Leo Fender’s wife takes a look backwards at the hardworking genius behind Fender and G&L in her new book, “Leo Fender – The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World”
By JP Durand
Santa Clarita, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/18/18 – Enigmatic and tireless, Leo Fender worked all his life towards perfecting his vision of the electric guitar. Along the way, some of music’s most famous musicians came under the spell of Leo’s creation. His widow, Phyllis Fender, has written a new and intimate memoir of the genius craftsman that focuses on his work ethic, his quiet behind-the-scenes personality, and the restless spirit of innovation that he started at Fender and continued at G&L. The new book is a must-read for any serious Fender guitar fan for an intimate glimpse of the man whose quiet work truly redefined music-making worldwide, introducing iconic instruments like the Telecaster, Stratocaster, and P-Bass, as well as producing the foundational amplifiers for rock, jazz, surf, you name it. Even the venerable Marshall brand of amps started as a tweak of Leo Fender’s Bassman circuit. So who was this man?
Born in 1909, Fender seemingly put his mind to the task of aiding musicians and sound from a very young age. Developing an interest in electronics, his work on radios and public address systems was instrumental in providing the foundation of his later guitar and amplifier work. A chance observation of a guitarist in a big band hacking away, not being heard, stuck with Leo in the early 40’s and thus was a dream born. His rise is well-known to musicians and guitar fans around the world.
After that brief history in the book, Mrs. Fender and co-writer Randall Smith take the reader on a very intimate journey of Leo’s personal life, without the guitars. Presenting a series of vignettes depicting their family life, Mrs. Fender conjures a vision of a quiet, very focused genius who, through Phyllis, lifted his eyes from the workbench just enough to start appreciating family, vacations, and the more relaxed and fulfilling side of life that Leo had, prior to meeting Phyllis, largely avoided. She was his gateway to family, to brief but fulfilling recreation, and ultimately to a spiritual path late in life. First and foremost, however,w as always the work ethic. As Phyllis states, “he knew what people needed, and wanted to make sure people got what he needed – he liked to work.”
I had the good fortune to interview Phyllis and Randall about the book. Randall comes from Fullerton, and his father Pete worked at Fender Research and Development for years. At some point after Leo’s passing in 1991, Randall attended a talk Phyllis gave at a Fullerton Museum Center, and was taken with her personality and sense of humor. He had also found she had written a book and was searching for a publisher. Over lunches at the Fullerton institution, Polly’s Pie, they developed a comfortable friendship, and Randall came to help her with this book. Between their connection to Leo Fender and Fullerton, one gets a sense of the depth of shared experience behind this book. She stated she “wanted the world to know the real Leo”. To this end, the personal stories she tells run the gamut from the humorous (Leo’s unexpected “parade” in Chicago, one of the funnier stories in the book) to the poignant (where Phyllis discussing details of the day of Leo’s unexpected passing).
The history of Fender Guitars, the sale to CBS and the subsequent years have been well-documented in other books. That significant chapter of guitar history is covered a bit in this book. But the first meeting between Leo and Phyllis only took place after the death of Leo’s first wife, Esther. Esther had been at Leo’s side for the early years at Fender Guitars, but died in 1979 after a long battle with cancer. Via the intercession of mutual friends George and Lucille Fullerton (the George, to Leo’s “L”, from G & L Guitars), Phyllis came around to be a pal and give Leo some emotional support after Esther’s passing. This grew to a full-blown love affair and comprises the most touching part of the book, covering the courtship and wedding.
After that, the book goes into the sort of personal accounts you’d never hear any other way: travel, food habits, and buying a house, amongst others.
On the Fender work environment: Randall shares, “My dad loved worked there. [Legendary Fender engineer and designer from Hawaii] Freddie Tavares played at my sister’s wedding and at Leo and Phyllis’s wedding. I never heard a negative things about Leo ever. He wasn’t a greedy type – he was so down-to-earth. He created a culture where everyone was working so hard. There was love in the factory, love in the plant from the point of view of the workers. Leo was the kind of solid, steady guy that everyone loved at all levels.”
On Les Paul and Leo, which is covered more in-depth in the book: “He and Les were good friends, they were not competitors. They had a glass of lemonade and talked about their guitars. Leo DID go into Les’s garage to look at the technology.”
On his quiet personality and later family life with Phyllis – Randall mentioned that “Leo was so quiet he was almost invisible. I walked by him a hundred times [on his way to visit his dad at Fender] and never knew him. Unless he had something to talk about guitars, he didn’t want to talk to people”. However, several years after Phyllis and Leo were together, she says “There was work and there was play. He got this great big giant family when he married me, and he liked the house to be filled with them. He didn’t need the house to be filled with guitars. It was the only time of his life where he wasn’t thinking about guitars, like at Christmas when the grandkids were running through the house. We had two worlds.”
He seemed like such a personable guy, I had to ask if there was anything he didn’t like. The lovely and always-funny Phyllis responded: “He didn’t like it when dinner was late. He didn’t like it when people were lazy. He didn’t like messiness. His office, as a rule, was always clean. How he married me, I’m not sure. I’m sort of messy, but lovable, so what can I say?”.
During the interview, we briefly discussed G&L, Leo’s second wonderful guitar company. Phyllis married Leo September 20, 1980, less than a year after they met. G&L came to fruition in 1979. So Phyllis had a front row seat for the early products and innovations of the G&L era. And Leo continued to work through the years even as Parkinson’s disease began to take its toll. Leo worked all the way to the end. “Leo was working on a very unusual guitar/bass. He was working on it the night before he died. But they’ve never put it into production.” Randall continues, “It’s a very odd piece. It’s like he was saying, ‘forget David Copperfield – I’m going to leave you with this.’ HE knew what he was doing, but left a mystery for the rest of us”.
Possibly the most moving part of the book is spiritual, where Leo tells Phyllis about a dream he had. Phyllis states, “[That moment] changed his thinking and his living. He wanted to be a musician, but he kept finding stumbling blocks. When he had this dream, it clarified his life for him. He said he was told by Jesus that his reason for being here was to make these instruments – that people who really knew how to play music were going to entertain the world with these instruments.” He lived by this dream every single time he worked. He only became a practicing Christian towards the end of his life. But he had lived a productive, supportive and loving life long before that. It is one of the many fascinating and inspiring aspects of the man found in “Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World”.