Leo Fender invented the electric guitar in 1944 and died in 1991. His wife, Phyllis Fender, has published a book about their life together. The book evolved out of conversations that Phyllis had with Randall Bell at Polly’s Pies, a Fullerton-based chain of diners. (Among other things, Phyllis’s father had built the ovens in the building where the restaurant is housed.) The result reads like an oral history, full of trivia and photographs.
Leo was born in Fullerton, California and loved tinkering. After a childhood on a farm, where he lost an eye in an accident, he grew up to own and operate an electronics repair shop. His vision kept him from joining the army in World War II. Instead, he helped produce dances to help sell war bonds. He realized that it was really hard for the guitar sound to be heard among the crowd, and that led him to tinker and develop the first electric guitar.
No surprise for someone from Fullerton, Fender was a fan of Western music (his favorite musician was Glenn Campbell), so he marketed his first guitars to that market. He preferred to work with serious amateurs when he developed his guitars, many of whom worked at the company’s guitar factory. They would perform sets at local clubs to test the instruments live. Leo would visit the shows and get their feedback during their set breaks. “He didn’t necessarily want to work with fancy people,” Phyllis says. “He wanted to work with people who loved to play the guitar.”
Phyllis was Leo’s second wife; they each had been married once before to someone who died. A mutual friend thought that Phyllis might be able to help Leo with his grief, and they ended up getting married about a year after they met.
Neither was a musician, and, in fact, Phyllis knew nothing about Fender Guitars when the two met in 1979. She points out that Leo knew nothing about families (he and his first wife, Esther, did not have children), but that he warmed up to the children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews that Phyllis brought to the marriage.
The book has a lot of interesting insights into Fender. He was a classic entrepreneur of his era. He worked really hard and investment money into the company instead of spending it on himself. Phyllis said that he never took vacations until after they married (and then, he preferred cruises.) He lived in a mobile home for many years after selling Fender Guitars in 1965, because he thought it was more efficient than a regular house. By 1977, he was ready to run a company again and founded G&L Guitars with his friend George Fullerton.
Phyllis tells the story of a man who was very sweet but who really loved working on guitars more than anything else – up to the point of bricking in the window of his home office so that he wouldn’t be distracted. “He never played his stereo equipment, he never played music shows on TV,” Phyllis says. “His music was when he heard his equipment being made. He loved what he did.”
The book includes a driving tour of Fullerton and the surrounding area, with a list of the sites that mattered to Leo Fender and the development of the electric guitar. The Fullerton Museum has a collection of Fender’s memorabilia, and Phyllis volunteers as a docent there.
This is a lovely book for someone who loves music history – and it is on Amazon right now if you need a present for such a person.