Leo Fender was a man whose influence resonates around the world. In just about any public space—stage, restaurant, mall, you name it—the American inventor’s impact is spoken through the ambient acoustics of the electric guitar. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find an influential guitarist of rock ‘n roll or country western who hasn’t riffed on a “Fender” guitar, bass guitar or used his amps. Founder of Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company in Fullerton, CA, he invented the Telecaster, one of the most popular electric guitars in history, and later the Stratocaster. After selling his company to CBS, he founded G&L Musical Instruments, where he continued to create and refine other inventions.
Today the Leo Fender Gallery in the Fullerton Museum, Fender’s legacy and memorabilia are on display in the Fender Gallery at the Fullerton Museum. He was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992—a rare distinction for someone who wasn’t a musician. Humble and modest, he remained a quiet pioneer in music history, an unknown outside the field. But that’s changing with the recent publication of Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World, written by his wife, Phyllis Fender and Randall Bell, whose father worked for the inventor. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan joined Fender and Bell for a chat at Polly’s Pie Shop in Fullerton to learn more about the man behind the inventions.
Lia Martirosyan: Do you have any specific roles being the honorary chair of G&L Guitars?
Phyllis Fender: (laughs) Yeah! I’m the one who organizes the potluck suppers we have there sometimes, and I always bring pie. Those are all my rules.
Martirosyan: From Polly’s Pies? Or do you make your own?
Fender: Well, no, actually from Polly’s. My family Dalton business is we make the big yellow oven that the pies are cooked in, both for Polly’s Pies and for Marie Callender’s. We owned two of the Marie Callender’s shops, and we paid for four of the first ones they had. So we had a lot of business. My dad was in the bakery and restaurant equipment business, and my grandfather designed and built an oven in 1917. My father continued until he passed away about 10 years ago. We put in this Polly’s Pies’ oven, and we put most of the Marie Callender’s in. That’s why this pie shop sort of feels like home.
Martirosyan: So it is your office! (laughter)
Fender: Yeah. Randy met me in the museum, picked me up one night, and then—
Chet Cooper: He does that. (laughter)
Fender: Luckily, there were a lot of people around, so I wasn’t afraid! (laughter)
Cooper: Had you met before? You knew who she was?
Randell Bell: I certainly knew who she was. My mom is 95. She lives two or three streets away from the Fenders. My dad worked for Fender. So I was very familiar with Fender. And yet, we had not met until recently at the museum, although my dad worked there, and I knew a lot of the people who worked at Fender.
Cooper: And did you have the book in mind when you met, or was the idea just connecting?
Fender: No! I don’t know how it started. He just—
Bell: I remember vividly. (laughter) Mrs. Fender was talking to a group of people at the museum, and during the course of speaking, she mentioned her son, who happened to be standing right next to me. And then later on she mentioned that she had written a book but no publishers had taken it. I leaned over to her son and said something like, “You’ve had a front-row seat to some interesting history.” And he smiled and said, “Yeah.” And then I said, “Does your mom need a publisher?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I’m a publisher, although a small one.” (laughs) And he said, “I’ll introduce you afterwards.” So afterwards he did, and we exchanged email addresses, and I sent her an email, and then the next day—
Fender: The next day!
Bell: Just about the next day, we met here at Polly’s, which is my mom’s favorite restaurant. Phyllis showed me the book. It was more like a family photo album with captions.
Fender: Which is what it was. It was supposed to look that way.
Bell: So I said, “It’s a great head start, but I think you need a real narrative.” And that’s how it started.
Fender: When I got home from the museum, he already had sent me an email, and he said, “We’re starting on your book tomorrow at Polly’s at 11:30 am. I’ll see you there.” (laughter)
Cooper: I like it! That’s a good story, thanks for sharing it.
Fender: And I just thought he was fooling. I thought, “Well, this’ll be fun, but it’s not gonna go any place.” Because I thought the book was pretty wonderful, and the publishers couldn’t find any place in their catalog to put it, because it was like a coffee-table book.
Cooper: You mean your original design?
Fender: Yeah, the original one. It had mostly travel pictures, and I explained the pictures. It was as if you came to my home and I said, “Sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea, and I want to show you.” That’s how that book started.
Bell: It’ll be a hardbound book.
Fender: I still, after the first few months, wasn’t sure anything was going to happen, but I was having a lot of fun. He’s so interesting to talk to, and it’s amazing how much we have in common, with his relationship with Fender and of course mine with Leo. His family is absolutely adorable; his wife gives me permission to call him “Honey.” (laughter)
Bell: She just doesn’t care! (laughter)
Fender: I’m sort of like his grandmother. He’s very kind to me. He treats me well. (laughter)
Martirosyan: That’s very sweet!
Fender: It’s been a really nice relationship. And if the book only sells one and a half, I’ll be crying, but I’ll be happy, too.
Martirosyan: How did you and Leo meet?
Fender: We met sort of on a blind date, but not really. Leo’s vice president of G&L was George Fullerton, and he and his wife Lucille attended the same church that I did. George sang in the choir, as I did, and Lucille was my best friend. So they would once in a while talk about Leo. I had no idea who he was. Half my life I didn’t realize he was famous. The first Mrs. Fender had died about a year or so before I ever met him. He was still in deep mourning. He felt he had not done enough for her. She had contracted lung cancer from working at the phone company here in Fullerton. At that time, the women were in one big room where they had to push the buttons to use the phones, and anybody could smoke. But she was not a smoker, and yet she’s the one that got lung cancer.
Cooper: Second-hand smoke, yeah.
Fender: Leo had people taking her all over to find a cure. They had been married 45 years, so it was a long marriage, and it was not her time to stay.
Cooper: So he was well into his career when you two met?
Fender: Oh, yes. He was 26 years older than me. I basically lived with my mom and dad and my kids most of my life. I had three kids, and I had a lot of illnesses, so it was necessary for me to have someone around who would take care of my kids. So I was living with my family, and all of their friends used to come from church, and we’d have these big dinner parties and sing-alongs, so all my friends were seniors. So when Leo came along, it didn’t mean anything. He was like my mom and dad. It bothered him a little bit. In fact, when he suggested at dinner one night that we should get married, he said, “But I’m not gonna be able to entertain you like you probably would want.” And I said, “I’m entertained by seniors now! They’re my best friends! I love seniors. I don’t really associate with anybody my own age.” And he said, “Oh, well, OK, I guess it’s all right. We might as well get married.” (laughter)
So the next day we went down and bought this ring and started planning the wedding.
Cooper: How long ago was that?
Fender: We were married in 1980, on the Love Boat—
Cooper: As in—?
Martirosyan: —the show?
Fender: It was not the show, but it was the boat. We went on a 17-day cruise for our honeymoon. But George and Lucille were the ones who introduced me to Leo. I had been writing the “Parents Without Partners” articles on happiness and how we’re responsible for our own happiness. And they had shown some to Leo to try to get him off his sadness, so they asked me to come and talk to him. They sat Leo in a big chair, and I sat at his feet on an ottoman, thinking that the four of us, George and Lucille, would visit. They left the room and said, “We’ll see you later,” and I didn’t even really know his name. I sat on the stool and started talking, and we barely got into the conversation, and he started to weep.
Lucille had shown him an article I had written that we’re responsible for our own happiness, that we can’t expect our dog or our church or our neighbor to make us happy. We have to make ourselves happy. He kept saying, “But I can’t do that. I can’t do that.” He was really weeping. And that went on and on, and then George and Lucille came in an hour and a half later. I did that three different times. Finally they said, “Well, you know, Leo’s really comfortable with you now. Why don’t you have dinner with us?” Esther and Leo had no family. I said, “OK.” And they said, “But when Leo likes to eat, he just likes to eat. He doesn’t like to talk.” And I said, “That’s OK, I’ll talk to you guys, or I’ll eat.” So I sat down, and Leo started talking to me. He talked and talked and talked, and I looked across the table, and George and Lucille are laughing like crazy. And I went, “What are you guys laughing at?” And they said, “If we knew all we had to do was put a blonde next to him, we’d have done it a year ago!” (laughter)
So that was the beginning. Our first date was a Christmas program at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles. The Country Music Association had a party, and G&L had been invited to come.
Cooper: Do you have a background in music yourself?
Fender: I just sang in the choir. I played the piano. All my family play guitars or ukuleles or pianos, and we sing. Every holiday we sit on the floor and sing. Both my mom and dad were in the choir. It was a musical family but not professionally. Well, I had a baby sister in Santa Barbara who was in several all-girl groups. She played the country music part of it with guitars and stuff.
Cooper: Is your writing based on personal experience? Do you have a degree in psychology?
Fender: (laughs) I may need a psychologist, but no! I love to write. I love words. I do all the narration at church, all the Christmas program stories, and a lot of narration at the museum. I just like words. They’re just so powerful. The writing of the book was simple. He would just ask me a question, and I’d tell him the answer. We had such a good time that it hasn’t been work. It’s just him sitting there and saying, “OK, what did Leo think about this?” or “When did you do this?” “Why did you decide to go on the Love Boat to get
married?” It was a walk down memory lane for me, and it was a history lesson for him.
Bell: Speaking of disabilities, Leo had a glass eye. His eye was damaged when he was seven or eight years old. He was deaf because he had his head in an amplifier and someone turned it on while he was trying to fix it and blew out his hearing. So he had a glass eye and he was deaf. He was socially awkward—I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it, but he was shy. And yet he built an empire. He sold his company for, in today’s dollars, $300 million. It never went to his head. He lived in a mobile home and was quite content. He loved the simplicity. And he built this enormous iconic brand, and he was completely humble about it.
Phyllis’s daughter Chris found Leo’s wallet the other day. We were going through it bit by bit, his Sears card and driver’s license. He had the Sizzler senior discount card in there signed by him, which is priceless. He was just down-to-earth, blended right into our neighborhood. Never showed off. I think that’s a fascinating study in true iconic living.
We did an article that ran in Forbes about Leo on leadership. He was a brilliant leader. He could do anything. He invented the electric guitar, and to document that I think just had to be done. He was so quiet nobody knew what he was like personally. But now we have Phyllis to tell us.
Fender: (laughs) I’m hoping I’m showing you his good side. He was a simple man. And when I say “simple,” I don’t mean “Duh” simple. I mean he was so content within himself that he didn’t need a lot of stuff around him. He was driven to make the best instrument possible because he believed that the world needed it. The week before he died he took my hand one night after I had put him to bed, fed him through the tube in his tummy and gotten him in his jammies, and he said, “You know what, Phyllis? I know this has been hard for you, but thank you.” He didn’t say a lot of thank you’s, and I didn’t need a lot of thank you’s, but I knew what he was thinking. He then said, “You know what? I finished what I was supposed to do.”
How many of us can say that in our life, that we’ve finished what we were put here to do?
Martirosyan: That gave me goose bumps.
Fender: It was a goose bumps moment. And I hugged him and kissed him and cried. And then a week later he was gone.
Bell: And he passed away getting ready to go to work. He had Parkinson’s disease. He was in a wheelchair, and he was slowly getting up to go to work. He worked right up to the very end. Retirement was not a word he used.
Fender: No, it was not.
Martirosyan: Was there anything in the book that you were hesitant to write about, any experience you had?
Fender: Randy and I made a deal there would be nothing negative or nothing that would make fun of Leo or anyone else. It was to be like a love letter. I wanted it to be true. I wanted it to show the Leo that I married, not the Leo some of the world knew. I wanted it to be all about his love of children and those kinds of things.
I didn’t even have to think about what to write about because of all these questions over the years that people have asked me. And that’s what I did at the Fullerton museum in the Fender Gallery, where I work and tell stories about Leo. That’s how I met Randy.
We made sure there was nothing hurtful in the book, because that’s not what either one of us is about. And the book is not made to get even with anybody. It was written to share about a wonderful life and that most people know nothing about.
Bell: There are no skeletons in the closet. Leo never lost his temper, never got mad. He was very emotionally stable. And this is from both Phyllis and my dad. In the book there’s a story about a guy. Leo would work in his laboratory in his office, and he’d walk around the plant every day at least once and check on every single thing. He was proficient at every single job there. He saw a new guy on the job who wasn’t doing it right, so Leo went up to him and said, “You might have an easier time if you do it this way,” and the guy said, “Look, buddy, you do your job, and I’ll do mine,” and Leo said, “OK.” And he just walked away. That was Leo’s personality.
Cooper: That was your dad? (laughter)
Bell: (laughs) No, it was not my dad! But it is not a sugarcoated book. Of course, in any business empire, there are egos at play. We decided to focus more on what Leo was about as a person. He was a very pleasant, very even-keeled, very—
Phyllis Fender: —simple.
Bell: —good, civil human. He was just a good guy. And my dad and others had a very easy time working for him, because he was not a show-off. He wasn’t a jerk. He wasn’t a lot of the things that come to mind when you think of a CEO of a major empire. He was down-to-earth. If he invited you to lunch, it meant you were going to Carl’s Jr., and you had half an hour. If he saw a car in the parking lot he liked, he’d probably get on the asphalt and climb underneath to look at it.
Cooper: Because he knew Carl Karcher? (laughter)
Bell: Actually, it’s funny you say that, because Leo was born in a barn on the corner of Harbor and La Palma in Anaheim, right across the street from Carl Karcher’s first Carl’s Jr. The Fender farm was literally next door to Carl Karcher’s first restaurant. I don’t know if they knew each other or not. And then right down the street on Harbor was a guy named Walt Disney. And Leo invented the electric guitar at 107 S. Harbor, which is right over here. So there were some amazing things happening—
Cooper: And then there’s this Knott guy—
Bell: Yeah, he’s on Brookhurst. He’s on the wrong street altogether. But if he had done it on Harbor—
Fender: —he’d have been famous! (laughter)
Martirosyan: That’s cute! How interesting.
Cooper: Fullerton. When you talk about Fullerton—?
Fender: No connection. Just happened to be that way. That’s what the G. in G&L is. G is George and L is Leo.
Cooper: I didn’t know if it meant “guitar.”
Fender: A lot of people have wondered why it wasn’t L&G, but there again, it was Leo. He didn’t put himself first, he put George first and then L for Leo.
Martirosyan: He had priorities.
Fender: He said, “I don’t want ‘em to think about me. I want ‘em to think about my babies, all of these guitars and pianos and basses and amplifiers.”
Cooper: He made pianos, too?
Fender: Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Bell: And Rogers drums. They made everything.
Cooper: Tell me the difference in a nutshell between selling the Fender Company to CBS and then to G&L.
Fender: One is the big brother and one’s the little brother, and Leo was the daddy in between. Because Fender is everywhere. And Leo felt he had to sell Fender because the doctors told him he was dying. And then he didn’t die. But he sold it, and I think he was sorry later.
Cooper: He still worked?
Fender: Yes, he worked for Fender for a long time after he sold it. But then after he sold it, he had 10 years that he couldn’t compete. So he did other things. He invented new things. He stayed in the business, making all kinds of nuts and bolts and things. I didn’t know him then, but people told me stories about it. When the 10 years were up, they decided to do the G&L, and all of the things that are being done today at G&L and basically at Fender are all his ideas. They were fantastic way back then, and they’re fantastic right now.
Cooper: Do you think he was more intrigued with the invention, using electricity, finding different ways of making something happen? Or was it the music?
Fender: Oh, it was the creating. He was such a tinkerer about every kind of thing. We’d go on these beautiful cruises, and I would wonder where he was and find out he was down in the engine room taking pictures of the engines or the gears. All the pictures that I took of our cruises, I got sunsets and children playing on the beach and all that, and he’s got gears hanging from the ceiling or a light—”How did that light fixture stay in that wall?” Every once in a while he’d look at a sunset.
Cooper: And wonder how it was made? (laughter)
Fender: We were only married 11-and-a-half years before he passed away, but we went on 10 cruises, sat on the Great Wall of China and rode down the chocolate-brown Amazon River. Those were things he had wanted to do. He had one more he wanted to do, but he didn’t tell me about it until his Parkinson’s was so severe. He wanted to sail around the tip of South America. But the sea is very, very rough there, and by that time his Parkinson’s had taken over, and I was afraid he would be injured. He was a little disappointed. I said, “Honey, if you’d told me this 10 years ago, we could have done it.”
He was very satisfied with life. He felt he had been given a family. He married into a very strong Christian family. The Lord became part of his life. He understood more of why we’re here as our lives wound around each other, and that we’re here for a reason. He realized what his reason was, and my reason was to take care of him. Most people say, “He was so quiet.” But when it was just the two of us, we laughed and laughed at all kinds of stuff and did silly things on the ship, like getting Mai Tais and piña coladas. There’s a funny story in the book about that.
It wasn’t just this old man and this younger woman. It was never that. It was two people who enjoyed each other. And it was comfortable. We just had fun. And we both loved to eat.
Cooper: And drink Mai Tais.
Bell: Well, he didn’t drink, but if she ordered it, it wasn’t drink. (laughs) It’s in the book.
Fender: I don’t drink, either, but I might as well tell you the story about the Mai Tai. We were on the boat—and Leo always sat back in the corner overlooking the deck and the pool. I’d be in it 90 percent of the time getting skin cancer, and he’d be sitting back there wearing his black jacket, black slacks, black socks, black shoes, and sometimes a white hat. He’s designing and designing. So I had been in the pool for a couple of hours. And he’s going, “Phyllis! Phyllis! Come here!” He’s waving at me. So I thought maybe he was ready for lunch. So I wiped off and walked over and he said, “You know, you really need a Mai Tai.” And I went, “Leo, I don’t drink!” And he said, “You really, really need a Mai Tai. It’s so hot.” And I said, “Leo, no.” And he called the waiter over and said, “We’ll have one Mai Tai.” And I said, “Leo, I just want iced tea.” And the waiter brought back the Mai Tai and set it there, and so Leo pushed it over in front of me and he said, “OK, have a drink.” I took the straw and slurped a big slurp, and it actually did taste pretty good!
So I put it down, and he drank the rest of it! (laughter) And I said, “I thought you didn’t drink.” And he said, “Well, you said it was good!” (laughter) And he drank it the whole time. (laughter) But that was the way he was! He wanted to be able to say, “I am not a drinker.” For some reason, that was very important for him. His wife had a Mai Tai. And I’m not a drinker at all, no way.
Cooper: So you had four Mai Tais?
Fender: (laughs) It actually tasted pretty good. Those were just fun things we teased about. Every time we were on a ship, I said, “Are we having Mai Tais on this ship?” “No more Mai Tais.” “OK, I’ll just go get some more skin cancer out in the pool.”
Cooper: So he was wearing black socks—?
Fender: He wore black almost all the time. He wore black pants, black socks, black shoes, black jacket, and black sweats he wore to sleep in, with the black socks on. Then he did one of two things. He either wore a baby blue short-sleeve shirt or a white short-sleeve shirt. And then he wore that with his black pants and all the rest. He did that on the ships and he did that when—well, I did talk him out of it for our wedding. He did have a black suit on, but it wasn’t his blazer.
Cooper: If he wore sandals, would there be black socks underneath?
Fender: (laughs) Probably! But he’d never be caught in sandals. Real men don’t wear sandals. Mr. Farm Man.
Cooper: Would he wear flip-flops?
Fender: No. He wore regular men’s black shoes. Not even tennis.
Cooper: But on a ship he wouldn’t wear anything more tropical?
Phyllis Fender: In the book, we have a picture of him wearing a colored shirt. One of the ships we were on asked everybody to wear something bright and colorful. They were having a fiesta or Mardi Gras event. So we borrowed a shirt off of one of the waiters, because Leo had a blue shirt and a white shirt, and that was it. Of course, I had no trouble with color. So we have a picture of him with this bright-colored shirt on. I don’t recall now whether we ever gave it back to the waiter.
Cooper: They called us earlier to ask you to return that shirt! (laughter) How’s your health?
Fender: Well, I have a variety of things going on.
Martirosyan: There was something about a diagnosis of just a few months to live?
Fender: Yes. I was snorkeling in Maui one year. My mom and dad and my sisters always went to Maui in February because my birthday is on the 20th of February, and my dad’s birthday is the 11th of February. And the whales are there in February. So my two sisters and my dad and I were snorkeling over some beautiful reefs. It was just beautiful. And all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe. I came up gasping, and I grabbed my dad’s leg, and Dad thought I had swallowed some water. I finally got hold of my baby sister, and I pulled and pulled on her. They pulled me over to shore, and I lay there for a few minutes and crawled across the sand to where our blanket was and passed out. They got me back home, didn’t take me to the doctor. It was my birthday. We were going out to dinner.
Cooper: How old were you?
Fender: Well, it was 28 years ago—somewhere in my forties.
Cooper: Somewhere in your 20s.
Fender: (laughs) I felt like I was 20! We were going home the next day. So they said, “You can see the doctor when you get home.” When I got home, I felt a little weak, and then I had another seizure in my dad’s office where I couldn’t breathe, and he got me in the car and took me immediately to my doctor. I walked into the doctor’s office, and the doctor looked at me, and he said, “Get her to the hospital right now!” So they took me to the hospital, and my heart was only working at 17 percent. They did all kinds of tests. They sent me to UCLA for more tests and maybe have a new heart put in. I was twice on their list for a heart transplant, and they decided to use other means. They finally said, “Let’s try a pacemaker, a fibulator.” I’ve had that ever since, and it has kept me here today. But it was not during Leo’s time. It was after I was a widow.
Cooper: If you had been on the Big Island, the person who invented the pacemaker lives there.
Fender: Oh, really? Well, the young girl who lives with me, who’s sort of my adopted daughter from church, all of her family lives on the Big Island.
Cooper: So the pacemaker’s working for you?
Fender: It’s working. I’m due to have a transplant probably in January.
Cooper: Is the pacemaker a Medtronic product?
Fender: I don’t know. I haven’t looked at it lately.
Cooper: A person similar to Leo, an engineer tinkering around—
Fender: (laughs) Oh, I don’t want any tinkering with my pacemaker!
Cooper: His story’s similar in that he’s a brilliant person tinkering around who created this thing.
Fender: Yeah, their minds run a different way. We’re thinking, “Look at those beautiful clouds, that sunset, that tree, this book, this iced tea in front of us!” That’s what we’re seeing—well, I’m not speaking for you guys, but most people. What Leo saw and the man who did the pacemaker, they’re thinking of things not seeable at the moment. They’re feeling what they can create. He was so proud of his babies, having such a good time with his work. He was so happy to be himself. But he wouldn’t let anybody else know that.
Cooper: While we’ve been talking, there’s a classic station playing in the background, and several times I’ve heard the guitar and I’m thinking—
Fender: It’s appropriate! (laughs)
Cooper: It’s just amazing—
Bell: Really, the chances are very good.
Cooper: That’s so strange. Lia just got this phone. She does other things than just being a great writer and author. She also sings classical music. We were in Italy, I had a speaking engagement at a conference on accessibility on the Web, and she was singing in Florence.
Fender: How wonderful!
Cooper: You talk about people looking at things differently. Now with this new phone, she’s a little different. Where was this picture taken again?
Martirosyan: In Florence, at the Piazzale Michelangelo.
Cooper: Have you been there? Did you see the big statue of David?
Fender: Yes. Oh, he has a beautiful bottom! (laughter)
Cooper: Everybody’s in front taking pictures of him, and she goes to the back—
Martirosyan: (laughs) Selfies!
Cooper: —so this is her screensaver now. (laughter)
Fender: But his bottom is beautiful! Leo said “They’re nasty,” and I went, “No, it’s beautiful!” It was. I didn’t particularly want to see the front, but the back was beautiful.
Cooper: Now every time I see her phone—
Fender: We’ll be best friends! (laughter)
Fender: Are you leaving?
Bell: It’s all over.
Fender: Us nasty girls, that’s OK! (laughter) That statue is magnificent, and so big! That was one of the places Leo and I stopped on one of our cruises.
Bell: I think one of the interesting things about Leo was that a lot of people invent something or build a company to bring themselves fame or fortune, but Leo wasn’t like that. He was very authentic and very pure. He really was on a mission to invent guitars to give to musicians. He didn’t play a guitar. He didn’t know how to tune a guitar. His mission was to get the instruments into the hands of musicians to create music. It was a very pure mission. There was no ulterior motive. It wasn’t about him, it wasn’t about fame, and it wasn’t about fortune. He got all that, but he couldn’t have cared less. And that’s what’s so intriguing about it. You see all the CEOs today who are just—
Fender: —in ivory palaces.
Bell: Yeah. But he was the real deal.
Cooper: Are there other books on the market about Leo?
Bell: There are lots of books about guitars, but not so much about Leo. This is the first. Miraculously, I got LeoFender.com.
Cooper: How’d that happen?
Bell: I don’t know how it happened.
Fender: Yes, you do. You know why.
Bell: We say it’s a God thing.
Fender: Yeah, we always say, when something like that happens, and you don’t think it can happen—
Bell: —that He’s up there pullin’ strings. I think Leo’s story needs to be told. It’s inspiring. This guy who had every excuse to—
Phyllis Fender: —hate the world.
Bell: —be bitter, but he was positive and pleasant. He kept goin’, and he created an empire, and even then, that didn’t destroy him. A lot of people can handle adversity, but they can’t handle power. And he had both. He had adversity and disabilities, and he had power and money. None of that destroyed him. That’s an inspiring story.
Martirosyan: I’m curious about yours and Leo’s favorite genre of music.
Fender: Country is basically all Leo wanted to listen to. Of course, I love Christian music, and I love classical music. As long as it’s not music with all of the naughty stuff. I don’t want that. (laughter) I like pretty music. I like music that you can hum.
Fender: A song that stays with you, that maybe you’ll hear on the radio or in a production. It plays and plays, and three or four days later you can still remember it, or anything by Willy Nelson. I love Willy Nelson. In fact, his name is in the book. It was one of the arguments Leo and I had. I won ‘cause I put it in the book. (laughter)
Leo basically liked Sons of the Pioneers, or music like that. But strangely, he had his whole big setup at the house with stereos, 78s records and the big ones, what are they called? In fact, I had loaned his whole case of them to the Leo Fender Gallery. He never had music on in the house.
Maritorsyan: Well, if he couldn’t hear well, he probably wouldn’t enjoy it.
Fender: But he had his hearing aids in most of the time, unless I was talking too much. (laughter) That’s a story in the book, too.
Bell: You asked a really interesting question. Leo liked three kinds of music: country was number one, western was number two, and country western was number three.
Fender: That really was what he liked!
Bell: And he invented the electric guitar over here on Harbor Boulevard, and it took off with the country western crowd. Rock and roll had not been invented yet. A lot of people don’t realize that. Leo invented the electric guitar in the 1940s, and it took off with the country western genre for years and years. Rock and roll didn’t come along until the ‘60s, 20 years later. When we think of electric guitars, we think of rock and roll, but the genesis of the electric guitar was with country western.
Every single country western star in the world came to Leo right over here.