Surfers’ Choice: The Innovation and Triumph of Dick Dale

Featured Image by xrayspx via Flickr

In 1962, an album was released that encapsulated a sound that became known as the “surf/rock” sound and, through its success, introduced this sound to Middle America in the early 1960’s, thanks in part to the popularizing of televisions in homes and portable transistor radios in the previous decade, allowing music to be heard everywhere in the nation. Dale and his band performed the song “Misirlou” on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Dick says “I still remember the first night we played it. I changed the tempo, and just started cranking on that mother.  And, it was eerie.  The people came rising up off the floor, and they were chanting and stomping,”

The album by surf/rock music/guitar pioneer-legend Dick Dale and his Del Tones was called Surfers’ Choice and was birthed from its namesakes, with Dick spending his days surfing and coming up with guitar riffs at night inspired from it.

Dick drew from the experiences of the culture and community he was immersed in by day to influence the music he played and performed by night, allowing his fellow surfers to name each of the twelve tracks on the D.I.Y. album on Dale’s own Deltone label, which got picked up and distributed by Capitol Records.

The final track, “Let’s Go Trippin’” is regarded in music circles as the first real surf/rock song on account of its mainstream success in pioneering the new sound in the 60’s. But it was Dale’s live shows that not only drew in the culture of people that shaped this music, but also the technological approach and adjustment he made in those live performance settings that would ignite changes in the technology of guitars and amplifiers forever, as well as shape the sound of the music that ended up making its way from the stages of his legendary “stomps” to the recording studio. Now, at seventy-eight years old, amidst a career that has spanned over 60 years, Dick Dale returns to his Philadelphia stomping grounds tonight at the North Star Bar to bravely take the stage and play to an awe struck audience of this beloved living legend.

Born “Richard Anthony Monsour” where he grew up in Massachusetts, Dale says in excerpts from a 1994 interview:

as a little child I used to listen to my Father’s big records, big 78’s. I used to listen to guys like the big Harry James records and I used to listen to Gene Krupa… I used to love to listen to Gene Krupa records, you know, and Gene Krupa drummin’…  This was when I was back in elementary school and I started listening to these records. So, Gene Krupa had something. So he kept it going, just going doom bada doom bada doom bada doom badada he kept that going. So what happens when you go doom bada doom bada doom bada biddli-ba-da-doo, you wake people up, and that only impresses the musicians.”

So rule #1: Music is an attitude. It’s a sensation to the average person, to the human being. And keep it simple… That’s always been my theory because that’s the way he did it and he kept it simple. He made people, their funny bones move. Anyway, the thing is, Gene Krupa wanted to know why…what is it that made people mesmerized. What happened was he was smart enough not to let an ego get in front of him and try to impress other musicians, because if you look at his life story all the other musicians said “But we play better than Gene Krupa, we can do more things than Gene Krupa.” But Gene Krupa somehow mesmerized the audience more so than any drummer in the world, I mean these are words quote unquote from Louie Belson, who was asked to speak on his life, and you take Buddy Rich who was one of the most incredible technicians in the world, on this planet, but the only people he could really impress, who knew what he was doing was another musician or another drummer. But when it came right down to gut force, what makes the average person-the average person doesn’t know an augmented 9th or 13th so neither do I , cause I never went to school for music.”

Krupa’s influence on Dale’s music was tremendous, as Krupa sought to fashion his music after native music, wildlife and nature. And like Krupa, Dick plays to the people and not for musicians, so much so that that he doesn’t just ‘jam’ with other musicians and never has. The influence of Krupa’s study of the native music was additionally described by Dale…

… for instance, study the natives… (Krupa) went into the jungle to study their fertility dances, what caused them to be mesmerized…the drummer played on a beat… Now, what it was that the natives would create these fertility dances and they would use these rhythms on logs but they kept it simple and they kept it thriving and they kept it driving, they didn’t break it. They’d go ding ding-dah dah ding ding-dah dah ding ding-dah and they would keep that always going.”

Dick self-taught himself to play a myriad of instruments by ear. He first started playing the piano when he was young from sitting with his aunt who played and listening to it. Dale has said that he finished his eleventh year at Quincy High School in South Boston, then in 1954 his family drove to California to finish his senior year at Washington High School in L.A. Around the time his Uncle had given him a trumpet, he loved the Louis Armstrong sound and the Harry James sound and would play by ear, “always soulful or very direct from the gut.” Dale was also inspired by the country songs of Hank Williams.

I always wanted a guitar… and I always wanted to be a cowboy singer. Why? Because I also listened to Hank Williams, and he would always sing these neat romantic songs, (sings) “Why’d You Leave Me Babe,” and as a little kid I had a girlfriend and her boyfriend used to beat me up, so then I used to sing these songs, and that’s what it’s all about. Country music is all about your heart and your people and things like that. So I said I wanna be a cowboy singer, but I never had a guitar, so I read this book and it had this horse and it said sell all these jars of Noxema skin creme and send us the money and you’ll get this ukulele with this cowboy and a horse and a lariat. So I went out in the middle of snow storms banging on doors and bothering the crap out of my neighbors and got enough money to buy a car I think, and then I ended up sending that money in. And then I waited six months before I ever got that stupid thing. And when I did get it, it was painted green. It had a cowboy on it and a lariat and everything. And the pegs had nothing but holes and the pegs would fall out. I was so frustrated, it was just pressed cardboard and I just smashed it in the garbage can. And then I went and took my Pepsi Cola bottles in my little red wagon flyer and went about four miles down to the store and cashed in my little Pepsi bottles for a couple of cents a bottle and raised five dollars and ninety five cents. I should have done that in the first place, and then I bought this creme and brown plastic ukulele. And then I got a chord maker that you slap on it. After you strap it on you’re supposed to press buttons and it’s supposed to make a chord, but it didn’t work. It made everything vibrate. So I took that off and got a book and the book said “put your finger here and put your finger there,” but the book didn’t say “You’re holding it the wrong way…”, so since I was left handed and all my rhythm- since I used to listen to Gene Krupa, when my mom and dad would leave in the evening I would take their canister set, their sugar and their cookies and all these little metal cans and I’d take these knives (laughs) and I’d bang on them with these regular kitchen knives and I’d play the drums and that’s how I developed all this rhythm… all I had was knives and canister sets, so I got my rhythm from that and all my rhythm went into my left hand, so naturally I picked up the ukulele upside down and backwards.

I held a ukulele upside down not realizing that and I couldn’t understand why my fingers wouldn’t stretch where they were supposed to go. I just figured what the hell, par for the course, so I just kept pulling my fingers over and, because a guitar is engineered 13ths and 9ths, it’s engineered for a right handed player. That’s just how it’s been designed. So there are things that I could never ever play on a guitar, but there are things righties couldn’t play that I do. So now what happens is I was playing a ukulele, so the first three chords I learn were in the key of G, and I learned how to play “The Tennessee Waltz.” But since I learned all my rhythm from Gene Krupa I started playing that thing like I was playing on a drum. I’d strum like that because just strumming normally just wasn’t enough rhythm for me. So I learned a whole bunch of Hank Williams tunes and that’s how I did it. Just before we left Massachusetts in the Summertime I would spend at my grandmother and grandfathers place in Whitman, Massachusetts, which was a more farm area, and then one time a friend of mine took me way out in the back sticks where we used to pick all the swampberries and it was just like in the days of “Deliverance” you might say, you know, that movie. A real wooded area, and there were about fifteen guys in one old house, and they were all strumming on guitars, and they were all flattop guitars and so I said, “Wow, man, look at all these guitars there all strumming. Sounds like a drove of bees… So then one guy says, “Hey, this guy’s got a guitar for sale. You want it?” And I said, “Well sure, how much does he want?” And he says “Eight bucks” and I said “Wow.” I gave him 25 cents down, and I made him payments 50 cents a week til I paid it off… he let me take it right away. He trusted me. Now, I was so impressed going from a small plastic ukulele into this big hollow body, and it had this tone that was just incredible and I said, “Geez, this thing has six strings. What am I going to do with six strings?” And he says, “Just play the same four you played on the uke and muffle the other two. Nobody’ll know the difference.” So that’s what I did. So here I am playing “The Tennessee Waltz” and “You Wouldn’t Read The Letters I Wrote You” and “Honky Tonk Angels”, I’m muffling the other two strings, but it was a big sound for four strings. Then I put a hole in the side and ran a chord through and plugged it in and then that was my electric guitar.”

Dick never wanted to perform, as it was actually his father, James Monsour, who pushed him into the business in 1955…

It was just Dick Dale standing there, strumming like a madman. I was doing rhythms like dun de da dun de da de-de de dun de da, these are the rhythms from Gene Krupa and I would do this and from there went to a Country place that was having a contest in Compton. It was a t.v. station called Town Hall Party. Guys that would come on this show were guys like Johnny Cash before he ever wore black, Tex Ritter…

Dick started on Town Hall Party as the first time he ever truly went in front of an audience. He cut his teeth on Town Hall Party performing country and rockabilly music alongside The Collins Kids, Lefty Frizill, Wanda Jackson and so many others.

Dale’s father ran the business in the day and had actually tricked Dick into performing on Town Hall Party for the first time. He managed the career until Dick eventually started booking his own gigs. His father had to come each day and drag him away for years from the beach while he was surfing as Dick didn’t want to go play at the club.

Dick’s unique guitar techniques began very early. Upon learning how to play the instrument, he blended both lead and rhythm styles in order to ‘fill’ the sound of the drums with his guitar. Dale’s Lebanese heritage on his father’s side lead to his being exposed to Middle-Eastern musical influence. His Uncle taught him tarabaki drumming, the beat of which influenced his playing of other instruments, that the ‘pulsation’ influenced his fast, rapid picking technique and style of playing fast scales. He developed a ‘staccato’ picking style in unique fashion. A left-handed guitar player, he played an upside-down (Low E at the bottom) right-handed guitar without re-stringing the guitar to give it the same configuration as the upside-down right-handed guitars he had grown up using. He simply transposed the chords to create a brand new sound. Dale opted to reach over the fret board on the neck of the guitar as opposed to wrapping his fingers underneath as is customary. Even Jimi Hendrix, whom Dick influenced, at least re-strung the upside down guitar he played. Dick also used a substantially heavier, more bass-like, gauge of guitar string than is standard or customary, accomplishing a ‘heavier’ sound to accompany his staccato picking. When Leo Fender asked Dale: “Dick, why do you have to play so loud?” Dick shared with him that he was trying to mirror the sound of the aforementioned famous jazz drummer Gene Krupa, who fashioned his sound after native dancers and the sounds of wildlife and the ocean.

Dick desired to test the limits of such creative techniques and the subsequent limits of the equipment he was using in his early development of the surf sound in 1954 when his close friend Leo Fender, who was like a second father to Dale and who had great market success in the creation and widespread use of the electric ‘precision bass’, gave Dick his newly-created Fender Stratocaster and guitar amplifier to see what Dale thought about the Fender designed equipment. As Dick picked up the strat guitar Fender  watched and laughed in disbelief as the left-handed Dale played the right-handed guitar both upside down and backwards, transposing the chords in his head (like he had in the past) to create a sound never heard before.  The relationship between Fender and Dale produced an evolution in music technology that resulted in amplifier volume growing from only 15 watts to well over 180 watts, on account of Dale’s powerful live performances.

While the Stratocaster has three single-coil pick-ups that can be selected using a three-way toggle switch on the guitar body, guitarists playing early models found that by jamming the toggle switch between the two positions that draw from the pickups and turn off their frequency, that the toggle would only pick up the top two pick ups, on the bridge and in the top-middle of the body of the guitar. Dick was able to custom rig his toggle to include a switch to that option. This trick became so popular in its use among musicians that Fender developed the (now standard) 5-way pick up.

A little known back-story to Dick’s signature sound that became so popular is that in the early 1960’s Dick used high-powered “Showman” Amps that he had developed with Leo Fender. However, these amps did not yet have the built-in Fender reverb spring unit installed as it was in other brands amplifiers. The Showman Amps did carry a very strong on-board amp tremolo that gave the sound a vibrato affect- One that Dale used early in his surf-pioneering in place of any reverb and stretched into surf sounds heard on Surfers’ Choice, including his first hit “Let’s Go Trippin,”

There’s not one reverb on “Surfer’s Choice”. It wasn’t invented. That came later. We stole it out of a Hammond organ. I had no bravado in my voice, and I wanted sustaining sound, so we took it out of a Hammond organ, put it in an amp and I put in a microphone and sang and got sustaining … Then I tried my… But “Surfer’s Choice” sold 80,000 copies, which is like selling a million today, without any reverb. So when historians, so called historians, say the reverb’s the Surf sound…they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s the heavy machine gun, staccato sound. The waves.”

What’s more, he accomplished this sound without the vibrato-bar (a.k.a whammy-bar), which he removed from his guitar.

Kids called it Surf music I didn’t call it that. The kids called me King of the Surf Guitar. I surfed sun up to sun down. I don’t claim to be a musician, I didn’t go to Julliard. I’m into just chopping, chopping at 60 gauge, 50 gauge strings. That’s the sound, the sound of the waves chopping. The Surfing sound is not the reverb.”

Dick also tested the limits of his sound equipment. When Leo Fender gave him one of his new amplifiers he played so hard that he blew up the amp and the speaker; something he would go on to do forty nine times, to the point that they would catch fire. Leo would continue to replace the amps until he went down to one of Dick’s famous ballroom shows and saw how powerful the energy and volume of the crowd was there. At which point, Fender began to better understand the phenomena. A description from Dale’s website-bio reads that:

“A special 85 watt output transformer was made that peaked 100 watts when Dale would pump up the volume of his amp, this transformer would create the sounds along with Dale’s style of playing… they now needed a speaker that would handle the power and not burn up from the volume that would come from Dale’s guitar. Leo, Freddy (Tavares) and Dale went to the James B. Lansing speaker company, and they explained that they wanted a fifteen-inch speaker built to their specifications. That speaker would soon be known as the 15’’ JBL -D130 speaker. It made the complete package for Dale to play through and was named the Single Showman Amp… Dale broke through the electronic barrier limitations of that era! Dale still wanted to go further, and as the crowds increased, Dale’s volume increased, but he still wanted a bigger punch with thickness in the sound so that it would pulsate into the audience and leave them breathless. The JBL-D130 was doing its job until Dale froze it in the frame that held the speaker, the speaker cone would twist from the heavy playing from Dale and it would soon twist and stop to fluctuate back n forth. Leo, Freddy and Dale went back to the JBL speaker company and told them to rubberize the front ridge of the speaker allowing it to push forward and backward from the signal of Dale’s guitar without cocking and twisting. The new updated version was called the JBL D-130F; the F stood for Fender. Leo, Freddy and Dale designed a speaker cabinet and in which they installed 2 -15’’-JBL-D130F’s. This caused Leo Fender to have to create a new and more powerful output transformer, they would call it the Dick Dale Transformer and it was made by the Triad Company. This became the 100-watt output transformer that would actually peak 180 watts. Nothing like this had ever been done before in the world of guitars and amplifiers. This became known as the Dual-Showman Piggy Back Amp” which had the same head as the “Bandmaster” and “Bassman” amps. He would go on after his first album to invent the “Fender Tank Reverb.”

Dick initally was performing in a local ice cream parlor in 1961 when the facility became overcrowded:

“…when I came onto the scene, out here in the West Coast there were only two styles. One was Country and the other was Jazz. Jazz was the Big Band Jazz and nobody was allowed at that time to throw dances playing a guitar and charging money at the door. Because guitars were considered evil. It was called devil music. They laugh at this, but it’s a fact. The cities would not issue permits to people to throw these kinds of dances. How I found out was when I went to Balboa with my cousin, well I call him my cousin, my buddy, we were both bike riders. We took my guitar down there and said let’s go down and see the girls, but if I could back up a little bit, I did all these bars, and Dick Dale won all these contests using a simple, psychological approach of sensual, driving rhythm… when I went there this big ballroom was alive with people and sound. It was a giant horn band, they were playing Jazz, it was a big band sound, and that’s what I’m saying. You’d never have a guitar group playing because the cities would not give permits for it. They considered it to be evil. So I walked in there with my friend Ray and told the manager when they went on intermission “My name is Dick Dale. I’m from Massachusetts and I was supposed to be on the stage during the intermission.” And he said “Dick Who?”(everyone laughs)… so he says o.k. and I got up there and Ray and I are both strumming guitars and I’m playing this sound, cause I developed this de-duka-da duka-da type of rhythm and I’m singing Hillbilly music so I said it’s rock and I called it Rockabilly ’cause I was rocking the strums which you’re not supposed to do. In fact one time Bonnie Ray Guitar, she was playing a song and I said “Can I play for you, huh? Can I play backup?” and she said o.k. come on up her and I started strumming, but instead of the traditional way; diinng da diinng da, I was going ding a ding a da da dingadada, she goes “strum the right way!” (laughs). And then when I went into this ballroom and started strumming the kids they were dancing in their big petticoats and they were doing the Lindy Jitterbug and stuff like that so they came up and they said Wow! They digged this bopping sound I was doing. So when I left that night I went to this little ice cream parlor called The Rinky Dink Ice Cream Parlor, it was like a Folk music club. They had a lot of Folk music clubs where people would sit with a guitar and talk and just play these Folk songs. And it was really the trend thing when people went out for gatherings, cause like I said, cities didn’t allow permits. So I went in and the kid playing the piano, he was playing a boogie woogie style and I loved that. So we got together and I asked the guy if him and I and my friend Ray could play there on the weekends. He said yesh. That’s where I met Leo Fender and I said my name is Dick Dale, I don’t have any money, I don’t really have any instruments of any sort, and he liked me and he became like a second father to me. He said take this Stratacaster, we made it last year, beat it to death and tell me what you think. And I had my little amp and I started strumming on it and started playing at this ice cream parlor. Well the three of us were getting about eight bucks, seven or eight dollars. Then I wanted to get a drummer so I added a drummer and asked for a raise to 12 dollars, and then I wanted to get a rhythm player so I asked for a raise to about 15 dollars and the guy fired me.”

Desiring a larger and more appropriate space, Dale’s Father submitted a request to the City of Newport Beach in California to use the 3,000 person capacity Rendezvous Ballroom on the peninsula in Balboa.

“By then the people were starting to come from like Palm Springs which is a couple of hours away, they’re all coming just to see us, so I talk to my father who is still working at Hughes Aircraft. He went and talked to the owners of the Rendezvous Ballroom, that was closed. They were just renting it out for like schools, and they said you won’t get any permits, so we had meetings with the city, the chief of police, the fire department, the teachers association and said look, would you rather have your kids in one spot or out on the street. So they said alright, we’ll do something different. We’ll give you a permit, but the kids have to wear ties. And I go, geez, whoever heard of a surfer wearing a tie, because I had been surfing now, surfing with a buddy and that became part of my life. So my opening night we got a box of ties and handed them out, and everybody had bare feet and ties, to make it legal. Opening night we had 17 people, and they were all surfers I was surfing with and that was the beginning right there. Then I said, how are we going to fill this place up, because this ballroom, the last band that played there was Stan Kenton, the Jazzer and they were trying to make a comeback, because every big band in the world had played there, but when they tried to bring Jazz back a second time they lost about $80,000, so they closed it, and they called it The White Elephant and said that nobody would come three miles on a peninsula to this old building, because it was on the Balboa Peninsula three miles long. So to get more kids to come we went to schools and asked if we could do assemblies. At 7:30 we’d have a musical revue, we’d ask the principal to set it up as part of their credits. And he’d ask what we’d be playing, and when we told him guitars, he said no, it’s an evil, dirty instrument. So we told him it would be about the Elevation of Music. I’d have a guy dancer in a suit and a girl modern dancer. And they let us do it. And the kids would come out of curiosity. The first fifteen minutes we’d start out with “Sugar Blues” and “Begin the Beguine” and the teachers loved it, and the kids would just be sitting there. Then the next fifteen minutes we’d play our kind of music and the kids went wild and the principal said “Get the hook!”(laughs) So I had to go to the union, all the teachers were there and they told me I was playing dirty music. And I said don’t even bother telling me about dirty music unless you can tell me what dirty music is. From then on I was a rebel. But from getting to those high school kids, within three months we had 4,000 people a night at the Rendezvous. The city made us put in 13 fire escapes. It was a complete city block, two floors. On a peninsula three miles long traffic was backed up all the way. Rock bands of the day, The Champs, Chuck Berry, were playing through 10″ speakers, standup bass, there were no power players, no power amps. I told Leo I wanted fat, thick sounds. So Leo, Freddy Traveras, a steel guitar player who was with The Royal Hawaiians band, and me work together and came up with the Fender Dual Showman amp, with 15” speakers. That’s how we created the big Dick Dale machine gun picking style. My philosophy is the thicker the wood the thicker the sound, the bigger the string the bigger the sound. My smallest string is a 14 gauge.”

The City and the Ballroom’s property ownership agreed to allow Dale to use the space given that a dress code be implemented for the dance socials he performed at there, as well as that any sale of alcohol would be strictly prohibited. Dale performed for a six-month period at the Rendezvous Ballroom beginning at the start of July in 1961, to large, sold out, record-breaking and exceeding-capacity crowds of surfers and their friends. At times, up to 4,000 people at legendary dances that became known as “stomps” on account of the surfers stomping their sandals on the hardwood ballroom floor. Dick Dale appropriately recorded his album there, at the Rendezvous Ballroom, with some overdubs later being added in the studio. On the record, you can hear a lot of the natural reverb of the ballroom itself, as well as some reel to reel drum recording. He included some strong vocal melody, doo wop/doo wah back-ground vocals, shouts from the ballroom crowd with piano and sax solos peppered in round out the albums instrumental make up. Similar sounds to the tremolo and reverb sounds can be heard on The Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa.”

Paul Johnson, the guitarist for the popular SoCal band The Bel-Airs said, “I remember making the trek to the Rendezvous in the summer of ’61 to see what all the fuss was about over Dick Dale.  It was a powerful experience; his music was incredibly dynamic, louder and more sophisticated than The Bel-Airs.  The tone of Dale’s guitar was bigger than any I had ever heard, and his blazing technique was something to behold.”

The album Surfers’ Choice was released in 1962 and did very well, landing at No. 59 on the Pop Albums chart with “Let’s Go Trippin’” coming in at No. 60 on the Pop Singles chart.

Dale continued to play in the mid-60’s despite rectal cancer, and when friend Jimi Hendrix heard of the diagnosis he responded by saying “Then you’ll never hear surf music again” and encouraged Dale to survive.  Upon remission, Dick demonstrated his gratitude in covering Third Stone from the Sun as a tribute to Jimi.  In 1987, He performed his single Pipeline alongside his friend Stevie Ray Vaughn and was nominated for a Grammy.

Dick’s music continues to be enjoyed and featured by artists and fans all across the, musical landscape…

One of my favorite memories in my conversations with Dick is when he told me the story of how Quentin Tarentino approached him after a show in the Netherlands to pitch Dale’s song ”Miserlou” as the title song for Tarantino’s new film “Pulp Fiction”…

The true innovative and inventive genius of Dale simply cannot be overstated; he is a musical and creative icon. Loved by millions all over the world, Dick was inducted into the Congressional Hall of Records in Washington DC, into The Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach and was also voted into the Musician’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville in 2009 and by 100,000 of his peers in the business. Surely the good folks of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will also recognize this man, without whom we would have missed out on so many key contributions to rock music and advances to musical equipment. You can hear Dale’s music today in Disney’s Space Mountain, as well as on several video games and in many other movies and arenas. This is just a small sample of his many honors and accolades.

Yet music is only just one small part of who Dick really is, there is so much more to his life than people realize. Surfing, building, a student of martial arts for 30 years, flying from the 1970’s on, and raising wild animals from 1958 until 1993 are just a few of his hobbies. Dale has also never put any illegal drugs or alcohol in his body.  Dick says:

“In a nutshell, your body powers your mind.  Don’t allow your mind to be so weak that it punishes your body so that it will kill you in the end.”  Even battling daily medical conditions he says, “I’m riding the pain train.”  A big part of Dick’s philosophy is based on the mantra, “Be careful. Good or bad, your thoughts become words, your words become actions, and your actions become habits. Habits become character.  Your character becomes your destiny.”

Dick met the love of his life, Lana, and swept her off her feet in true Dick Dale style. Lana has been a wild animal supporter and activist since a very young age, and Dick loves Hawaii as does she. At that time he planned a small wedding ceremony, there with a preacher and his assistants and it was all done for $300 plus their plane tickets and rooms. Dick bought their rings and never asked her to marry him; he just surprised her the whole time by romantically whisking her there and tying the knot. Lana is always by Dick’s side and now they manage their day-to-day medical challenges together, while Lana helps manage and run the business with their Music attorney. Dick says:

“She’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me, and she says I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to her.  We’re two sickies taking care of each other.  We’re a pair that was always supposed to find each other.  We look at each other and say, ‘I wish we’d found each other when we were younger… People ask, ‘What is love?’ You’ll know when love comes; love is when someone does something for you undemanding every day and they dedicate themselves to you unsolicited.  Lana and I give back and forth.  Lana tells people, ‘He is the breath of my life’ and she is mine.  We do things together.  Both of you should love the same things together.  Lana loves boxing so we watch boxing together.  She’s an artist, she sings, we love the same things. We could listen to Patsy cline all day together. We love Vince Gill because of the harmony and the softness in his voice.  We’re romantics.  As we drove home together from Florida back to Wonder Valley, (he chuckles with a smile in his voice) we played the same song over and over and over together and we’d sing together. If someone was riding with us, they’d have gone insane.  That’s what it’s all about.”

I have been in touch with Dick and his wife Lana over the past year and a half and you couldn’t ask to meet a nicer pair of people. They truly are a pair! I had the privilege to spend a couple hours on the phone with Dick as well as the blessing of spending some time with both he and Lana during their visit to Philadelphia last summer. One of the very distinct things that was always very noticeable both in my personal conversations with Dick as well as in observing his classic stage etiquette when performing was that this is a man of great synergy with his audience. Dick has his heart and spirit tuned in to wherever his focus has been directed. In the context of his live performance, he is completely dialed in to the feel and sound of his equipment as well as to the people crowding the floor in attendance. Still using the same classic equipment and instruments, still as tuned into real people as he was with his fellow surfers or with the crowd at his famous Rendezvous Ballroom “Stomps.”

This past week, Dick made headlines as an article hit the web sharing some of the details of Dick’s current tour, and more specifically, his medical conditions. Having survived two bouts with rectal cancer while presently living through renal failure and without dialysis, with diabetes and damaged vertebrae and the removed parts of his stomach and intestines, Dick now lives with a plastic bag on under his clothes that his bodily waste now empties through a stoma into. All conditions regarding which Dick mentions: “I’ve been living like this for the past 15 years, but I’m still here and opening my eyes each morning.”

Dick is a survivor. Dick has lost everything four times in his life and bounced up again each time as he has persevered and overcome a tremendously difficult life full of adversities. Not just with illnesses, but other issues. He and Lana have been battling his after-effects of rectal cancer that he experienced for the second time nearly a decade ago. During the years since, Dick has had renal failure, major prostate and bladder issues, diabetes with insulin (for 2 years now), UTI’s constantly with leaking and bleeding in fluids, anemia, fistulas (which are leakages in system) all while Lana battles MS. Yet the two of them do it all together, and never leave each other’s side. After every performance, Dick comes directly back to Lana where she is managing his merchandise table and they speak to all the Dick Dale music lovers and sign autographs for about an hour or so.

 “Music to me is a door opener to people who love what I play. That’s why I play all types of music.  I never play the same thing the same way twice.  I don’t follow a music list. I make it up every single night.  I’ll play a song within a song, within a song, within a song.  Half of the time I do it because I forgot how to play the old song!  Then when I am done, I sit at the table with Lana and we hang and talk with everyone until they all leave. We help people and children who have these diseases.  They see me in concert, and they see me doing it without drugs.  We talk to them, we laugh about it and we look at it in a different light. Then they don’t lie around and feel sorry for themselves.  We just keep going and take natural things and this is how we’re able to keep doing what we’re doing… Sure, I’d love to stay home and build ships in a bottle and spend time with my wife in Hawaii, but I have to perform to save my life,”

Dick does not live to perform. He never plays at home, except the piano for his wife. He actually wanted to retire more than 20 years ago to build, to enjoy his tractor in the desert where he and Lana live in California. He says:

“I can’t stop touring because I will die. I have to raise $3,000 every month to pay for the medical supplies I need to stay alive, and that’s on top of the insurance that I pay for. The hospital says change your patch once a week. No! If you don’t change that patch two times a day, the fecal matter eats through your flesh and causes the nerves to rot and they turn black, and the pain is so excruciating that you can’t let anything touch it. That has happened to me because I was following the orders of the hospital… When I’m on stage, the pain can be excruciating. Someone has to help me up on stage because I can’t do it alone. There’s a part of my show where I play drums, and my drummer pulls my arm and my roadie pushes my butt to get up there. But, I get up there.”

But the point is that Dale is not looking for sympathy, simply to draw those in with his music that have related conditions and adversities in their own lives that he might serve as a testament of hope and demonstration of encouragement. He says…

“I’ll talk about it on stage, I’ll tell them, ‘I don’t want to see anybody complaining about anything because I’m up here jumping around like a dummy… People come to my shows and they show me their scars. I’ve had paralyzed kids come in on gurneys because they want to see me, and I take time to talk with all of them. I met a man who was sick and dying, and began talking with him on the phone. He said, ‘Dick, you’re my idol and I plan to outlive these hospice workers if I have to, but I will be at your show.’ And he was… When I go on stage, I’m in pain every night. But through the martial arts, I’ve learned to guide and deal with pain,” Dale says. “I play harder now than I ever have, and honestly when I go on stage I push a button. I swear at the pain. ‘Get out of my damn body; I’ve got to do a job! You tell the people, ‘Don’t be scared of dying,’ he says. ‘When your mind leaves this body, it is a beautiful thing and it is not to be feared. Don’t let that fear of dying affect the way you live… You take that fear and you use it as a driving force to keep moving forward, no matter how much pain you have. That’s how I do what I do on stage. I’m not afraid to die because it all gets beautiful from here.”

Dick is all heart and spirit first, and it comes out in everything he does, so it really is no surprise that such a well-tuned soul with a spirit of creativity and a heart for the people would stretch the limits of what is possible both physically as a human being, but also creatively with his equipment to create a truly unique experience for all those who would see and hear him perform. He continues to use and his original reverb unit with a split signal between two original Fender Showman amps to deliver music, as a vehicle for his message of hope. That is the authenticity in essence of Dick’s character, originality and conduction from the human experience to that sound which was captured in the live venue recording of Surfers’ Choice. None of which used any reverb. Having survived cancer twice, Dale continues to bring the heart beat and synergy of his creative, youthful spirit and tremendous love for people to the stage today.

 “I was told 20 years ago that I wouldn’t live much longer, but here I am. I believe our maker has kept Lana and I alive to give hope. We’re like Johnny Appleseed, crossing the country and sowing the seeds of survival.”

We hope to see you tonight as Dick Dale takes the stage at North Star Bar here in Philadelphia!

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