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Dick Dale
Interview by Lee Sobel
(c) Cool Culture Magazine #1, 2001

Lee Sobel: Your career has had some phenomenal ups and downs and you’ve

accomplished so much. As a young man living in Southern California in the late

1950's how did you come to be a self-taught guitar player and major cult figure?

Dick Dale: I was born in ’37. I always wanted to be a cowboy singer, and I loved

Hank Williams. I was raised on big band music. I got all my rhythm stuff from

Gene Krupa’s drumming. It was the depression and I didn't have any money

and I saw in the back of a magazine if you sold enough jars of Noxema skin

cream you could get a ukulele. I used to bang on all the neighbors’ doors selling

                                                        until I got the ukulele -- it was green with a picture of a cowboy and a horse on it.

                                                        But it was cardboard and the pegs fell out. I was so mad I smashed it to bits. So I                                                                went and got Coca Cola bottles and pulled them in my Red Ryder wagon and                                                                      cashed ’em in and got about six dollars. With that I bought a plastic ukulele and got                                                            a book to make chords. But the book didn’t say, Turn it the other way, stupid, you’re l                                                            left handed. I couldn’t understand why my fingers wouldn’t stretch the way they were                                                          supposed to. One day I was picking swamp berries with a friend of mine and we                                                                came across this house and there were ten guys playing guitars and singing the                                                                  blues. This one guy had a flattop guitar he was selling but he wanted seven dollars.                                                            All I had was fifty cents in my pocket which I gave him and he told me to give him                                                                another fifty cents every week. When I got the guitar it seemed so big because all I                                                              had played was a ukulele and the guitar had six strings and I was like, what am I going to do with these two extra strings? The guy told me to play it the same way I played the ukulele but just muffle the two strings and that's how I played for a long time, just muffling two strings. I developed a style of strumming I called ruckatuck to give it a fat sound. That was the beginning of Dick Dale playing guitar.

Lee Sobel: When did you move to California?

Dick Dale: I came to Los Angeles, California in 1954 after I graduated from the

eleventh grade in Massachusetts. My dad was a precision machinist and he

went to  work for Hughes Aircraft. He bought a brand new ’54 Oldsmobile 88

and we drove cross-country to California. My mom, my dad and my sister who

was five years younger than me. My mom saw all this smog and thought the

world was to coming to an end and  wanted to go back to Massachusetts. Me

and my buddies created a motorcycle club , The Sultans of Southwest L.A.,

and there was a big ballroom called the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa,

California where Stan Kenton had played big band music which held 4000

people and we went down there and a school was having a graduation and

had a horn band playing. I had my guitar with me and I lied and said I was

Dick Dale and I'd just flown in from Massachusetts to play during intermission.

He said, "Dick who?" I just bullshitted him and sounded so convincing. We asked

the band to back me and they said, "Shit no we're on our break" but the drummer helped me out. So I got onstage and                                                      these girls were lindy-hopping and they ran to the stage because they liked the sound I                                                      was playing. But they wouldn’t hire string bands at the Rendezvous because back then                                                      rock and roll was considered the Devil’s music. You couldn’t get permits for this kind of                                                        music. But my dad and I went to the owners of the Rendezvous Ballroom and asked if                                                        we could get a permit would they let me perform and they said yeah. So my dad and I                                                        had secret meetings with the city council, fire department, chief of police, the City                                                                Fathers. We used to do it at night because no one wanted anyone to know what we were                                                    meeting about. So I said wouldn't you rather have the kids inside a building than on the                                                      street? And they said, well if you're going to have them all in that building they better                                                          have ties! At that time I was surfing everyday and who ever heard of surfers wearing                                                           ties? So my dad bought a box of ties and the kids came in in their bare feet and their ties. The first audience was the seventeen kids I surfed with.

There was no such thing as heavy rock back then so I

blew up 50 speakers. They were only six inch speakers

back then. The kids were stomping and said I was the

king and they named me “King of the Surf Guitar.” I

remembered “Misirlou” from when I was a kid; it's an

old Arabic song, it means “The Egyptian.” I started

playing with a Gene Krupa stylev rhythm. When I play

guitar, the bass and drums play the same line so it

sounds like a bigger band. No matter how fast I do

my runs they are always in syncopation. I can't even play a scale; I don't know what a scale is. Within a month we had                                                                                    4000 kids coming to the show. Life Magazine ran a two page spread on                                                                                me. Ed Sullivan got hold of that and we were the first rock band to play                                                                                on the Sullivan show. You know Sullivan dove on a grenade in the war                                                                                  and it messed up his spine which is why he stood like he did. He                                                                                           Would hold his elbow in the palm of one hand while the other hand                                                                                        would be holding his chin, that was to ease the pain in his spine from                                                                                    the shrapnel. He would never walk out to the center stage; he would                                                                                    always stay to the side by the curtains. On the show with me were Kate                                                                                Smith. Sonny Liston just before he was going to fight Cassius Clay and                                                                                The Three Stooges. The band had to be off stage or they would have                                                                                    had to pay more money so it was really hard for me to hear. We could                                                                                  only do one song so I mixed “Misirlou” and a couple of other songs. He                                                                                got so excited he came over to shake my hand. But he walked off                                                                                        camera because he never moved before that. It was the first time in history he ever did that and you could see the shadow on the curtain of him shaking my hand. Then he walked back onto camera. After that he started addressing the bands like The Beatles and Elvis. When I played the David Letterman Show I told Letterman I had been there before.

Lee Sobel: How did you meet Leo Fender?

Dick Dale: I met him at his shop. Leo Fender handed

me the Stratocaster guitar he'd just completed. I was

holding it upside down and backwards and he just

started laughing. He was a guy who never laughed.

Lee Sobel: How did you came to be in the beach

party movies?

Dick Dale: Annette Funicello was getting ready to

make “Beach Party” and said, we’ve got to get Dick

Dale. So they called up my dad and Annie (Annette) and I became very close and our families became close. We                                                                                                  became sweethearts and our families wanted us to get married.                                                                                            Annie was a great person but I went for all the beach girls. They                                                                                            had better tans. I surfed every day and I was kind of a rebel then.                                                                                          “Beach Party” made more money than “Cleopatra.” I did “Muscle                                                                                          Beach Party” but when they were making “Beach Blanket Bingo”                                                                                          they didn't want to pay any more money so that was that, my dad                                                                                          said no. I also appeared in “Back to the Beach.” The first movie I                                                                                          did was “Let's Make Love” with Marilyn Monroe. It was four weeks                                                                                        work, but if you blinked you missed me in the movie. I played an                                                                                            Elvis impersonator.

                                                                                      Lee Sobel: Did you hang out with anyone else from the beach                                                                                                party movies?

Dick Dale: I was a loner. The only one I hung out with was Annie. We all got

along but when I was done I was done. I didn't go to parties. I didn't

drink. I was more into breeding animals. Even musicians I didn't really

hang out with because they drank and I didn't. I still don't hang out with


Lee Sobel: What were shooting conditions like on the beach party movies?

Dick Dale: It was always hurry up and wait. In fact I was always out there

surfing and they would have to go get me. They shot them right on the

beach in Malibu.

Lee Sobel: Anything strange happen during the shooting?

Dick Dale: Yeah, this girl who was an onlooker got hit in the head with a

surfboard. I paddled out to get her and as I was bringing her in another

board hit me in the head. The both of us had to be brought in. They took

me to the hospital and when I came back some bastard had broken into

my car, a gremmie, that's why I wrote the song “Death of A Gremmie,” and he stole this beautiful diamond ring I had just bought. I never got it back and I had to make payments on it for three years.

                                                                                         Lee Sobel: Why do you think the beach movies were so                                                                                                         successful?

                                                                                         Dick Dale: Because they depicted cleanliness. We used to leave                                                                                           our boards on the beach and nobody would steal them. There                                                                                               was like an honor code with everybody. The movies were great                                                                                             and so much fun. The worst thing anybody was doing was                                                                                                     drinking beer or T-Bird. Nobody did drugs. It was a very clean                                                                                               era.

                                                                                         Lee Sobel: Did you write any of the songs in the movies?

                                                                                         Dick Dale: No, they had industry people like Gary Usher writing                                                                                             the songs and they would just call me in and say here are the songs to do. The songs weren't me for damn sure. They'd record these songs

in a key that was too high. Even my own recordings I was never happy with

because they couldn't capture my sound.  I used to throw the records

against the wall, I hated them.

Lee Sobel: How were Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson to deal with?

Dick Dale: They were nice. Nicholson had a beautiful home with a

theatre in it and he would show the movies in it to everybody.

Lee Sobel: As a member of early 60's rock and roll, how did you feel

when the British invasion got so much attention?

Dick Dale: When the Beatles came I stopped playing. I was playing a

show and we put up TVs so we could see them on Ed Sullivan. The Rolling

Stones opened up for Dick Dale when they first came to California.

Lee Sobel: Can you describe how surf music captured the sound of the sea? 

Dick Dale: It sounded more like the roar of my lions and tigers. Then when I surfed every day it would come from the rumble of the roar when you're in a bottom turn and a wave comes over the top and you can hear the wisping. If they didn't call it surf they would have called it King of the jungle because it sounds like the scream of an elephant. (high pitched) Awwwwww! Like that. I hate to call it surf music because it all sounds like the cries of the jungle.

                                              Lee Sobel: How did you come to be involved in Pulp Fiction and what were your dealings                                                    with Quentin Tarantino like?

                                              Dick Dale: He came to one of my shows and told me he was my biggest fan and he told me                                                that “Misirlou” was a masterpiece, like “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Like “Ben Hur” --                                             his words. He said he would love to have my permission to use the song. He said most                                                      people look for music to fit their movie but he does it the opposite. He gets the music first.                                                  He gets the energy from the song and then creates the movie around the song. I said go                                                    for it, pal. He got on a plane and flew to Amsterdam. And this is pure karma. Dick Dale is                                                    like Elvis in Amsterdam. We were

the only group to be flown over and asked to play at the Royal

Palace with a classical orchestra. Quentin locked himself in

the same hotel I stayed at and wrote the script. I got a call a

while later and was invited to Universal Studios to see the

screening and all of a sudden I hear “I’m gonna kill everyone

of you motherfuckers” and eeeeeeer! ‘Misirlou’ hit me in the

face. I said ho-lee shit! The movie was done so masterfully,

I couldn't stop laughing. The movie did over $300 million,

it won the Cannes film festival award. It gave John Travolta

the biggest break of his life -- look at all the movies he's done

since. Tarantino and Travolta got the last laugh. That movie

took Dick Dale and made me able to play in front of 500,000 people in one concert.

                                                             Lee Sobel: Tell me about how you met Jimi Hendrix and how he came to say his                                                                   famous line about surf music...

                                                             Dick Dale: While he was recording, he heard that I didn't show up for a gig and                                                                   said in the studio Dale did a no show.... and I had never missed a gig in my life                                                                   until then. One of the musicians then said, Dale's dying, because he had heard                                                                   that the doctors told me I had three months to live before my operation. So Jimi                                                                   dedicated the only instrumental non vocal song he had ever done to me by                                                                         saying, “You will never hear surf music again.” So that's why I dedicated it back to                                                               him on my CD by saying, ‘Jimi, I'm still here...wish you were...”

                                                             Lee Sobel: You play a right-handed guitar left-handed and upside down. Does                                                                     anyone else do that?

                                                             Dick Dale: There is one jazz player who does that. He died. I once hired Barney                                                                   Kessel, one of the greatest jazz players of all time to play on one of my albums.                                                                   Barney looked at me and started laughing and said to me, “Dick Dale, if you'd

only turn that guitar over the right way and string it the right way you'd be the greatest guitarist in the world.” I said back, if it ain't broke why fix it...that’s the only way I know how to play. 

Dick Dale passed away on March 16, 2019.

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