Leo Fender — A Music Legend

Leo Fender

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?

Leo Fender and Lionel Richie

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. ...
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