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Music Surfer, sound pioneer and guitarist Dick Dale dies at 81

Dick Dale performs at B.B. King Blues Club in New York on May 27, 2007.

The Associated Press

Dick Dale, who was known as the King of the Surf Guitar and recorded the hit song “Misirlou,” which was revived on the “Pulp Fiction” film soundtrack, died on March 16, 2019, in Loma Linda, California. He was 81.

His death, at Loma Linda University Medical Center, was confirmed by Joseph Gieniec, a longtime friend, who said Dale had been in treatment for heart and kidney failure.

Dale was a surfer, sound pioneer and guitarist whose unusual, percussive playing style and thick, thunderous music earned him the nickname the Father of Heavy Metal. He influenced the Beach Boys, the Cure, Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix, among others.

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Sam Bolle, a bassist who played with Dale’s namesake band, Dick Dale, for about 15 years, described him as an “aggressive and ferocious” musician who played like one of the lions Dale raised at his home.

“I played a gig with him about a month ago,” Bolle said. “He was still slaughtering people with volume.”

Dale was born Richard Monsour in Boston on May 4, 1937, to Sophia (Danksewicz) Monsour, known as Fern, and James Monsour. After learning how to play the ukulele, Dale developed a musical signature influenced by the traditions of his father, who was Lebanese, and his mother, who was from Eastern Europe, and by the flamboyant big-band drummer Gene Krupa.

After the family moved to Southern California in around 1955, Dale’s father quit his job at an aerospace and defense company to manage his son’s career. Monsour booked him in talent shows and movies, including a cameo as an Elvis Presley impersonator in the Marilyn Monroe movie “Let’s Make Love.”

But Dale became known for defining the sound of surf guitar as a musical expression of the elemental surge of the ocean, with its savage waves, its volatile crosscurrents and its tidal undertow. He played melodies that crisscrossed the beat with the determination of a surfer riding through choppy waves, forging a triumphant path above deep turbulence.

“Surf music is a heavy machine-gun staccato picking style to represent the power of Mother Nature, of our earth, of our ocean,” he told The New York Times in 1994. His almost constant tremolo created friction so intense that it melted his guitar picks and strings as he played.

“The staccato is so fast it heat-treats the strings,” he said. “They turn purple and black and they snap. And when I play, you’ll see a flurry of plastic — it just falls down like snow. I used to think it was dandruff. But I grind so hard that the guitar picks just melt down.”

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His quest for a sonic impact to match what he had felt while surfing also led to innovations that would change the technology of electric guitars and amplification.

Leo Fender, one of the electric guitar’s trailblazers, worked with Dale to create a guitar sturdy enough to withstand his style — Dale called it the Beast — and an 85-watt amplifier that could crank up loud enough to fill a dance hall.

“Leo and I went to Lansing Speaker,” Dale said in 1994, “and we said, ‘We need a speaker that will not burn, will not flex, will not twist, will not break.’”

In the fast-changing 1960s, instrumental surf rock reigned briefly on the charts, and the Beach Boys used it as one foundation of their pop songs. Dale’s brash playing also found fans in Jimi Hendrix and many other guitarists, and, decades later among a generation of indie-rockers, who prized his untamed sound.

Chris Darrow, a multi-instrumentalist who has been in the music industry for more than 50 years, first saw Dale perform at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach, California, in the early 1960s.

“The intensity and volume of the performances were such that the wooden building seemed to lift off the ground when he played,” Darrow said in an interview with music journalist Harvey Kubernik. “Until the Beatles came along, there was nothing that drove the audiences as wild like Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. He was boss.”

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“The only real surf guitarist for me is Dick Dale,” he added. “All the rest are imitators.”

In 1963, Dale’s music was catapulted onto a national stage when he performed “Misirlou,” an adaptation of a traditional Arabic song, on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The song re-entered the mainstream in 1994 as the opening anthem for Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster film “Pulp Fiction.”

Drummer Dusty Watson, who performed with Dale for more than a decade, said Dale had been sick for a while but that “he’s such a bull,” he thought he would “power through it.”

“He’s an incredible loss for music,” he said.

Dale’s survivors include his wife and manager, Lana Dale; his son, Jimmy; and his sister, Shirley Rudolph. His marriage to Jill Blackwill ended in divorce.

For years, Dale struggled with health issues, including bouts with rectal cancer and renal failure. But he performed through the illnesses.

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“Don’t worry about yesterday and don’t worry about tomorrow,” Dale told California Rocker, an online music publication, in 2015. “Don’t worry about yesterday because it’s used. It’s either good or it leaves you feeling bad. And don’t waste time or energy worrying about tomorrow.

“I could have a stroke and be dead. That’s why they call it the present. It’s a present.”

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