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Written By: By Donna Johnson
Clarence “Leo” Fender was a man of his times. He took piano lessons and played saxophone in grammar school, but he was more intrigued by radio, then in its early days. As a youth, he put together his own crystal set, and during his teens, he assembled a ham radio station in his father’s barn, the same barn where he was born in 1909 on land that’s now part of Anaheim, California.
His parents, Clarence Monte Fender and Harriet Elvira Wood, were still building their house at the time of Leo’s birth. They eventually developed a successful orange grove on that farm near the Fullerton border, and Leo was among local kids who worked in the packinghouses.
While in high school, Leo started building and fixing radios and audio amplifiers. He set up shop at home and did repair jobs for fellow students. Even as a teenager he was considered an authority. And his younger sister, Wilda, remembers him providing a sound system for her high school dances.
After graduating from Fullerton Union High, Leo enrolled at Fullerton Junior College to study accounting from 1928 to 1930. He worked in that field until the Great Depression led to a layoff from his job, but through his life, he was seldom without a “gadget” project or his shirt’s pocket protector packed with pens to jot down a new idea.
During college, Leo was also “keen about kayaking,” said Geoff Fullerton, son of Leo’s longtime business partner, George W. Fullerton. Leo joined the campus Kayak Club and made his own kayak that he remembered fondly, Geoff added.
By the time he finished FJC classes, both kayaking and playing instruments took a back seat to his interest in electronics, along with a series of part-time jobs and then an accounting stint with the State Highway Department.
“He was hyper left brain, so both accounting and electronics make sense,” Geoff Fullerton said, noting that Leo saw a growing need for his radio expertise. “Radio was in its infancy and repairs were always needed.”
Thus, Leo borrowed $600 and used his Ford Model A as collateral to open his first radio repair shop in 1938: Fender’s Radio Service, at 112 South Spadra Avenue (now Harbor Boulevard) in Fullerton. It moved to various larger sites as business grew and quickly became a retail outlet, specializing in” every branch of sound,” according to Leo’s 1945 newspaper ad pictured in “Fender: The Sound Heard ‘Round the World,” by Richard R. Smith.
Later, Fender’s Radio Service carried sheet music, records and hearing aids as well, Smith notes. Leo also drove a mobile sound truck with the store name emblazoned on the side, and he rented it to political candidates and others who wanted to drive around town and blast out their message. He also performed another lucrative service – installing car radios.
Ironically, his youthful love of kayaks proved helpful in 1938, when a Santa Ana River flood wiped out his shop that was then just south of the culvert on Harbor Boulevard, next to the present site of Costco, Geoff Fullerton said. The water was so high that shop owners had to row to their stores.
Leo scraped together enough money to open another shop and, with the growth of Big Bands in those years, Leo served many musicians, learning their preferences, especially in guitars and amplifiers brought in for repairs. He said many times that his interest in amplifiers led to electric guitars.
About this time he also met Don Randall, a fellow radio and electronics buff who was a salesman supplying radio shops in Southern California. Randall had made a portable amplifier with a big speaker system that he took to parties and dances.
They shared ideas for future business. Leo wanted to be more than a shopkeeper, and he would tell Don: “We gotta make something!”
During World War II, Leo teamed up with musician and dedicated tinkerer Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman and they started a short-lived company, K&F Manufacturing Corp., to design and build amplified Hawaiian guitars and amplifiers. Leo never learned to play guitar, or even tune one, but tinkering with instruments left for repairs taught him the defects in design and how to correct them.
Their “guitar department,” where they often developed and modified models till midnight or later, was a metal shed at the back of Leo’s store. Production of K&F designs was slow, but the instruments they made caught the attention of musicians and Don Randall, who had returned from service in the U.S. Army and started doing business again with Leo.
In 1946, Don sealed a deal with Leo to be the exclusive distributor for K&F instruments. Coincidentally, Doc Kauffman decided to exit the K&F partnership, although he and Leo remained friends for 50 years.
Leo moved ahead with his business, planning a real factory — Fender Manufacturing Co. — on three vacant lots at the corner of Santa Fe and Pomona avenues, across the street from the Fullerton train station. He recognized the potential for an electric guitar that was easy to hold, easy to tune and easy to play. By 1949, he began working in earnest on designs, with new partner George W. Fullerton, for what became the first Telecaster (originally called the Broadcaster).
Randall recognized the commercial possibilities of the new design and made plans to introduce the instrument as “The Esquire Model,” an idea Fender supported, saying it “sounded regal…” It was officially introduced to the public in April 1950 with a price of $154.95.
Leo was already thinking about another model. Based on customers’ feedback, he decided to leave the Telecaster as it was and add a new design, with the help of his draftsman, Freddie Tavares. Released in 1954, the legendary Stratocaster (or “Strat”) has been in-production ever since.
His amplifier designs also set standards that are still followed by the industry.
Fender’s solid body electric guitars had an immeasurable effect on music. When early rock stars, including Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and the Beatles, began playing Fender's brightly colored guitars and basses, the company's success was ensured.
That success induced Columbia Broadcasting Systems to buy Fender Electric Instruments and Fender Sales for $13 million in 1965. CBS sold the company in 1985 for $12.5 million, and it is now based in Corona.
Leo Fender’s “retirement” lasted about two months. He started his own design firm, CLF Research and also returned to his old company as a consultant. When his consulting contract ended, Leo and George Fullerton created G&L and G&L Music Sales in 1980 to handle a new line of guitars and basses.
That was a year of changes in Leo’s personal life. After the death of his wife of 45 years, Esther Klosky in 1979, George Fullerton and his wife, Lucille, introduced Leo to their friend, Phyllis Thomas. They fell in love and were married on the Love Boat in 1980 and they went on Leo’s first cruise, including dinners at the captain’s table, Phyllis said, chuckling at the memory.
“I’d see Leo quietly reach into his pocket, and out came his notes. Then he’d say he was going to our cabin and would be right back, but he never returned. When I checked on him, there he sat, intently making notes about a project at work so he could message George the next day!”
Leo Fender died in 1991, after dealing for months with Parkinson’s disease. “He went to the office every day until the day before he died,” Phyllis recalled. “And of course, he was buried wearing his pocket protector.”
Leo Fender was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, in the non-performer category, with this accolade: “Rock and roll as we know it could not exist without Leo Fender, inventor of the first solid-body electric guitar to be mass-produced: the Fender Broadcaster. Fender’s instruments - which also include the Stratocaster, the Precision bass (the first electric bass) and some of the music world’s most coveted amplifiers - revolutionized popular music in general and rock and roll in particular.”
Rock and roll as we know it could not exist without Leo Fender
“Fender: The Sound Heard ‘Round the World” by Richard R. Smith
Interviews with Phyllis M. Fender
Interview with Geoff Fullerton
Fullerton Public Library Launer Room: “George & Leo: How Leo Fender and I Built G&L’ by George W. Fullerton
“The History of Fullerton Union High School, 1893 to 2011” by Diane Oestreich