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Electric guitar pioneer Leo Fender was born 114 years ago today
Photo by Jon Sievert
Leo Fender, pioneer in electric guitar technology, was born 114 years ago today.
He is the inventor who founded Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company. Fender left the company in the late 1960s, and later founded two other musical instrument companies, MusicMan and G&L Musical Instruments.
The guitars, bass guitars and amplifiers Fender designed from the 1940s forward are still relevant today. The Fender Telecaster (1950) was the first mass-produced electric guitar. The Fender Stratocaster (1954) is among the world's most iconic electric guitars. The Fender Precision Bass (1951) set the standard for electric bass guitars.
The Fender Bassman amplifier, popular enough in its own right, became the basis for later amplifiers (notably by Marshall and Mesa Boogie) that dominated rock and roll music.
Fender was born on August 10, 1909, to Clarence Monte Fender and Harriet Elvira Wood, owners of a successful orange grove located between Anaheim and Fullerton, California. From an early age, he showed an interest in tinkering with electronics. When he was 13 years old, his uncle, who ran an automotive-electric shop, sent him a box filled with discarded car radio parts and a battery.
The following year, young Leo visited his uncle's shop in Santa Maria, California, and was fascinated by a radio his uncle had built from spare parts and placed on display in the front of the shop. Fender later claimed that the loud music coming from the speaker of that radio made a lasting impression on him. Soon thereafter, he began repairing radios in a small shop in his parents' home.
In the spring of 1928, Fender graduated from Fullerton Union High School, and entered Fullerton Junior College that fall, as an accounting major. While he was studying to be an accountant, he continued to teach himself electronics, and tinker with radios and other electrical items but never took any kind of electronics course.
After college, Fender took a job as a deliveryman for Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage Company in Anaheim, where he later was made the bookkeeper. It was around this time that a local band leader approached Leo, asking him if he could build a public address system for use by the band at dances in Hollywood. Fender was contracted to build six of these PA systems.
In 1933, Fender met Esther Klosky and they were married in 1934. About that time, he took a job as an accountant for the California Highway Department in San Luis Obispo. In a depression government change-up, his job was eliminated and he then took a job in the accounting department of a tire company. After working there six months, Leo lost his job along with the other accountants in the company.
In 1938, with a borrowed $600, Leo and Esther returned to Fullerton, and Leo started his own radio repair shop, "Fender Radio Service." Soon, musicians and band leaders began coming to him for PA systems, which he built, rented and sold.
They also visited his store for amplification for the acoustic guitars that were beginning to show up in the southern California music scene — in big band and jazz music, and for the electric "Hawaiian" or "lap steel" guitars becoming popular in country music.
During World War II, Leo met Clayton Orr "Doc" Kauffman, an inventor and lap steel player who had worked for Rickenbacker, which had been building and selling lap steel guitars for a decade. While with Rickenbacker, Kauffman had invented the "Vibrola" tailpiece, a precursor to the later vibrato or "tremolo" tailpiece.
Fender convinced him that they should team up, and they started the "K & F Manufacturing Corporation" to design and build amplified Hawaiian guitars and amplifiers. In 1944, Leo and Doc patented a lap steel guitar with an electric pickup already patented by Fender. In 1945, they began selling the guitar, in a kit with an amplifier designed by Fender.
As the Big Bands fell out of vogue toward the end of World War II, small combos playing boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues, western swing and honky-tonk formed throughout the United States. Many of these groups embraced the electric guitar because it could give a few players the power of an entire horn section.
Pickup-equipped archtops were the guitars of choice in the dance bands of the late-'40s, but the increasing popularity of roadhouses and dance halls created a growing need for louder, cheaper and more durable instruments. Players also needed faster necks and better intonation to play what the country players called "take-off lead guitar."
In the late 1940s, solid body electric guitars began to emerge in popularity, yet they were still considered novelty items with the Rickenbacker Spanish Electro guitar being the most commercially available solid body. Les Paul's one-off home-made "Log" and the Bigsby Travis guitar made by Paul Bigsby for Merle Travis were the most visible early examples.
Fender recognized the potential for an electric guitar that was easy to hold, tune and play, and would not feed back at dance hall volumes as the typical arch top would. In 1949, he finished the prototype of a thin solid-body electric. It was first released in 1950 as the Fender Esquire (with a solid body and one pickup), and renamed first, Broadcaster, and then, Telecaster (with two pickups), the year after.
Although he never admitted it, Fender seems to have based his design on the Rickenbacker Bakelite. The Telecaster, originally equipped with two single-coil pick-ups and widely used among country and western players, became one of the most popular electric guitars in history.
Instead of updating the Telecaster, Fender decided, based on customer feedback, to leave the Telecaster as it was and design a new, upscale solid body guitar to sell alongside the basic Telecaster.
Western swing guitarist Bill Carson was one of the chief critics of the Telecaster, stating that the new design should have individually adjustable bridge saddles, four or five pickups, a vibrato unit that could be used in either direction and return to proper tuning, and a contoured body for enhanced comfort over the slab-body Telecaster's harsh edges.
Fender, assisted by draftsman, Freddie Tavares, began designing the Stratocaster in late 1953. It included a rounder, less "club-like" neck (at least for the first year of issue) and a double cutaway for easier reach to the upper registers.
During this time, Fender also tackled the problems experienced by players of the acoustic double bass, who could no longer compete for volume with the other musicians. Besides, double basses were also large, bulky and difficult to transport.
With the Precision Bass (or "P-Bass"), released in 1951, Leo Fender addressed both issues. The Telecaster-based Precision Bass was small and portable, and its solid body construction and four magnet, single coil pickup let it play at higher volumes without feedback.
Along with the Precision Bass (so named because its fretted neck allowed bassists to play with “precision”), Fender introduced the Fender Bassman, a 45-watt amplifier with four 10-inch speakers (although initially with one 15-inch speaker).
Despite suffering several minor strokes, Fender continued to produce guitars and basses throughout his life.
On March 21, 1991, he died at age 81, having long suffered from Parkinson's disease.
The first-ever electric guitar patent was awarded on this day in 1937 to the Electro String Corporation — 86 years ago.
Versatile, inexpensive and relatively easy to play, the acoustic guitar was a staple of American rural music in the early 20th century — particularly black rural music such as the blues. But a significant physical limitation made it a poor fit in ensembles made up of brass, woodwind and orchestral string instruments. The acoustic guitar was simply too quiet and could not project to audiences.
What transformed the guitar and its place in popular music, and eventually transformed popular music itself, was the development of a method for transforming the sound of a vibrating guitar string into an electrical signal that could be amplified and re-converted into audible sound at a much greater volume.
The electric guitar — the instrument that revolutionized jazz, blues and country music and made the later rise of rock and roll possible — was recognized by the United States Patent Office on this day in 1937 with the award of Patent #2,089.171 to G.D. Beauchamp for an instrument known as the Rickenbacker Frying Pan.
Inventor G.D. Beauchamp, partner with Adolph Rickenbacher in the Electro String Instrument Corp. of Los Angeles, spent more than five years pursuing his patent on the Frying Pan. It was a process delayed by several areas of concern, including the electric guitar's reliance on an engineering innovation that dated to the 19th century.
When a vibrating string is placed within a magnetic field, it is possible to "pick up" the sound waves created by that string's vibrations and convert those waves into electric current. Replace the word "string" with the word "membrane" in that sentence, however, and you also have a description of how a telephone works.
For this reason, Beauchamp's patent application had to be revised multiple times to clarify which of his individual claims were truly novel and which were merely new applications of existing patents.
On August 10, 1937, the Patent Office approved the majority of Beachamp's claims — primarily those relating to the unique design of the Frying Pan's "pickup," a heavy electromagnet that surrounded the base of the steel strings like a bracelet rather than sitting below them as on a modern electric guitar.
Unfortunately for the Electro String Corp., Beauchamp's specific invention had long since been obsolesced by the innovations of various competitors, rendering the patent awarded on this day in 1937 an item of greater historical importance than economic value.
Thanks to History.com
Bobby Hatfield (right) in the Righteous Brothers
Bobby Hatfield, half of the Righteous Brothers, was born 83 years ago today.
Born in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, Hatfield would eventually encounter his singing partner, Bill Medley, while attending California State University in Long Beach. Hatfield and Medley began singing as a duo in 1962 in the Los Angeles area as part of a five-member group, the Paramours.
They were often told they sounded like African-American gospel singers and named their singing act, The Righteous Brothers, after a fan remarked of their singing, "that's righteous, brothers."
Their first charted single as the Righteous Brothers was "Little Latin Lupe Lu" and their first #1 was "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," produced by Phil Spector in 1964. Follow-up hits included the #1 "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration" and "Unchained Melody,” the latter of which was actually a Hatfield solo performance that he recorded again after the success of the film, Ghost.
Hatfield told friends that he had not lost any of the high notes in his tenor/falsetto range since the original recording, but had actually gained one note. The duo broke up in 1968, but returned with another hit in 1974, the #3 "Rock and Roll Heaven."
On November 5, 2003, Hatfield died at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, apparently in his sleep. In January, 2004, a toxicology report concluded that an overdose of cocaine had precipitated a fatal heart attack.
The initial autopsy found that Hatfield had advanced coronary disease. The medical examiner stated "there was already a significant amount of blockage in the coronary arteries." Hatfield was 63.
Here, the Righteous Brothers sing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” on Shindig.
Ronnie and Phil Spector
Ronnie Spector was born 80 years ago today.
A rock and roll and popular music vocalist, Veronica Yvette Bennet, later known as Ronnie Spector, was lead singer of the 1960s hit-making girl group, The Ronettes. She was regarded as an original "bad girl of rock and roll.”
Born in New York City, she took to singing at an early age, encouraged by her large, close family. The other members of the Ronettes, her sister, Estelle Bennett (1941-2009), and cousin, Nedra Talley, were also encouraged to sing by their family.
The Ronettes were a multiracial group. The Bennetts' mother was African-American and Cherokee, and their father was Irish. Their cousin, Nedra Talley, is African-American and Puerto Rican.
Bennett was married to Phil Spector from 1968 to 1974, and took his name professionally. They adopted three children, including a set of twins, whom Phil adopted as a single parent after Ronnie and the youngest child left. By her account, Phil kept Ronnie a near-prisoner and limited her opportunities to pursue her musical ambitions.
In her autobiography, she said that he would force her to watch the film, Citizen Kane, to remind her she would be nothing without him. Spector's domineering attitude led to the dissolution of their marriage.
The Ronettes were produced by Phil Spector and managed by Val Irving of (GAC) General Artists Corp. in Manhattan. In the early 1960s, they had huge hits with "Be My Baby,” "Baby, I Love You,” "The Best Part of Breakin' Up, "Do I Love You?" and "Walking in the Rain.”
The group had two Top 100 hits in 1965, "Born to Be Together" and "Is This What I Get for Loving You." The Ronettes broke up in early 1967.
In 2016, she released English Heart, her first album of new material in a decade. The album features her versions of songs of the British Invasion by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Bee Gees, and others produced by Scott Jacoby. English Heart peaked at #6 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart.
Spector died on January 12, 2022 after a short bout with cancer.
Here, she performs “Be My Baby,” with her “new” Ronettes, Belinda Carlisle and Grace Slick.
Eddie Fisher and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor
Eddie Fisher was born 95 years ago today.
Fisher was the most successful pop singles artist of the first half of the 1950s, selling millions of records and hosting his own TV show. He left his first wife, actress Debbie Reynolds, to marry Reynolds's best friend, actress Elizabeth Taylor, when Taylor's husband, film producer Mike Todd, died.
This event garnered scandalous and unwelcome publicity for Fisher. He later married Connie Stevens. He was the father of actresses Carrie Fisher (with Reynolds), Joely Fisher (with Stevens) and Tricia Leigh Fisher (with Stevens).
A pre–rock and roll vocalist, Fisher's strong and melodious tenor made him a teen idol and one of the most popular singers of the early 1950s. He had 17 songs in the Top 10 on the music charts between 1950 and 1956 and 35 in the Top 40.
Fisher has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — one for recording at 6241 Hollywood Boulevard and the other for television at 1724 Vine Street.
Fisher suffered from knee, back, hearing and eyesight problems in his later years, the last of which were worsened by a botched cataract removal operation. As a result, he rarely appeared in public.
At age 82, Fisher broke his hip on September 9, 2010, and died 13 days later on September 22, 2010, at his home in Berkeley, California, due to complications from hip surgery.
His second wife, Elizabeth Taylor, died six months and one day after Fisher, on March 23, 2011.
Here, Fisher joins Bobby Darin and Andy Williams singing “Do-Re-Mi” in 1966.
Patti Austin is 73 years old today.
An R&B, pop and jazz singer, Austin was born in Harlem and grew up on Long Island. Her father was a jazz musician. She made her debut at the Apollo Theater at age four and had a contract with RCA Records when she was five. Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington are her godparents.
By the late 1960s, Austin was a session musician and commercial jingle singer. During the 1980s, signed to Jones's Qwest Records, she began her most prolific hit-making period. By this time she was both one of the leading background session vocalists, appearing on numerous famous albums by other artists.
Austin was also known as Queen of The Jingles, appearing on jingles for Burger King, Almay make-up, Avon, KFC, McDonalds, Meow Mix, Impulse, Stouffers, Maxwell House and the United States Army. She charted twenty R&B songs between 1969 and 1991 and had success on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart, where she hit #1 in 1981 with "Do You Love Me?" / "The Genie."
The album containing that hit, Every Home Should Have One, also produced her biggest mainstream hit, "Baby, Come to Me," a duet with James Ingram. The song initially peaked at #73 on the Hot 100 in early 1982.
During a 2007 interview, Austin reflected how as a teenager she reluctantly attended one of Judy Garland's last concerts and the experience helped focus her career. "Judy Garland ripped my heart out. I wanted to interpret a lyric like that, to present who I was at the moment through the lyric," she said.
Here, Austin performs “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.”
Jimmy Dean was born 95 years ago today.
A country music singer, television host, actor and businessman, Dean may be best known today as the creator of the Jimmy Dean sausage brand.
He became a national television personality starting in 1957, rising to fame for his 1961 country crossover hit, "Big Bad John," and his television series, The Jimmy Dean Show, which also gave puppeteer Jim Henson his first national media exposure.
Dean’s acting career included a supporting role as Willard Whyte in the 1971 James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever.
On February 23, 2010, Dean was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Dean died at the age of 81, on June 13, 2010, of natural causes at his home near Richmond, Virginia. He is entombed in a nine-foot-tall piano-shaped mausoleum overlooking the James River on the grounds of his estate.
His epitaph reads, "Here Lies One Hell of a Man," which is a quote from a lyric from his uncensored version of the song, "Big Bad John.”
Here, Dean performs “Big Bad John” in 1962.
Sixto Rodriguez, Beacon Theatre, New York City, April 7, 2013
Rodriguez has died at age 81.
Photo by Frank Beacham