Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar, is one of the pioneers of instrumental surf music and one of the most influential guitarists of the early 1960s. You probably know Dick Dale already, but if his name doesn’t sound familiar to you, the opening song in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction hopefully does. That scene when Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are about to rob a diner, remember? That’s Misirlou (1962), one of his well-known songs.
Misirlou is a Mediterranean traditional song influenced by Middle Eastern music. Dale’s uncle used to play this tune with the oud while relatives belly-danced. Dale, of Lebanese descent, had a strong interest in Arabic music which later played a major role in his development of surf music.
Dick Dale was born Richard Anthony Mansour in Boston on May 4, 1937. In 1954, his parents drove the family across the country and moved to Southern California where he learned to surf at the age of 17. Dale wanted his music to reflect the energy and power of the waves he surfed. Being left-handed, he initially had to play a right-handed guitar. However, he did so without restringing the guitar, leading him to play the guitar upside-down. Even after he acquired a proper left-handed guitar, Dale continued to use his reverse stringing.
With the influence of the Middle Eastern and Eastern European melodies, the unusual position of the strings of his guitar and his interest in creating a sound that would reflect the sounds he heard in his mind while surfing, Dick Dale developed an innovative and distinctive instrumental sound. His technique influenced future guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix.
In 1959, Dale began playing regular gigs at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa with his band The Del-Tones. He found an enthusiastic audience in his surfer friends and became a popular attraction, drawing 1,000s of fans to every performance. It was the beginning of the surf music phenomenon. In September 1961, Del-Tone released Dale’s single “Let’s Go Trippin'” which is considered the beginning of what’s called surf music. It was a huge local hit and even charted nationally. In 1962 Dale released his first album, Surfer’s Choice on his Deltone label. The album was picked up by Capitol Record and distributed nationally. He also released the follow-up King of the Surf Guitar and three more albums on Capitol.
During the 1960s, Dick Dale developed a close working relationship with Leo Fender, who kept producing custom made amplifiers in response to Dale’s desire to produce a specific sound that would emulate his musical hero drummer Gene Krupa and the power of the ocean. Pushing the limits of equipment during his loud and energetic live performances, the legend says that he blew up more than 40 amplifiers and one went literally up in flames.
In 1964, the British Invasion began to overtake the American charts and Dale was dropped by Capitol in 1965. Even though he continued performing live, in 1966 Dale was diagnosed with cancer which forced him to temporarily retire from music. Although he recovered, he began pursuing other interest such as learning to pilot planes and studying martial arts. In 1979, he almost lost a leg after a wound caused while surfing and a water pollution-related infection made the mild injury much worse. As a result, Dale became an environmental activist.
His album Tribal Thunder was released in 1993, but it was in 1994 when Dale had a full comeback and gain a new audience when “Miserlou” was chosen to be used in the film Pulp Fiction. In his 80s, Dick Dale, “King of the Surf Guitar”, is still rocking and putting on powerful live shows.