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10 fascinating facts about Dick Dale, 'King of the Surf Guitar'

The surf legend has died at 81, but he lived a colourful life on his own terms

The surf legend has died at 81, but he lived a colourful life on his own terms

The surf legend may not have been a household name, but he influenced guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Brian May. (YouTube)

He was known as The King of Surf.

And while Dick Dale may not have been a household name in some circles, in the guitar and surf worlds he was a legend — a player credited with helping to pioneer everything from surf music to powerful Fender amps to pop music infused with Middle Eastern styles.

This weekend, Dale died from heart failure at 81 years old, but he leaves a remarkable legacy. To honour the late guitarist, who continued to perform well into his late 70s, we have gathered some fascinating facts and fabulous music.

His real name was Richard Anthony Monsour

Early in his career, Dale performed in local country bars, and a DJ named Texas Tiny reportedly suggested the moniker Dick Dale because he thought it would make a good name for a country singer. For a country or surf star, it definitely has a better ring than "Dick Monsour."

He played upside down and backwards

Dale regularly told the story of collecting bottles so he could buy his first ukulele for $6, and he came by his unique playing style honestly. "I held the ukulele upside-down when I first got it. You know, the book didn't say, 'Turn it the other way, stupid. You're left handed,'" he remembered in a 2011 interview. "And that's how I started playing upside-down backwards 'cause all my rhythm was in my left hand." Dale later bought an acoustic guitar for $8 by paying his friend 25 or 50 cents a week.

He was heavily influenced by Middle Eastern music

Dale was one of the first musicians to introduce Middle Eastern scales to Western pop music — Misirlou is among his many songs that have a distinct Arabic flare — and his fast picking style mimics the tarabaki, a Middle Eastern drum. Born in Boston to Lebanese parents, Dale grew up around his ancestors' music. "My uncle taught me how to play the tarabaki, and I watched him play the oud. We used to play at the Maharjan," said Dale, referencing a Lebanese nightspot in Boston, "while my relatives belly-danced."

He liked it loud. Really, really loud.

Dale was famous for liking his guitar loud — so loud, in fact, that he kept blowing out his Fender amps. So the guitarist worked with Leo Fender to create the first 100 watt amplifier. "Everything that came out of Leo Fender's head, I was his test pilot," Dale said in an interview. "He used to say: 'When it can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for human consumption.' So I blew up over 50 amplifiers. And that's why they call me the Father of Heavy Metal."

He raised exotic animals, and mimicked their sounds

Dale was passionate about animal preservation, and while his way of showing that concern may have been questionable, he raised exotic creatures — among them lions, tigers, leopards and eagles. At the same time, having relocated to California with his family, he surfed non-stop, and the sounds he picked up from both of those passions infused his music.

Guitarist Dick Dale with one of his exotic animals. Dale says that he mimicked the sounds of wild animals and surf in his music. (dickdale.com)

"When I play the guitar, I don't play scales. I make the beast scream with pain. Or pleasure," explained Dale in an interview. "I used to raise lions and tigers, and I'd imitate their screams. I started surfing, and when I'd be in the tube, I'd stick a finger in the wall of the wave and drag my ear on the wall. I'd hear tzzzzzzz!, so I'd make my guitar do the same. I'd also imitate the rumble of the surf — the sound I'd hear when I'd get sucked up and spit out."

Other musicians worshipped him

Rock legends from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and from the Beach Boys to Queen, revered Dick Dale and regularly named him as a central influence. "RIP Dick Dale - Father of the Surf Guitar. We all owe you. Rock on," wrote Queen guitarist Brian May on Instagram, after hearing the news of his death.

"I'm sorry to hear about Dick Dale passing," wrote Beach Boys guitarist Brian Wilson. "Dick's guitar playing was a big influence on all of us, and we covered Misirlou on our Surfin' USA album in '63. Love & Mercy to Dick's family."

A Quentin Tarantino film propelled Dale back into the limelight

By 1994, surf rock had receded into niche territory and grunge had gone mainstream, but Dale's popularity skyrocketed once again following the release of the groundbreaking 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, where Dale's hit Misirlou was used in the unforgettable opening scene.

"Having Misirlou as your opening credit, it's just so intense," Tarantino told Rolling Stone. "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." 

[Warning: strong language and violence]

Then in the 2000s, a Black Eyed Peas song did it again

In 2005, another generation of music fans got introduced to Dale's classic sound through the dance-pop group the Black Eyed Peas, whose song Pump It heavily referenced Misirlou and sold millions of copies. Rapper will.i.am says he was in Brazil working on an album, and stumbled on the song when he accidentally bought the wrong compilation album.

"The Dick Dale song Misirlou was on it. At first I was angry — this isn't what I wanted to buy — but then I thought, this song is hot. I said, 'We should do a song like this,'" he remembered in an interview. "I jump-started the computer and made some beats on the train. Then we had to fly to Tokyo and I tightened up the beat on the plane. Then I recorded vocals in this park in Tokyo. And that's how we recorded the song, Pump It."

Late in life he toured to stay alive

In 2015, when Dale was 78 years old, the guitar legend was still touring, but it wasn't only because he lived music: according to Dale, stepping off the road would be lethal. "I can't stop touring because I will die," Dale famously said in an interview. "Physically and literally, I will die."

He wasn't joking, either: Dale had endured two bouts of rectal cancer, underwent multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, and relied on continued treatment, leading to sky-high medical bills and insurance costs. "Sure, I'd love to stay home and build ships in a bottle and spend time with my wife in Hawaii, but I have to perform to save my life," said Dale, whose wife Lana also suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. "I've been living like this for the past 15 years, but I'm still here and opening my eyes each morning."

He wasn't afraid of dying

For the last several years of his life, Dale was in excruciating pain and wore a colostomy bag, but the guitarist would doggedly continue — not only for the money, but to satisfy his fans. He would tell reporters that when he died he wanted to be "on stage in an explosion of body parts." As terrifying as that sounds, Dale was not afraid of death.

"You tell the people, 'Don't be scared of dying,'" he told one reporter. "When your mind leaves this body, it is a beautiful thing and it is not to be feared. Don't let that fear of dying affect the way you live. You take that fear and you use it as a driving force to keep moving forward, no matter how much pain you have. That's how I do what I do on stage," he said. "I'm not afraid to die because it all gets beautiful from here."

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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