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RIP Dick Dale, King of Surf Guitar

March 17, 2019

 

 

Richard Anthony Monsour (May 4, 1937 – March 16, 2019) aka  Dick Dale died yesterday. He was nearing 82 yet still playing shows in LA last year (see below).  The guitar legend was made most famous by his song “Misirlou.”

 Randall Roberts in the LA Times says that 
“Misirlou” represented a cross-cultural blend, coupling minor key motifs and Middle Eastern musical scale with pounding drums and throbbing bass, all fueling Dale’s stinging “wet” electric guitar pyrotechnics. A section of the song featuring trumpet also brought in an element of the mariachi music that was prevalent around Southern California.
Ron Wells writes
I bought Misirlou, Surf Beat, and Let’s Go Trippin,” all on the Deltone label, when I was a kid because I loved surf music and yet had not heard anyone play the guitar like Dick Dale. He truly was the King of the Surf Guitar. 
According to Wells, “For awhile Dick Dale lived near the world famous Wedge where at one point he kept live tigers. Because I grew up in Southern California and have lived most of my life not far from the Wedge, I had the opportunity to see him play many times. He thrashed the hell out of his Fender guitars and amps and was a sight to behold on stage. And yet after his performances, he was easily accessible and signed many of those same Deltone records.” Wells points out that “Quentin Tarantino was smart enough to use Misirlou as the theme to his film, Pulp Fiction” and that  
Amazingly, this man who influenced so many other guitarists, is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When you check some of the people who are in, all you can ask is, “How could they leave out Dick Dale…..””
Below’s a complete set from a 2018 show in LA — when he was 81 years old:

Ron Wells selected these quotes from Dick Dale:
  • I met Leo Fender, who is the guru of all amplifiers, and he gave me a Stratocaster. He became a second father to me.
  • Hendrix was the bass player for Little Richard. We were both left-handed, but we would use a right-handed guitar held upside down and backwards. He developed my slides and my riffs. In fact he used to say, and this is documented, ‘I patterned my style after Dick Dale.’
  • I always wanted a guitar. I always wanted to be a cowboy singer because I also listened to Hank Williams, and he would always sing these neat romantic songs.
  • I make my guitar scream with pain or pleasure or sensuality. It makes people move their feet and shake their bodies. That’s what music does.
  • I may play the same songs night to night, but I never play them the same way. 
  • Springsteen – he’s the Lord God.
  • The ultimate guitar players can play every scale in the book.
  • Kids don’t see me as an oldies person when I go out on stage. They see me as an energy force.
  • The kids called me King of the Surf Guitar. I surfed sunup to sundown.
  • When I started surfing, you’d hear this neat rumbling sound when you took off and go for the drop, and when the wave is lipping up over the top of you, it makes this hissing sound.
  • I thought of Gene Krupa’s drumming, his staccato drumming. I went and put ‘Misirlou’ to that rhythm. 
  • The Stratocaster is like the Rolls-Royce. It can never be surpassed. 
  • I’ve never taken a lesson in my life, and I can play every instrument there is. I play by ear, but I can fool anybody into thinking I went to some conservatory of music.
  • As I’d go out learning to surf, I’d feel the power of waves coming over my body. It’s like you’re with God. 
Here’s a masterful live version of “Misirlou” from 1995
 

 

 I’ve been a fan of his music my whole life, and I heard Dick Dale live a few times. In the early 90s, I was swing dancing in a bar wearing a vintage 50’s dress, and I was cast to be in his  music video but scheduling didn’t work for my dance partner so we didn’t do it.  A few years ago, we heard Dick Dale play at a festival in Ventura, and he autographed one of his hats for my son who wore it proudly for quite some time. 
Some background on “Miserlou”
”Misirlou” is an old Greek rebetiko song; the word “Misirlou” means “Egyptian” and the song is about an Egyptian woman. People from Morocco to Iraq claim it to be a folk song from their own country.

According to Wikipedia, “The earliest known recording of the song was by the rebetiko musician Theodotos (“Tetos”) Demetriades (Greek: Θεόδοτος (“Τέτος”) Δημητριάδης) in 1927. Demetriades, an Ottoman Greek, was born in Istanbul, Ottoman Empire, in 1897, and he resided there until he moved to the United States in 1921,[3]during a period when most of the Greek speaking population fled the emerging Turkish state. It is likely that he was familiar with the song as a folk song before he moved to the United States. As with almost all early rebetika songs (a style that originated with the Greek refugees from Asia Minor in Turkey), the song’s actual composer has never been identified, and its ownership rested with the band leader.”

In 1944, Lebanese musician Clovis el-Hajj performed this song and called it “Amal”.  Dick Dale’s father and uncles were Lebanese-American musicians, and the story goes that “Dale was bet by a young fan that he could not play a song on only one string of his guitar…. Dale remembered seeing his uncle play “Misirlou” on one string of the oud.” He increased the tempo to make it more rock n roll.

To the King of the Surf Guitar who made us move our feet and shake our bodies,
Rest In Peace, Mr. Dick Dale
 
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