-up, Unknown Territory, as well as numerous live gigs across the USA, have showed that Dale’s influence remains strong and that his powers as a musician, although limited, are undiminished. In 1994, his recording of ‘Misirlou’ was prominently featured in the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction, bringing Dale new recognition to a much younger audience. This resulted in Dale being able to trade on the word ‘legendary’ wherever he went and launching a revitalized recording career.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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