A number of years back I had the chance to interview Dick Dale, or rather, listen to him go on and on about is life at top volume, like his guitar playing. No worries, the man has a determined mindset, which has worked well over the years. He plays Phoenix’s Rhythm Room Thursday, April 5. Here’s the resulting article:
Surf guitar legend Dick Dale could just have easily been famous as an exotic animal trainer, pilot or surf pro—pretty much anything he set his mind too. This clearly reflects the confidence in which he speaks and in the manner by which he pretty much does what he wants. Sure, he’s earned the right with musical acolades, but music aside, simply put, you don’t get in Dick Dale’s way or he just might “rip your head off and shit down your throat,” as he prefaced our phone conversation. He also said he was “a really nice guy,” in the same breath, which based on his charity with children’s organizations, is certainly true. Still, what Dale wanted was not an interview (“You can find out all you need to know about all I have done on my website,” he told me straight away after explaining why he doesn’t like talking with reporters), but a chance to talk at me for a rambling hour while I try to unravel the mystery of this man, who’s thoughts bounce along at the frenetic pace of his hit “Miserlou.”
Though our (his) conversation was literally all over the map, it is with this same determination to be in control of his destiny that he single-handedly created a musical sensation that came to be known as surf music. Dale became a surfer in the mid-’50s when his family moved to Southern California. In no time he had mastered the art and sought to transfer what he heard and felt while riding the waves to his guitar—an instrument he conquered without lessons. No small feat, Dale was undaunted and quickly developed a loud, crashing cacophony of sound, rising and falling at breakneck speed like the waves that challenged him daily. There was nothing else like it.
“I invented surfing music back in 1956,” Dale says to the point. “It was a style Dick Dale played and I was a surfing at the time. Friends gave me the title of ‘King of the Surf Guitar’ saying ‘you’re the king man,’ and it just stuck. They just as easily could have called me ‘King of the Lions and Tigers’ because I was raising exotic animals then too.”
Dale’s father, amazingly in an era of abject conservatism, encouraged him to push onward into a musical career (rather than animals), keeping him away from drink and drugs while booking his shows and printing 45rpm singles to sell there, including “Let’s Go Trippin’,” which is considered the first recorded “surf” song. His continual support enamored Dale with the confidence to make it in the difficult arena of musical stardom.
“He stood by me. Dad got me into the Rendezvous Ballroom (in Balboa). He got the first permits for the first two dates with dancing. They wouldn’t allow teenage dancing so they didn’t want to give the permits. They called anybody who played the electric guitar devil music—dirty music—and you couldn’t get a permit,” Dale recalls. “He convinced the city to give us a permit. ‘We’ll they’ve got to wear ties,’ they told us. I thought ‘shit, whoever heard of surfers wearing ties?’ My dad went and bought a box of ties and handed them out to the barefoot surfers.”
It was natural surfer friends made up his initial audience—thus “surf music” was coined. As word spread of this new type of guitar sound—and of Dale’s outrageously loud and combustible (he regularly blew up amps) shows—Dale released the then-best-selling independent album, Surfer’s Choice, complete with a picture of him riding a big wave along the San Clemente Pier. The album sold 88,000 copies, “that’s like 4 million today,” Dale adds. A host of imitators soon followed, though none could truly compete.
Not that Dale ever worried about such things. Along the way, between numerous albums and relentless touring, he also became an accomplished horseman, martial arts expert and pilot. Recently, Dale has opened his 29 Palms, California home up to underprivileged youth—building a skate park, horse and music facilities. Dale now provides encouragement to others the way his dad once did for him.
Hanging up the phone, I was dizzy, having managed maybe 30 words. Yet, Dale told his story as he saw fit, in no particular order, and on reflection, everything I needed to know. Determination, bottom line—that’s all it takes—and Dick Dale has plenty, you can feel it in the monsterous rumble of his guitar.
“Performance talks and bullshit walks,” he concludes. Around Dale, it’s that simple. —Glenn BurnSilver(This article appeared in print in 2003.)