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
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.