The Los Angeles Times reported that Rolling Stones' Keith Richards accepted his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with this statement, Thank God for Leo Fender, who makes these instruments for us to play. Indeed, Leo's contribution to making music compares to what Henry Ford did for driving and Levi Strauss did for dressing. Fender created and inspired modern electric guitars and amplifiers, the ubiquitous instruments now played in all styles of popular music. His pioneering, innovative, innovative companies - Fender, Music Man, and G&L - armed a music revolution's foot soldiers with affordable products designed and manufactured to exacting standards of durability, tone, and performance.
Virtually everyone has heard the forthright, jet-age tone of Fender electric guitars. Lawrence Welk's generation enjoyed Buddy Merrill, Alvino Rey, and their assortment of Fenders. Country music stars like buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Ricky Skaggs owe their twang to Leo's Telecasters. Now part of the unofficial rock & roll dress code, Fender instruments have shared stages with Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. Current-day grunge musicians wear Fenders like flannel - Nirvana's Kurt Cobain* plays Leo's student-model Mustang. Leo Fender's immeasurable impact on music still reverberates throughout the industry.
As a friend and volunteer tester for Leo, I witnessed and admired his tireless work for musicians. In contrast to his music revolution, he was a quiet man. He chose his words carefully and used vivid metaphors to describe what he saw and heard. His rare ability to rethink and solve musician's problems shaped the sound of the Twentieth Century music more than any single inventor. Defining the music of at least two generations born after World War II, his guitars will continue influencing musicians for years to come.
*Statement written prior to the death of Cobain
This exhibit conveyed the scope of Leo Fender's life and legacy over five decades and into the future. We chose a decade by decade approach to illustrate the relationship between Leo's guitars, the evolution of music, and social change. Fender instruments, engines of change, bridge generations, music cultures, and styles. Leo's work has brought everyone closer through music, one of the great pleasures of life. this exhibit celebrated the musical instruments that started in a small radio shop four blocks away from the Fullerton Museum Center. Fifty years later, those instruments truly make sounds heard around the world.
Clarence Leonidas Fender was born on August 10, 1909 on his parent's ranch in their barn. The Fender ranch and orange groves, produced the area's most viable cash crop. Although the ranch straddled the border between Fullerton and Anaheim, on what is now La Palma Avenue, Leo and his sister went to Fullerton schools. He considered Fullerton his home town.
At thirteen, Fender took up electronics as a hobby. He told a group of former classmates at a high school reunion: I had an uncle who ran an auto-electric shop in Santa Maria. On Christmas of 1921 he sent me a package containing a storage battery and a lot of discarded auotmobile electronic parts. Leo visited Santa Maria in 1922 and saw a homemade radio his uncle had put on display in front of the shop. The loud music from that speaker made a lasting impression on the lad from Fullerton. He began building and repairing radios in his shop at home for fellow students.
Leo graduated from Fullerton Union High School in the spring of 1928, entered Fullerton Junior College that fall, and majored in accounting. contrary to several published stories and the impressions of some close associates, Leo received no formal training in electrical engineering. He mastered the subject on his own while studying to become an accountant.
After attending junior college, Fender worked as a delivery man for the Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage Company in Anaheim, then as the bookkeeper. He continued doing radio repair work at home. In 1932 he became aquainted with an orchestra leader sponsoring dances in Hollywood. (When asked in the 1980s, Leo had long forgotten the man's name.) He contracted Fender to build the first of several public address systems he assembled in the 1930s. About this time the young accountant-cum-radio tech. met a girl named Esther Klosky.
Leo and Esther married in 1934. He landed a job as an accountant for the State of California Highway Department in San Louis Obispo where they lived until 1938. Yet in a convoluted Depression-era government to business management switch, Leo found himself working for a privately owned tire company. Six months later, in a shakeup of the accounting department, Leo lost his job. With six hundred dollars that he borrowed, Leo returned to Fullerton and set up a full-scale radio repair shop.
The Fender Radio Service led Leo into a life of guitars and amplifiers. Leo saw his opportunity to build a better guitar starting where Electro String, Vivi-Tone, and other manufacturers left off. Leo Fender invented an improved electric guitar and capitalized on a turning point in music history, the decline of the Big Band Era at the beginning of the post-World War II economic expansion. Even in old age after suffering several small strokes and progressive degeneration from Parkinsons disease, Leo Fender was dedicated to the point of obsession. He continued working everyday he was able, sometimes seven days a week. Once asked in the 1980s why he did not retire and enjoy the fruits of his success, he replied, I owe it to musicians to make better instruments. Leo Fender personified the American spirit of invention. He went to work the day before he died, Thursday March 21, 1991.
Leo Fender's work embellished the world with the sounds of music. He left many friends, and he left the world a much happier place.