Despite health concerns, guitarist Dick Dale continues to perform
Legendary guitar innovator Dick Dale, whose hammering, aggressive style revolutionized how the instrument was played and single-handedly pioneered surf music, is sick and tired of being limited to that aspect of his creativity, to the point where his spouse-manager now explicitly forbids journalists from using the stale “King of the Surf Guitar” handle he’s been yoked with for decades.
The 78-year-old Dale, who appears at Joe’s Great American bar in Burbank on Thursday, is a multi-instrumental maverick of Olympian stature and widely varied interests and a decidedly enigmatic, contradictory figure. He grew up in the coastal town of Quincy, Mass. and changed pop music as a Southern California surfer, yet today he lives in the arid desert of Twentynine Palms’ Wonder Valley. He has also been battling rectal cancer for a staggering 50 years and despite being medically insured to the hilt, must resort to almost continuous touring to cover expenses.
“I just did seven weeks on the road, and they had to feed me through an IV,” Dale said in a recent phone interview. “Halfway through the tour, the pain became so bad they had to carry me onstage. I’m a warrior, I’ve passed a kidney stone on tour, but this was bad; there was blood in my urine and for the first time since the ‘60s, I wanted to cancel the tour. And they wanted to hospitalize me, but I just told myself, ‘I’ve got to do a show.’ They got me onstage, I’m in this big theater, sitting on a stool — and we had standing ovations all night.”
Dale’s drive and resolve nearly defies comprehension, and while this agonizing situation has ignited further debate about healthcare in America, it’s difficult to imagine him anywhere except the bandstand. Dale has always led a life of extremes, whether with his genre-exploding guitar pyrotechnics, routinely drawing a stampede of thousands of teenage surfers at his fabled early 1960s Stomps in Orange County or, as his own PR states, as an “accomplished Horseman, Exotic Animal Trainer, Surfer, Martial Arts Expert, Archer and Pilot.”
When his family relocated to Southern California in the late 1950s, Dale’s first move toward music had nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll; instead, he became a regular at the weekly live country music television show “Town Hall Party.”
“I wanted to be a cowboy singer, so I went on ‘Town Hall Party’ and entered their talent contest every week. I remember Lorrie Collins saying ‘Oh, I want him to win!’” Dale said. “And I did, every week. And they found out I played trumpet, and asked me to play in the house band. The Collins Kids, Joe Maphis, Lefty Frizzell, Freddie Hart, Johnny Cash, they were all there. On Sunday, we’d all go out to Malibu and sing. I was sweet on Lorrie — we became an item. I used to go out to her parents’ house. Tex Ritter gave me my first double gun belt, and I learned to do the fast draw. It was wonderful.”
Before long, Dale — inspired by the incendiary picking of double-neck guitar swami Joe Maphis and equipped by Leo Fender (whose amps he routinely blew up or burned out) — developed his high-impact surf sound. He became one of the most profound, progressive influences on 1960s rock ‘n’ roll and entered an artistic realm that was his alone. Despite the double whammy of the British Invasion and his cancer diagnosis, Dale has continuously moved forward.
“Playing guitar was only a window in my life. I never practiced the guitar, and when I’m done playing I just put it down,” Dale said. “Music is like building a house. It’s like going out deep into the desert to see what nature is doing. It’s like painting, like Salvador Dali. I try to do that with my music, make it like a Salvador Dali painting.”
Dale set the phone down and began playing piano. It was a lovely, neoclassical sound, with a churning, sort of hillbilly Eddy Duchin boogie interlude — lush, with atmospherics to burn.
“It has to be pleasurable, like my concerto,” he cried out. “I wrote this thinking about an Italian woman, in a black dress, out walking by the grapevines. Her father pulls up in a black limousine. It goes like this ...”
Dale launched into a completely unique composition, like Nino Rota ragtime. It was evocative, Latinate, melancholy in tempo, contemplative in mood and flabbergastingly beautiful.
“I taught myself to be curious about everything,” Dale said. “And, like you just heard on the piano, my life is everything.” A pause. “My life is everything.”
Who: Dick Dale
Where: Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd. Burbank
When: Thursday, Oct. 15, 8:30 p.m.
More info: (818) 729-0805, joesgreatbar.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin’ Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”