Guitar Legend Dick Dale – “Misirlou” at the start

Dick Dale.  Photo courtesy of Lana and Dick Dale.
Dick Dale and The Deltones. Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.

[Note to readers: this is the second installment of The Guitar’s interview with legendary guitarist Dick Dale, the creator and pioneer of surf/rock music…]

Despite what the world may think, Dick Dale did not write “Misirlou,” one of the most distinctive melodies in the last half century.  The searing, propulsive guitar riff Dale contributed to the song, used memorably in the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, is entirely his own.

“Everybody keeps saying, ‘Oh, it’s a Greek folk song!’  It’s not,” Dale says. “I first heard the song as a child. I used to watch my uncle play it on the lute and my other uncle used to accompany him on the darbuka, a bell-shaped Arabic drum that is held in your lap.   The drum is made out of metal with an opening at one end with skin covering on top and is played with the hands.”

Dale tapped out the rhythm over the phone.

“When the rhythm section kicks in is when the belly dancer would come out onstage to dance,” he says. “The song ‘Misirlou’ is an Arabic love song, ‘Play the habibi! Where are you, my sweetheart? Habibi means sweetheart.  Its title, ‘Misirlou,’ means, ‘The Egyptian.’”

It hit this interviewer like a delayed ton of bricks tumbling toward the obvious–in Turkish, mısır means Egypt/Egyptian, which comes very close to the Arabic pronunciation of the word for Egyptian as well.

Dick Dale and the Deltones.  Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.
Dick Dale and the Deltones. Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.

“Yes, on my uncles’ albums, I saw Miserlou spelled as Misirlou,” Dale notes. “When I came to California, I was learning some songs, applying Gene Krupa’s drumming speed to them and calling it rockabilly. Then this kid who was about seven years old came up to me and said, ‘Man, you play cool! Could you play something on your guitar on just one string?’ I thought oh, geez.

“With the guitar, I either made it sound loving and romantic or powerful,” Dale says. “In order to buy myself some time, I told the boy, ‘Come back tomorrow! I’ll play something on a single string for you then!’ And hopefully, he wouldn’t.

“I think I had tears in my eyes that night because I thought they were going to find out I was a fake, that I really didn’t know how to play the guitar. At that time, I wasn’t even playing ukulele chords on the guitar because I was holding the guitar upside down and backwards. I was unable to make a full chord yet.

“I realized I could possibly play Misirlou on one string. After plucking out the melody, it sounded a bit boring. I thought, wait a minute, I’ve got to play it with a Gene Krupa-style rhythm. The people who wrote the song are probably rolling over in their grave at my version of it. I played it onstage the next night and the rest is history.

“There is a version of Misirlou on one of my CDs that is not listed among the recorded tracks. [Tribal Thunder (Hightone), 1993] I sneaked in on there to be a funny guy,” Dale says. “One day, I decided to play something for the guys in the band during our break, using a guitar that was found floating in the ocean by one of the drummers. This guitar was something we had placed against the wall along with photos of Elvis for inspiration, as if to say, ‘C’mon, Elvis, let’s get it going!’

Dick Dale, 1963.  Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.
Dick Dale, 1963. Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.

“This guitar had nylon strings on it. I picked it up and told the band, ‘This is the way Misirlou was originally played.’ I played the song the standard way. I didn’t know they were recording it. The way this CD ends, it is as if we are playing a joke on the DJ or the person who owns it because anyone listening probably figures the album is over after they hear the last track. But if they wait two or three seconds longer, out of the darkness and silence, this song comes forth of me playing the real Misirlou. It fades in and then the whole song fades out in a ghostly way. It is not mentioned at all on the track listings or the album cover. You have to discover it for yourself. Isn’t that wild?”

“You cannot believe how much this song is loved in places like Russia. I received an email not long ago about a complete orchestral arrangement of it that included a performance by a ballet dancer. I also conducted a symphonic version of Misirlou at Fullerton College a few years back.

“I stood behind the curtain in the wings, waiting with my guitar for the moment when the orchestra came to their first pause, which cued me in to appear onstage and join them. The audience went insane. The symphony completely backed me up. I had asked permission from the conductor if I could conduct and he said yes so I had horns and violins coming in. At that moment, I wanted to quit performing and just become a symphonic conductor because I saw what I could do with their talent. It was like how Salvador Dalí must have felt having an entire palette of color to use for a painting.   It was an unbelievable experience.”

* * *

 [Dick Dale is an interviewee in the book, My First Guitar:  Tales of True Love and Lost Chords from 70 Legendary Musicians.]