Dick Dale, who became known as “king of the surf guitar” with a twangy rapid-fire, reverb-heavy sound that he said recreated what he heard in his head while riding the waves, has died at 81, his former bass player Sam Bolle told Reuters.
Dale, whose work included the 1962 hit “Misirlou” that was featured in the film “Pulp Fiction,” died on Saturday night.
Dale’s music was one of the dominant sounds of Southern California’s car-and-beach culture in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. He was widely considered the creator of instrumental surf music and an influence on scores of noted bands and guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys and Eddie Van Halen.
The popularity of surf music faded in the United States with the advent of rock’s “British Invasion” but Dale would have a career revival that started in the 1990s.
Despite health problems that plagued him during every show, he was still performing in 2019, often with his son, guitarist-drummer Jimmy Dale.
He often said he kept performing because he wanted to “die onstage with an explosion of body parts.” But Dale also told interviewers he was on the road because he needed to earn $3,000 a month to pay medical expenses not covered by insurance after bouts with cancer, diabetes and back problems. He said he also liked to inspire people who might be having a tough time.
Dale said his fans from the beach gave him the title “king of the surf guitar” and his powerful breakneck-picking style was considered by many to be a forerunner of heavy metal music.
Hits by Dale and his band, the Del-Tones, included “Let’s Go Trippin’” and “Mr. Eliminator” and he was best known for “Misirlou,” a buzzing, fast-paced reworking of a folk song traced back to Greece and the Middle East.
Director Quentin Tarantino used “Misirlou” to set the pace and build tension early in “Pulp Fiction” and the song also popped up in other movies, television commercials and video games.
“Having ‘Misirlou’ as your opening credit, it’s just so intense,” Tarantino said in an interview featured in a special edition of the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack. “It just says you’re watching an epic, you’re watching a big ol’ movie … It just throws down a gauntlet that the movie now has to live up to.”
Dale was born Richard Monsour on May 4, 1937, into a Lebanese-Polish family in Boston and showed an early aptitude for a variety of musical instruments. The family moved to Southern California when he was a teenager and he developed a passion for surfing.
“I became addicted to the point where I would be out there from sunup to sundown,” Dale told Surfing magazine of his early days on the beach. “I wouldn’t do anything else.”
When it came to guitar, Dale was left-handed but created his signature sound on a right-handed Fender Stratocaster that he flipped over and essentially played upside down with extra-thick strings.
“What I was trying to do was actually capture the sound of being out in the ocean,” Dale told the Baltimore Sun. “When I’d be out there surfing, I could feel this thunderous sound. It was just like the screaming, the roar of the tiger. When I started banging on my guitar, I was trying to emulate that same sound – that fat, thick sound.”
Volume – lots of it – was a key component of the Dale sound and he liked to tell audiences that he was on stage “to make your ears bleed.”
Ground-breaking guitar manufacturer Leo Fender provided Dale with amplifiers in the 1960s but according to Dale’s count, he blew out more than 50 of them with his high-volume playing. Fender eventually came up with a heavy-duty amp that could handle the Dale sound, which would be a boon to the rock ‘n’ rollers who followed him.
Dale, who kept lions and tigers at his mansion for many years, did not drink, smoke or use drugs.
He was first diagnosed with rectal cancer in 1966, had a recurrence in 2008 and suffered kidney problems but continued to play.