An unforgettable laugh
Dale Smallin, who recorded the wild cackle at the intro of the classic Surfari’s hit ‘Wipe Out,’ now enjoys a mellow life in downtown Sacramento
Resting underneath a green awning outside downtown’s Capitol Park Cafe, Dale Smallin inhales one last drag of his Pall Mall red cigarette as the hectic traffic of Ninth Street whizzes past. Partially relying on a wooden cane, Smallin slowly enters the cafe for his daily meal, greeting the waitress, Sally, by name. Determined, he heads straight to his usual spot, second table on the right, and politely waves away her offer of a menu. He has it memorized.
To many customers in the cafe, Smallin is an ordinary man enjoying a ham grill with fries. And although his days may appear routine, Smallin’s memories of youthful endeavors are tales of rock ’n’ roll history—and one unforgettable laugh.
Smallin was manager of the surf-rock band the Surfaris, known for their 1963 hit “Wipe Out.” And Smallin’s voice was responsible for the maniaclike cackle that taunts listeners in the song’s opening moment.
Nearly half a century later, the now 74-year-old Smallin lives in downtown Sacramento and enjoys the perks of life on the grid. He eats at the same cafe every day. It’s routine, a life of the usual. Yet his blue eyes still beam, revealing an inner teenager who’s still alive and well.
Inside the cafe, small, leather booths rest atop a red-and-white-checkered floor, the smell of fresh-cooked eats greeting customers upon entering. Classic rock plays at a low volume in the kitchen as Smallin settles in his seat. A quiet waitress, who he calls Elizabeth, fiddles with the table’s napkin dispenser.
When she asks how he’s been, Smallin answers honestly. “Fair, slow.” But behind Smallin’s humble, grandpalike demeanor is a man who has witnessed rock ’n’ roll evolve since the 1950s, making him a living treasure trove.
The early 1960s witnessed the advent of the “garage band” and, according to Smallin, this changed life in suburban neighborhoods all across California.
“The Surfaris were one such garage band and, of course, in those days, surf was the big thing,” Smallin remembers. “So whether you surfed or not, you had to act like you did or dress like you did.”
Born and raised in the small, citrus-growing town of Glendora, Calif.—a place where “everyone knew everybody else,” Smallin says—news spread quickly, via word of mouth, that he was a guy who had music connections.
“I did in a minor sort of way. I wasn’t a star maker,” Smallin concedes. “Essentially, I was somebody who could get the band a gig and help them out.”
Smallin had graduated high school in 1953 and went on to the University of Southern California, where he joined the Trojan band and played drums. He did a lot of session work in the early ’50s—or, as he calls it, “during the very early days of rock ’n’ roll.”
Managing the Surfaris just kind of fell into place.
“I was kind of elected manager, although at the time I really knew nothing about managing a band,” Smallin says. And it wasn’t long before the Surfaris wanted to record a 45 rpm single to sell at gigs. Smallin introduced the band to sound engineer Paul Buff, owner of Pal Recording Studio.
“A lot of people liked to record out there, plus he was a super engineer,” he says. Buff’s studio formerly was owned by Frank Zappa, so the spot had a reputation, and the band agreed.
“And Frank Zappa used the facility for not only sound recording, but also to make dirty movies,” Smallin adds, laughing.
As the Surfaris finished recording the song “Surfer Joe,” Smallin says Buff asked the band to record the 45’s B-side. No one in the band had a clue, so the Surfaris whipped up a surf-rock staple: “Wipe Out.”
“‘Wipe Out’ was actually improvised within 15 minutes,” Smallin says. “My suggestion was, ‘Well, everybody here will contribute something to the B-side, whatever it be.’”
The song was recorded in one take. “Then everybody looked at me and said, ‘Well, we all contributed. What are you going to contribute?’” Smallin remembers.
And so, the crazed laugh at the beginning of “Wipe Out” was born.
“I titled [the song] and came up with the idea of a laugh. I pictured a little wannabe surfer, a ‘little gremmie’”—lingo for gremlin—“sitting on the rocks, laughing at some surfer that’s wiped out.”
“Wipe Out” spent months on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, reaching the No. 2 slot in 1963, being beat out of the top slot by Stevie Wonder’s song “Fingertips.” Smallin says he still receives small, $60 royalty checks from time to time.
“The album didn’t really do that much, even though you still find it in stores,” Smallin says.
Eventually, the Surfaris decided to take an offer for a long-term contract with Decca Records and split with Smallin. Things started changing. The British Invasion came in ’64, and everything went British.
Decades have passed since “Wipe Out” was written in a little recording studio in Rancho Cucamonga. Smallin says he’s still in touch with lead guitarist Jim Fuller, rhythm guitarist Bob Berryhill and original bassist Pat Connolly. Drummer Ron Wilson sadly died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 45 in the RV resort town of French Camp.
Smallin admits to being a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to film and video, and is currently writing a screenplay on the making of “Wipe Out.”
“There were a lot of amusing things that happened on that day,” he says. “It should be finished before summer. Universal is interested, and hopefully I can get a commitment out of them.”
Today, Smallin enjoys occasionally shooting photography with his Canon A-1, complete with five lenses, but finds himself confined to closer quarters as he suffers from lower-back arthritis, limiting his mobility. Smallin’s current musical tastes include bands like Led Zeppelin, early Metallica and the Moody Blues.
“I like some new things, as long as it isn’t gangster rap,” Smallin says of the music he enjoys nowadays. “I actually kind of like hip-hop, when it’s well done.
“It’s funny; most people my age have no idea what I’m talking about” when it comes to music, he says.
Smallin could imitate the little gremmie’s famous cackle up to six years ago, but now it’s just a memory. Still, it lives on.
“The laugh was based on a witch’s cackle that I did for a cartoon voice-over. … The cartoon series was called Fractured Fairy Tales; they were made by the same company that did Rocky and Bullwinkle,” Smallin shares.
“Wipe Out” also has been covered by everyone from the Fat Boys to Animal from The Muppet Show and, over 40 years later, Smallin’s bellowing cackle is still a recognizable staple in music history and very much a part of who he is.
“What it really was was kids playing music the way they wanted to hear it, the way they wanted to play it, without boundaries. It came from the gut.”