Surf guitar king Dick Dale riding rougher waves in his 70s

The King of Surf Guitar, Dick Dale, at his desert ranch near Joshua Tree. The 73-year old musician is back with a new greatest hits collection and is about to kick off his 'Electric Acoustic' tour.
The King of Surf Guitar, Dick Dale, at his desert ranch near Joshua Tree. The 73-year old musician is back with a new greatest hits collection and is about to kick off his 'Electric Acoustic' tour. Steven Cuevas/KPCC

Fifty years ago, Dick Dale’s guitar rumble was a clarion call to would-be surfers coast to coast. Now, the King of Surf Guitar is back with a new collection of greatest hits — and despite recent health problems, the 73-year old musician is about to hit the road again.

At his home, far way from the wild surf that once inspired his music, Dick Dale barrels through an interview like one of his sun-drenched staccato guitar riffs.

Leaning back in the living room of his 80-acre ranch near Joshua Tree, he darts from topic to topic — from his unconventional picking style, to spirituality, to rubbing shoulders with the celebrities who’d drop by the Rendezvous Ballroom on the Balboa Pier in 1962 to check out the hot young lefthanded guitar slinger.

“Little Richard, he’d say, ‘Oh Dick Dale! You have luscious lips!’ With Jimi, with Hendrix, when he was playing bass for Little Richard in a bar in Pasadena to 30 people, he’d come and see me and I’d show him these slides,” recalls Dale. “He was left handed but he couldn’t play the way I was playin’.”

No one could. For starters, Dale played louder. He needed big amplification to fill the cavernous Rendezvous Ballroom. He got it with the help of electric guitar and amplifier pioneer Leo Fender.

“The Einstein of guitar and amplifiers! He made the first 85-watt output transformer peaking 100 watts. I wanted to get as loud as I could because the people’s bodies were soaking up the bass resonance. Leo had a saying: ‘When the guitar and amp can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for human consumption.’”

The hallmark of Dale’s barrage is a frenetic, percussive picking style that requires the heaviest gauge strings available. It’s a sound inspired by a love of big animals, big drums and big waves.

“When I was surfing, I would get that rumble sound. And at the same time, I was raising 40 different exotic animals. So when my mountain lion, he’d go, ‘Waaah!’ I’d imitate that on my guitar. When my African Lion wanted to be fed, he’d go, ‘Ooowwwahhhhrrrgh!’ They were matching the sounds of what you go through when on a 15-foot wave.”

In the early ’60s Dale’s popularity was roaring. Fans dubbed him “King of the Surf Guitar.” A profile in Life magazine led to an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Dick Dale & The Del Tones play 'Misirlou.'

Dale rode a tidal wave of success into 1964. But by 1965, surf music was wiped out by the British Invasion and new sounds coming from these shores. On his 1967 debut LP, one of Dale’s own protégées, Jimi Hendrix, signaled the end.

Music fans never would hear from the Rendezvous Ballroom again. It burned down in 1966. Dale’s gigs dried up, too. So did the hits. Then came worst news: cancer at the age of 27.

“They cut 14 inches out of my rectal tract; six tumors and seven cysts. I went down to about 90 pounds and I said, ‘See ya later!’ And they said, ‘See ya later!’”

Dale beat cancer, took up martial arts and moved to the desert — away from the surf and the music business.

A new wave of attention hit when Quentin Tarantino used “Miserlou” to drive his 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” Several powerful comeback albums followed. But so did another bout of cancer two years ago. Dale didn’t want to face the doctors again — but he did. The day after this interview, he was scheduled for a follow-up surgery.

“And when I have pain now I say, ‘Yeah, you have no idea what the pain was back then!’ So, you deal with it, you deal with it. When you fall in a bucket of (expletive deleted) tell yourself it’s perfume cause you might have to stay awhile,” he says with a laugh.

“I’m not gonna die in some rocking chair. I will play that guitar until I blow up on stage.”

Dick Dale’s new album “Guitar Legend: The Very Best of Dick Dale,” is out now. He kicks off his “Electric Acoustic” tour this weekend with shows in Covina and Orange County.

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