To me, one of the interesting things about the enjoyment of music is exploring how we came to appreciate a particular artist or even a genre, because it often turns on something that in retrospect seems almost trivial.
A few years back, when I first watched Quentin Tarantino’s landmark movie, Pulp Fiction, I was stunned early in the film by a distinctive thrumming, driving electric guitar piece. I thought I’d heard it before but my memory is not always too reliable so I couldn’t be sure. I later did some investigation and discovered that the song was Dick Dale’s extraordinary “Misirlou”.
I have to confess that I really don’t remember much about Dick Dale and the Del-Tones from when they first hit the pop music scene. As I’ve written before, I was mostly into jazz and swing music at that time, and although I’d been exposed to early rock all through the fifties, it was more rockabilly and blues-based. If I noticed the beginnings of “surf rock” or “California beach music” at all, it was likely that I dismissed it as anything for serious listening.
Of course, I gradually became aware of the genre as groups such as the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and others emerged in the early sixties and began to take over the airwaves, but I still didn’t pay it a lot of attention. And I certainly didn’t realize at the time how special Dick Dale would be to guitarists who followed, or that he was probably the guy who started it all.
It’s ironic that he could never surf worth a darn himself, but was so fascinated by the sport that he attempted to recreate the power and feel with his guitar playing. The result combined his artistry on the instrument with his introduction of guitar reverb – which became a staple of the surf sound – and received its final touch with his distinctive fast staccato picking.
From a modest early beginning in the late fifties, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones began to make their fame performing to huge crowds in the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, and that began their rise to a success that included all the usual trimmings, including record sales, tours, and the obligatory appearance on Ed Sullivan. The Del-Tones were always pretty much a semi-anonymous backup – Dick was the star and the driving force, and as time passed and his health problems surfaced, the group soon dissolved.
Dick has continued to perform off and on to this day, as a solo and with other groups, although his musical career has gotten sidetracked occasionally for illness and other interests. Born Richard Anthony Mansour, he has reached almost mythic status through the years, and the list of things attributed to him almost boggles the mind — but sometimes my mind is easily boggled, so I’ll just relate some of them and let you decide for yourself.
- Known as the “King of Surf Music”, his music was used in four of Frankie and Annette’s beach movies.
- In the late sixties, he underwent the removal of six tumors and was given three months to live. He survived.
- An animal lover, his real ambition has always been to be a zoo director, and he’s had many animals of all kinds through the years. In fact, he once lost a beloved lion pet and it hit him so hard he nearly died too.
- He’s so good at karate that he qualifies as an instructor.
- Not only was “Misirlou” used in Pulp Fiction, it was also later heavily sampled by the Black Eyed Peas for their song “Pump It”.
- It’s said that he blew through over 40 amps until the Fender company finally designed a brand new model that’s still in use. He also worked for years with the company on the design of guitars, including the Stratocaster.
- Being completely self-taught and a left-handed guitarist, Dale didn’t realize that he should have restrung the guitar in the opposite order. Instead, he taught himself to play it – in effect – upside down, which makes his virtuosity even more amazing.
- In addition to his electric guitar artistry, Dale is also said to be skilled on every other kind of guitar, as well as the ukulele, banjo, drums, piano, organ, keyboard, harpsichord, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, harmonica, xylophone and… the accordion!
I’m including two samples that show a couple of different sides of Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. The first is the song that’s said to have started the whole beach music thing, 1961’s “Let’s Go Trippin'”. That’s followed by a song Dick re-recorded in 1975 from his original, a tune that will remind you a lot of “Misirlou”. It’s called “Night Rider”.
You can find several different albums available, but these are from Dick Dale and the Del-Tones Greatest Hits 1961-1975, which contains 21 cuts, some original early sixties recordings and others redone by Dick in the mid-seventies. All sound very good and showcase his talent.