Dick Dale: The Guitar Master is Rocking in the Moment and Having the Time of His Life at 74 Years Young

The Earl, Friday June 11, 8:30 PM; with Laramie Dean opening; nonsmoking.

Photo courtesy of Dick Dale.

Dick Dale insists he’s not a master of any trade, but fans of the undisputed King of the Surf Guitar would disagree. After all, who else pioneered the Fender Stratocaster guitar and rocked the strings so hard that he blew up a battalion of amps before Leo Fender developed one that could withstand Dick Dale? The man, after all, has a career spanning more than five decades. At age 74, he hasn’t tuned down the noise and even a recent bout of cancer and extreme high blood sugar episodes from diabetes haven’t slowed down his touring. In fact, you get the impression that touring and playing is what keeps him alive in a way that most people would envy.

Dick’s current tour is a special treat, in that he’s hitting smaller clubs like The Earl in a 17-city circuit. Former-roadie-turned-protégé Laramie Dean (Agent Orange) is the one to thank for suggesting the idea, as well as Dick’s wanting to support his son Jimmy Dale, who plays with Dean and is blossoming into one hell of a drummer himself. I had a list of 10 or so questions prepared, but as soon as I dialed up Dick, relaxing in his hotel room before his Austin gig on Tuesday night, it was clear he had a few things on his chest that he wanted to talk about. So I just rode the wave he offered, enjoying surfing through Dale’s passion for supporting Jimmy, recent highlights from the road, his health challenges, the pleasures of clean living (he’s never drank alcohol nor taken drugs, and he quit smoking and red meat years ago) and his lifelong love affair with country music. I’ve edited the conversation down a little bit only for space and repetition and divided his comments by subject, but what follows is mostly unexpurgated, authentic Dick.

On how martial arts gave him his philosophy of life – the joy of living in the moment

To set a foundation for this conversation, I’ve been doing martial arts all my life, and I’ve been all over the world with different masters. I’ve been with the monks with their way of thinking, and that’s the way I can put up with the cancer and all the crap that’s happened with me and being on stage without taking drugs. I once asked my master, “why I can’t I be the best of something and just be unbeatable?” He said, “yes, you can, but you have to give up everything in your life. You must eat and sleep and breathe it.” So he said, “let me ask you something, “would you rather be a master of one or you would rather be a jack of all trades, master of none?” He said, “if you are master of one, you’d be awfully dull at a gathering, wouldn’t you?” It’d be like Einstein. He wouldn’t be able to talk to somebody who’s a contractor or flies an airplane or is shooting bows and arrows or surfing huge waves and surfing little waves. So I chose to learn about as many things as I could—everything from raising canaries to welding to building houses to whatever. I’d have libraries ceiling to floor on all these things, and I’d then ask people who are very successful and be humble in asking.

Jimmy and Dick Dale. Photo courtesy of Dick Dale.

About his son Jimmy Dale, rhythm and living in the moment

I taught Jimmy the [jazz drummer] Gene Krupa method of drumming. [Krupa] got all his rhythms from the indigenous people. Musicians learn a different style of counting. Whereas the indigenous people come from the “what,” musicians come from the “what and.” So by teaching that to Jimmy and myself, we play to the grassroots people who count on the One. That’s the reason why we have [fans of ] so many ages from 5 years old all the way up to 105 because they can count the way we apply our rhythm in our music. That’s why our music sounds so powerful. No matter if we’re going to play Esperanza or Latino songs or “Silent Night” or a rock n roll song,  it’s always played on a certain rhythm that grassroots people count on, such as the indigenous people. They would put their spears to the ground. They would go doong-tikka-tikka-takka-tikka-tikka-tikka-doong, tikka-tikka-taka-tika-tika-tika-doong. Like that. And that’s what grassroots people count on, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.

I taught Jimmy that rhythm, and he loves drums. He also plays piano. Piano’s my favorite. He used to lie underneath the piano all the time when I played. So we learned all different types of music. I told Jimmy, I said “Find the beauty in everything you do.” There is a beauty if you can know and find it. Look at the Buddhist way of thinking. They never dwell on the past because it has been used and it either brought you good or bad. It’s over, and you don’t dwell upon the future because 30 seconds from now, you could drop dead. You dwell upon this moment and you savor it like a fine fruit. Think of this moment and don’t worry about the past and don’t worry about the future. So this is what we do.

Jimmy and I just got through performing 23 concerts, playing on the two new Fender acoustic electric guitars that we both designed. Jimmy designed his which is the Jimmy Dale Kingman [SCE] Acoustic Electric Guitar and I designed the Dick Dale Signature Malibu [SCE] Acoustic Electric Guitar. We did a total sold-out tour called Dueling Fender Guitars. We did that just the two of us, all the way to Canada back.

Dick Dale and Elsa, one of the lions he raised. Photo courtesy of Dick Dale.

[Jimmy and I] just got through performing at the largest, most beautiful music museum one could ever visit. It was built by [Robert J. Ulrich] the [former] CEO and [Chairman Emertus] of Target [Corp.]. He would travel all over the world, and when he was buying this painting in Russia, his partner said to him, “You know what, with the money you’re spending on this painting, you could build your own museum.” And he said, “OK.” So he built this museum in Phoenix. It’s called MIM. Everybody who loves music should go to this place before they die.

It’s so unbelievable. The stone is from India and it’s all cherry wood inside. They have a theater. I did a guitar seminar on how to play your guitar. God, they paid $130 a ticket and the whole stage was full—people from 17 years old all the way up to, I think, 100 years old, with their guitars. And then the very next night, Jimmy and I did a concert there—just two guitars. I think it was sold out three weeks in advance, and we had never played there. It was sponsored by Bank of America.

But it was so well done. Anything that ever created any kind of a sound, whether it was made out of wood or what [is displayed] there. They give you a teeny headset. You walk up to [the Glenn Miller exhibit] and when you’re three feet away, you start hearing the music of Glen Miller’s orchestra and you see them playing on the video on the screen. They even have my electronic transformers that Leo Fender and I designed, breaking the sound barrier of electronics for music for amplifiers. They have my surfboards, everything. But whenever you walk away from one display and go to another display, the music automatically comes into your ears of that display, whether it’s indigenous tribes or what. What a place. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. And we had the honor—and it was truly an honor—to perform there. They want us to come back.

Photo courtesy of Dick Dale.

About looking forward to playing again on Catalina Island on July 2:

Just before I was talking to you, two days ago, I got a call from my music attorney that this lord in England that owns this huge, huge racetrack wants Jimmy and I to come and perform the national anthem there—which we would love to do, because I love going to Europe. I’ve been going there all the time for the last 20 years. But we’re performing for this beautiful reopening of [the Catalina Casino Ballroom on] Catalina Island. I did the first opening there 20 years ago when Fender wanted to do some jazz concerts.

But this time, we got called by the people who run the island. What’s so wonderful about that is when I first started at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa 27 miles away from Catalina, every big band played there—Glenn Miller, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton. Well, all those people played at Catalina, too, at the Casino Ballroom. In fact, every single person in show business or royalty or whatever that could afford to go to the island went there. In fact, there is a DVD out called HOLLYWOOD’S MAGICAL ISLAND: CATALINA, and I’m in it, along with everybody else, talking all about how we felt about it. I used to take my mamma and daddy fishing, and we’d always go to Catalina and spend the night on the boat there.

About the current club tour with Laramie Dean

Laramie Dean. Photo courtesy of Laramie Dean.

So Jimmy and I mix all these different types of concerts together, but he’s been playing [drums] with Laramie on tour. You’ve got to get your feet wet and really suffer on the road. You play for nothing and you play for something. You play for whatever. They’ve been doing this for the last couple of years. So Laramie came to me and asked, “Dick, could I please open for you on one of your tours?” Normally I don’t do that because I don’t get involved with that. It’s the agencies and the club owners. They want their own special bands to open for them, and they want a band that plays within a five-mile radius because they have their fans.

Jimmy right now could sit into any heavy metal rock band that is on the road today. He could play for the number one rock and roll bands today because the stuff that he does now. I taught him the Gene Krupa method, and he went and took all the heavy metal styles and all the big drummers and he put that on top of that. He does seminars for places like Guitar Center. He can do rolls with his feet on a drum and spin a stick at the same time when normally you use both hands and double feet. It’s not because he’s my son. I just gave him the foundation and let him go, and if he asks me for something, I’ll tell. But I don’t push him like my father pushed me to be on stage. I never wanted to be on stage.

So Jimmy’s in Laramie’s band and I wanted to help them get going and do what they do. It’s working out really neat and fun and what’s happening is Jimmy’s playing drums for me. He plays drums for Laramie and then he plays drums for me when I get on stage. So it’s like a family that’s going across the country. It’s a family feeling because everybody doesn’t do drugs. They don’t do the booze. They don’t do any of that stuff. And that is hard to find.

Why he likes to play smaller clubs like The Earl…

We play to 500,000 people when we’re in Berlin and Europe and stuff like that. It’s very high dollar stuff. [But I like to do club tours] because the same families have been coming to my shows. When I do the club tours, it’s very personal. I get beautiful three-foot wide paintings from 12-year-old girls, that are saying “Get Well,” and they draw a picture of a hammock and my guitar and a crown, and their father goes and puts it in a frame and then they send it to me. They’re on the walls of my bedroom.

On touring since his recent cancer and diabetes

I’m supposed to be in a coma. The doctors have told me to stop performing. I’m not supposed to be on tour. I am doing the tour, and I’m doing good as far as I’m concerned. [My blood sugar] is going up and down, but I’m trying to bring it down. They screwed up even in my operation so my bladder was destroyed. My kidneys stopped. It was all because of the radiation. That’s what happened to me. I’m wearing a bag. I’ve got tubes in me, and I’m still doing concerts. So I have this mental attitude that I use from the martial arts and that’s how I go through it.

When I die, it’s not going to be in some rocking chair with a big beer belly since I don’t drink. It’ll be on stage in one big explosion of body parts.

On whether he still surfs…

I’ve surfed all my life—sun-up to sundown. Hawaii was my home for so many years. That’s my other half of me. Because I love to surf and that was it. Am I surfing now? No, because I’m too weak. At one concert before [one of my] operation[s], they had to lift me up the stairs because I didn’t have the strength to walk up the stairs. But I sat in a chair and I performed for about two and a half hours with my son there. He gave me that strength to keep going. When I get through this and I don’t have the tubes going into me, I’m going to get back in the water. I’ll be happy again when I go to Hawaii because the water’s warmer.

On the influence of West Coast hillbilly guitar player extraordinaire Joe Maphis and country music, getting inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame, and recording a country album…

Oh, are you kidding? When I first started, I was not only listening to the big band era with Harry James—because I love trumpet —but I loved country because I’m a hopeless romantic. That’s why I love to play Latino songs, and I write songs like that. Country’s always been my love, Hank Williams, Sr. I tutored Jett Williams, his daughter—a sweetheart of a lady, a great person. My name “Dick Dale,” the last name “Dale,” was given me by T Texas Tiny, an about 400-pound country disc jockey. He wanted me to record this country song but Pat Boone jumped on it and did it. I think it was called “White Silver Sands.” I played on [country music radio and TV show] TOWN HALL PARTY on the same stage with people like Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Stubbs, Gene Autry, Larry and Lorrie Collins, Tex Ritter—[who] gave me my first gun belt set when I used to do fast draw.

I wish my mom and dad were still here because I got inducted from my peers—over 100,000 members—into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville [in 2009]. That there is the real deal by the people who are your peers. All those people are the ones who vote for you, not a desk with about 10 people around it. When I was there to perform and be inducted, my Lord, all I could think of was I wish my mom and dad were sitting here. This was where it all began. There’s been a lot of honors, a lot of things that have happened to me in my life, but to me that was special because of my dad telling me all the time, “you’ve got to do a country album.” I said Dad, “I’m rockin’; I’m flat blowing out ears out there in Europe.” But when I’m sitting by myself, I write these beautiful country songs.

So I’m going to do a country album. Jimmy’s going to play on it. I did that for Glen Campbell [on] his last album [GHOST ON THE CANVAS, scheduled to be released on Aug. 31, 2011]. I did it for Glen because Glen played back-up guitar for me in the recording studios at Capitol back when. He was a great guy. Country music is my heart.

On how clean living leads to great music…

Music is like a door-opener. You can either create with your talent or you can destroy with your talent. That’s what I tell the kids. Walk your path, I tell them, and cleanse your body. Kids, when they were like 5 years old, come to see me, and I told them to drink water because it gives your body a bath inside to keep them from getting into the other stuff that will destroy their body.. They come up to me when they’re 9, 10 years old, and they go “Mr. Dale, Mr. Dale, I’m still drinking water, and I wash my body with it inside.” I have a T-shirt that’s a picture of me looking into the sky at something, and it says your body follows your mind. Whatever you put into your mind—if you’re going to take bad stuff, your body will suffer. That’s that.

Thanks to ATLReaders Tim Spears and Randy Fox for suggesting the questions about surfing and Joe Maphis.

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7 Responses to “Dick Dale: The Guitar Master is Rocking in the Moment and Having the Time of His Life at 74 Years Young”


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