The “King of Surf Guitar” died on March 16 at age 81
Close your eyes and imagine a surfer shredding through the barrel of a teal-blue wave on a sun-lit day. If an image synonymous with Southern California culture is what pops into your mind, odds are good that Dick Dale’s 1962 hit “Misirlou” will start playing in your head to accompany it, an automatic reaction for many that speaks to how profoundly Dale’s music has permeated popular culture.
Dale, best known as the “King of Surf Guitar,” was born on May 4, 1937 in Boston, Mass., as Richard Anthony Monsour and died over the weekend at age 81. Though the cause of Dale’s death has not been confirmed at the time of this article’s publication, his passing is thought to be the result of ongoing health issues he’s struggled with in recent years, a list that includes rectal cancer, renal failure and diabetes. Dale continued performing despite it all—in part due to his sense of duty as one of guitar’s most influential players, but also because his medical costs required him to maintain an active touring schedule, a fact he first shared with Pittsburgh City Paper in 2015.
“Misirlou” was released as a single on Deltone Records in April 1962, and it remains Dale’s best known recording nearly 57 years later. Featuring the hypnotic reverb and rapid-fire picking for which Dale became known and a guttural rhythm likely inspired by Dale’s noted influence, jazz drummer Gene Krupa, “Misirlou” wasn’t the first surf rock song released to American audiences, but it was the most famous. Even Dale’s version wasn’t entirely original—it was an evolution of a song that was popular in the United States among audiences with Eastern Mediterranean heritage during the 1920s. After Dale brought “Misirlou” back to the airwaves, The Beach Boys were quick to record a version of their own for their 1963 album Surfin’ U.S.A., a move that reinforced the song’s ties to surf culture. The song has been covered by countless artists in the decades since and has appeared in several films and television shows, most notably Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic Pulp Fiction.
There’s a lot to be said for the influence “Misirlou” has had in music and culture, but it’s just one song of many that Dale recorded in his lifetime. Though Dale released the bulk of his musical material during the 1960s, the way he approached guitar playing impacted the trajectory of popular music on a much deeper level than a single song ever could. Surf music is often described as rhythmic and repetitive, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to play; on the contrary, Dale’s staccato picking—which television audiences across the U.S. got to see and hear when Dale appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963—gave guitar players a style to mimic and a performance level to aspire toward. In addition to the surf rock groups that followed in Dale’s wake during the 1960s, artists intrigued by his tight, fast style (including guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, who channeled Dale’s tremolo technique in his “Eruption” solo, and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who recorded a version of The Chantays’ surf rock classic “Pipeline” with Dale in the mid-1980s) sought to bring some of those elements into their own work.
Dale’s music could easily have been locked into the early 1960s, when the world was rapidly changing and music was on the verge of a revolution. But the strong connection between his most iconic songs and the culture of that moment enabled his musical style to transcend time. Those who live in Dale’s adopted Southern California know what it’s like to walk through a beach town as Dale’s music pours through the open windows of storefronts and restaurants, or as it plays in the background at surfing competitions, anointing the local culture’s next generation. Through his music, Dale created a sense of time, place and identity—and he will be sorely missed.