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Dick Dale: Surf guitar king riding the wave back from cancer

July 28, 2010 | 10:02 am

Dick Dale 1996 
Many concert-goers came away from Dick Dale’s show Saturday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano impressed by the 73-year-old surf guitar hero’s performance under adverse conditions, and at least one e-mailed friends afterward worried that “I attended what may have been Dick’s final performance.”

So I called Dale to check on how he’s doing, and after 90 minutes on the phone, I concluded that reports of his imminent retirement are exaggerated. The man who once famously wrestled the pet tiger he kept at his Balboa Peninsula mansion is, however, now wrestling with some even more aggressive health matters.

Adhering to “the show must go on tradition,” Dale went through with Saturday’s concert despite having just emerged from of a nine-day stay at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where doctors have been searching for the source of an intestinal leak that’s caused an infection the veteran guitarist didn’t know he had.

The treatment prompted him to cancel a tour of Japan he was to make with his 18-year-old son, Jimmy. They were going to play several concerts as a duo using new Fender signature acoustic guitars they’re endorsing.

But Dale wasn’t ready to call off the Coach House show, so close to the Orange County coastline where he launched his career more than half a century ago, when he sought to re-create musically the powerful rush he got riding the waves on his surfboard.

Dick Dale tiger

“I’ve known Gary [Folgner, the Coach House’s owner] for 100 years -- we're soul mates,” Dale quipped from his boat moored in Newport Beach, where he lives when he's not at his 81-acre ranch in Twentynine Palms. “I thought, ‘I cannot cause this man to lose thousands of dollars.' ”

So he brought Jimmy Dale along to supplement his guitar-bass-drums power trio, the son coming to the father’s aid whenever the elder musician, who had been experiencing vertigo because of the infection, needed a break.

“The last time I asked him to come with me when I played there, he said , ‘No, Dad, I don’t want to do it.’ He gets embarrassed…. This time I told him, ‘Jimmy, I wouldn’t ask you to play with me if I didn’t need you. I don’t want to sit there looking like a bump on a log — you can get people’s minds off me looking like Mr. Gimpy. Without questioning me, he said ‘OK, Dad, I will.’ ”

Dale’s voice, which sounded somewhat shaky when he picked up the phone, grew stronger as he spoke about the show, the new guitars he helped design, a forthcoming retrospective CD and about the treatment he’s been going through following the discovery and removal of a malignant tumor in his intestinal tract in 2008.

In the wake of that procedure, following rounds of chemo and radiation treatment, the leak emerged but went undetected until this month. Dale said he’s due for a return trip to Cedars so doctors can repair the elusive leak.

Meanwhile, he said he gains strength from playing music when he can, from the many get-well wishes he’s been receiving via e-mail from his followers — “I don’t like to use the word ‘fans,’ ” Dale said. “I call them ‘Dick Dale music lovers’ ” —and by keeping his mind on helping encourage other cancer patients to stay strong.

In fact, he said he’s traded his longstanding nickname — “King of the Surf Guitar” — for a new one: “Dick Dale — Cancer Warrior.”

He’s also looking ahead to the Sept. 7 release of “Guitar Legend: The Very Best of Dick Dale,” a career retrospective CD being issued by the Shout! Factory reissue specialty label.

“I’m so excited about this, and I never get excited about anything,” he said as he read the track list over the phone. (“Wow," he said, “ ’Esperanza’ — which is my favorite song that Jimmy and I do together. ‘Surf Boogie’ — I can’t even remember how that one goes.”)

He also said he was humbled by his induction last year into the fledgling Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, along with country singer-fiddler Charlie Daniels and guitar virtuoso-producer Chet Atkins, among several others. That's helped him keep a positive attitude as he approaches his next round of treatment.

“I have to go back in” to the hospital, he said. “They found the other day that everything is messed up, and if it continues that way, I will die. But I’m not ready to leave my son, not ready to leave [his girlfriend and caretaker] Lana, I’m not ready to leave all the Dick Dale music lovers. They’ve been my medicine.”

-- Randy Lewis

Photo (top): Dick Dale in 1996. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Photo (center): Dick Dale wrestling his pet tiger (date unknown). Credit: Dick Dale Archives

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