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Volume 49, Number 2March/April 1998

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The Sultan of Surf

Written by George Baramki Azar

It’s nearly 10 p.m. the warm-up band as finished, and the house is packed at Slims, one of San Francisco's hipper nightspots. A man walks onstage carrying a battered electric guitar. He is clearly more than three times the age of many in his young, svelte audience. His powerful frame shows signs of pudge, and with his thinning hair pulled back into a ponytail, he looks more like a stagehand than a rocker. Despite what I know about his place in music history, I cringe for a moment and hope he's not about to embarrass himself.

With no more ceremony than the tapping of his foot to signal a beat to his three-man band, he tears into a guitar solo so breathtakingly wild—yet so carefully disciplined—that one can't help acknowledging at once the presence of a master artist. For the next hour he holds the delirious house captive with his blazing, ear-pounding sound. After the show, I overhear a young man marvel, "I never knew this was how rock was supposed to sound!"

Musical pioneer and electric-guitar I virtuoso Dick Dale is the most influential Arab-American in us musical history. He is not a household name, though he has been hailed by music critics for four decades. In the late 1950's and early 1960's, Dale mixed Middle Eastern rhythms and motifs with the emerging rockabilly and rhythm-and-blues styles, and added his own electric-guitar style that had grown out of southern California's beach culture. The result was an enduring pop subgenre: surf music.

"I was trying to capture the vibration and pulsification I felt while I was surfing," says Dale, who by his late teens was an expert surfer as well as a budding musician. "When I was playing, that feeling of power was simply transferred from me into my guitar. One day I just started picking faster and faster, like a locomotive. I wanted to make it sound harder and more powerful."

Characterized by a heavy bottom sound, strong rhythms and nearly constant staccato guitar picking, surf caught on, and in the first years of the 1960's captivated young people across the nation who eagerly embraced the romance of southern California. In 1963, both Time and Life ran features on "The King of the Surf Guitar," and Dale appeared as an opening act on the Ed Sullivan Show, where so many other '60's pop stars made their television debuts. The song he played that night was his adaptation of "Miserlou," an Arab-American song that first became popular in the 1930's, and whose name comes from misr, the Arabic word for Egypt. But "Miserlou" would have to wait 30 years to become a major hit, for after 1963, Dale—along with much of the us pop scene—was eclipsed by the rise of the Beatles and the rest of the "British invasion."

But over the past decade and a half, surf music has enjoyed a renaissance, and so has the man who created it. Between 1979 and 1982, a modest surf revival prompted bands in the United States and overseas to develop Dale-like sounds and styles. In 1993, Dale released Tribal Thunder, his first album in nearly two decades. It garnered surprising airplay on college radio stations.

Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino was one of those who noticed the album. He liked the style, and reached back three decades to revive Dale's "Miserlou" as the opening soundtrack for Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction. When the film took an Oscar and later won "best picture" from mtv, Dale found himself surfing the biggest wave of popularity—and sales—he'd seen in 31 years. Soon afterward, mtv adopted another Dale tune, "Mr. Eliminator," as its theme music. Today, at age 60, Dale is playing to sell-out crowds across the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan and South America.

On a quiet afternoon at his desert ranch I outside Twentynine Palms, California, Dale reflects on his musical roots.

"My music comes from the rhythm of Arab songs," he says. "I applied the beat of the darbukkah (fluted drum) to my guitar. This is where a lot of great surf motifs originated." He tilts his head back and demonstrates, "Doom ti-ta ti-ta, doom ti-ta ti-ta, doom ti-ta ti-ta.... The darbukkah, along with the wailing style of Arab singing, especially the way they use the throat, creates a very powerful force."

Powerful indeed. Dale's staccato picking drives heat-treated blue-steel guitar strings so thick that music critics call them "bridge cables," six to 10 times heavier than those other guitarists play. The "cables" deepen Dale's bottom tones, and he sends all his notes through extraordinarily powerful amplifiers—which he helped design—to create his distinctively enormous, visceral sound. Dale's take-no-prisoners attack on the strings literally shreds guitar picks, too—"six or seven in a song," he says with a shrug. By the end of a performance they lie piled on the floor like wood chips at the feet of a lumberjack.

"Dick Dale is the stuff of legend," wrote Los Angeles Times music critic Mike Boehm. That Dale also plays his guitars "wrong"—left-handed, but without reversing the strings—and uses them more as percussion instruments than melody-makers, only adds to his mystique.

"I play sounds of mother nature," he says. "Frustration, pain, anger, soothing, ecstasy, screaming—you name it. I play to grassroots people and that's why I count all my songs on the one-beat, because that's the rhythm you find in the darbukkah and in dances around the world. Go to a Dick Dale show and you'll find all kinds of people, leather-jacket and alternative-rock types along with college professors who've brought their seven-year-old kids to hear the guy Daddy liked back in the '60's."

Dale was born Richard Mansour in Boston in 1937, the son of an immigrant family from the Koura district of northern Lebanon. He was surrounded by music from an early age, and the darbukkah and the 'ud (the fretless ancestor of the lute) both made lasting impressions on him.

It was shortly after his family moved to southern California in the mid-1950's, Dale recalls, that a 400-pound disc jockey named T. Texas Tiny also made a lasting impression. "You can't have a name like Richard Mansour," the DJ said. "You'll be spending all day signing it. Why don't we just call you Dick Dale? That's a good ol' country name."

The list of distinguished musicians whom Dale's style has influenced is a veritable Who's Who of '60's pop: Jimi Hendrix; the Beach Boys; the Righteous Brothers; Jan and Dean; Keith Moon; Eric Clapton; and, of course, legions of local surf bands.

"I first saw Jimi Hendrix when he was playing bass for Little Richard in Pasadena in 1960 or '61. He was a quiet person who used to come to my dances and ask me, 'How do you do this? How do you do that?' The Beach Boys used to come to my dances as little kids, too. My dad used to give them 50 dollars to open for me. The Rolling Stones opened for me, too, when they first came to the States. So did Sonny and Cher."

But Dale's influence extends beyond his musicianship. In the late 1950's and early 1960's Dale also worked with the legendary guitar designer Leo Fender to develop the Fender Stratocasters, which became the definitive rock-and-roll guitars. All-around instruments known for their clean, cutting sound, "Strats" today still set the standard on stage, four decades after their debut. While the low-end Strats begin at $175, at the top of the line is a Dick Dale Edition that lists for $2500.

The Dale-Fender collaboration also produced one of the world's finest amplifiers, which Dale himself uses. "I was playing and the crowds were getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and the sound wasn't making it," Dale remembers of his early shows. "I kept blowing up amps. Speakers would smoke and catch fire because I was driving them so hard. So one night, after I had blown up over 48 speakers and amplifiers, Leo Fender finally came down and, standing in the middle of 4000 people, he says, 'Now I know what Dick Dale has been trying to tell me. Back to the drawing board.' He went on to design an amp that was so powerful the people at JBL [speaker company] thought we were crazy—they thought it was overkill. This amp was called the Showman, and when I plugged my guitar into it"—Dale pauses and grins—"I broke the sound barrier." Today, the Dick Dale Dual Showman Amplifier, like the Strat, may be 40-plus years old, but it is still prized by musicians for the purity of its sound.

It was also in the early 1960's that Dale helped develop the electric-guitar reverb unit. Its impressionistic, "wet" sound—like echoes of water droplets in a deep well—was easy to identify with water, the ocean and, with a little imagination, surfing. Today, state-of-the-art reverbs come with a dial for a wide variety of tonal settings; the surf-sound setting is simply marked "Dick Dale."

Today, as his career thunders along, fueled by the MTV generation, Dale finds most of his young fans have little knowledge of his former glories in the early days of surf. Almost nobody, he says, knows of the connection between his style and the music that was popular in a village in northern Lebanon at the turn of the century.

"I'm playing songs on stage that I learned as a child. The traditional way is a little mundane, so I experiment a little, but so much of my music has that neat sound, that Middle Eastern flavor," he says. "It's funny, but when I sing or play Arab-style on stage, nobody in the audience knows what I'm doing, but to be up there and see 50,000 people going crazy—wow! I still get chills thinking about it."

Free-lance photojournalist George Baramki Azar has been listening to surf music for longer than he is willing to admit, though he says he was too young to appreciate Dick Dale in the early 1960's. Azar is the author of Palestine: A Photographic Journey (University of California Press) and lives, of course, in California. He can be reached at www.azar.org.

This article appeared on pages 20-23 of the March/April 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1998 images.