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Cresting a New Wave : Dick Dale, Family Man and Surf Guitar King, Is Ready to Ride


"I could give (animals) love and affection. Maybe it's what I didn't get from my parents. But they were busy working to stay alive. Now, with my son, I hug him and tell him I love him every day, and take him with me wherever I go," he said.

Dale recalls that his first musical instrument was his mother's set of kitchen-storage canisters, which he banged on with knives. He earned a licking for this early experiment in rhythm. He picked up the piano, played trumpet in a school band and, inspired by Hank Williams, whom he says he once sneaked into Boston Garden to see, took up the guitar.

Dale's father was a machinist and inventor who held a succession of jobs, usually more than one at a time. In 1954, he got a job at Hughes Aircraft and moved the family to Los Angeles. There, Dale finished high school and began playing professionally on the local country circuit (he got his stage name from a country disc jockey who suggested that Richard Monsour wouldn't do).

But as Dale progressed on the guitar, he began experimenting with the Middle Eastern music he'd heard played on the oud at family celebrations on the Lebanese side, and the Gene Krupa-inspired beats he'd heard on big-band records.

The result was the driving, dramatic surf-guitar sound.

As he began to draw crowds at the Rendezvous Ballroom, Dale became a guinea pig for Leo Fender. Through a process of trial and error that Dale says involved 48 blown-up amplifiers, the Fullerton-based guitar innovator tailored an amp, the Fender Showman, that could deliver the massive sound Dale sought.

Dale was a big draw in Southern California, but he remained largely a cult artist elsewhere. His biggest hit, "Let's Go Trippin,' " from 1961, only reached No. 60 on the Billboard singles chart.

Dale signed to Capitol Records but made only one brief trip to the East Coast, to play on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and perform at venues in Virginia, New Jersey and New York.

Looking back, Dale says he lacked two things necessary to make him a national star: business muscle and high ambition.

"If I would have had the right promotion team, we would've been as big as the Beatles," said Dale, who is not reluctant to put his career in a magnified light. (According to one longtime associate, Steve Soest, Dale may not be a modest man, but he is "a real genuine person who lets you know exactly what he is. He's got a lot of ego, and a lot of people read it wrong.")

"My dad was the manager," Dale continued, "and he really didn't understand the makings of show biz. He would get me gigs, and make sure I didn't get in trouble. All I cared about was playing on weekends and surfing all week.

"For me, music was only a facet of my life," he said. "I never looked at it to become an Elvis Presley. I'd rather be a Jack-of-all-trades than master of one. If I became an icon, where my whole life was music, I would probably have become a vegetable. I wouldn't be able to have all these talents I have today and be an interesting 'character.' "

By 1965, with singing British invading and Beach Boys harmonizing, the wave had crested and broken for Dale's instrumental surf rock. As musical styles changed against him, Dale says, his father "wanted me to really bear down, put my nose to the grindstone and be a real top professional entertainer.

"My dad knew the bills had to be paid, and I was more interested in surfing and playing with my lions and tigers. My parents wanted the best for me; my father saw I had a talent, and we would get into arguments about where I should play and how I should play and when I should play," he said. "I was saddened because I was hurting my mother and father, and I was going through tremendous turmoil."

Dale said the stress led to a heart attack in 1966, when he was still in his late 20s. Shortly after that, he underwent surgery for rectal cancer.

Dale then moved to Hawaii, "feeling sorry for myself and wanting to get away from everything." He says his father visited Hawaii during that period to see whether he was all right, and found him playing in a small bar for $20 a night. "My father goes, 'You're belittling yourself, playing in this bar for peanuts.' I went, 'But Pa, I like it.' "

By the early '70s, Dale was back in California with a wife, Jeannie, who had been a Tahitian dancer in Hawaii. They started a musical revue that played locally and on the Las Vegas-Reno-Lake Tahoe resort circuit.

In a publicity shot from the early '70s, reprinted in Robert J. Dalley's book, "Surfin' Guitars," the couple appears to be patterned after Sonny and Cher--with Dale in long hair, bell-bottoms and showy psychedelic shirt.

Dale and his wife also invested in nightclubs and real estate. Soon enough, he was riding high with a fortune made on investments.

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