The Scrappy Rise of Fender's Early Sales Team: From Lap Steels to Teles

“You can make the finest guitar in the world, but if you don’t sell the first one, you’re not going to get the chance to make another one.” So said Dale Hyatt, a Fender salesman throughout the brand’s glory years. His point won’t be lost today on guitar makers of any size, but it was a factor just as relevant around 1950, when the small new Fender company was taking its early steps toward greatness.

We all know how good a Fender guitar or amp from that period can be, whether by personal experience or received reputation. But without an efficient and assiduous sales operation, those wonderful instruments would have piled up in the factory with nowhere to go. Someone had to actually go out and sell Fender gear.

K&F: The Early History

When Leo Fender opened his radio store in Fullerton in Orange County in the late 1930s, the ex-accountant probably kept his sales research pretty simple. He’d take notice of what his customers bought, make some calls when they asked him to get something he didn’t have, and examine carefully the items they brought in for repair. Leo’s business card reflected his stock and services: “Electrical appliances, phonograph records, musical instruments & repairs, public address systems, sheet music.”

Plenty of local musicians were regulars, including Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman, a professional violinist and lap-steel guitarist. Around 1940, Doc brought an amplifier into the store for repair, and the two got chatting.

Early Kauffman Patent

Leo was 31, Doc 38, and Leo was fascinated when the older man told him how he’d amplified guitars and made designs for an electric guitar and a vibrato system. Leo was already looking into the potential for electric guitars and was playing around with pickup designs. The two men became friends.

Doc worked for an aircraft company during the war, while Leo, excused military service on health grounds, expanded his shop’s trade. The two tinkerers built a crude testbed solidbody electric guitar and secured a patent for its string-driven electro-magnetic pickup. They also produced a design for a phonograph record-changer and sold the rights for $5,000, using the windfall to jump-start their short-lived company, K&F (for Kauffman & Fender).

By now, Leo had a new location in Fullerton for his store, using the front part as the retail shop and the rear for making K&F products. In mid-1945, Leo and Doc built a handful of electric steels and amps and started concerted production in November with revised designs. It was a modest operation, but Leo must have been keen to sell the K&F gear beyond his own store.

The way instrument companies worked then—and mostly still do—was to employ a distributor, who would market the products at trade prices to dealers and other outlets. The big names often had their own outfit, or were linked to a parent company that took care of distribution—as with Gibson and Chicago Musical Instrument. Smaller firms like K&F had to look around for something within their range.

Leo knew all the distributor salesmen who visited his store—among them, Don Randall, the general manager of Radio-Tel (short for Radio & Television Equipment Co). Radio-Tel was owned by Francis Hall and based in Santa Ana, some 15 miles south of Fullerton, and as the name suggests, Radio-Tel dealt mostly in TV and radio-related stuff.

1940s K&F Logo Badge

Don, who had spent three years in the Army, was looking for opportunities when the war ended. He started doing business with Leo again, selling him parts and equipment. Early in 1946, Radio-Tel became the exclusive distributor for K&F products, and Don’s chief salesman there, Charlie Hayes, headed the push to persuade dealers to stock Leo and Doc’s little steels and amps.

It was around this time that Doc pulled out of K&F, not least because Leo’s workaholic approach didn’t suit him, and he was nervous about the firm’s almost constant struggle with cash flow. Meanwhile, Leo moved on. He revised the setup and called the new company Fender Manufacturing, renaming it the Fender Electric Instrument Co at the end of ’47. He and a few employees continued to make steels and amps as he had with K&F.

Fender's Fresh Start

Business was still slow, and Leo had to rely on a loan from Francis Hall at Radio-Tel to keep going. Leo was an introverted, hard-working man who enjoyed long hours and selfless application to the job, happiest by himself drawing designs for new projects. He thought that if there was a product on the market already, he could make it better and cheaper—and make a profit in the process.

1940s K&F Lap Steel/Amp

With the war over, a fresh start loomed. Leo’s application of mass production to guitar manufacturing would be his masterstroke. But for now, he really needed to sell what he made.

Dale Hyatt had come on board in the first few weeks of ’46, at first helping to make the K&F steels, which with the change of company name very soon gained a Fender brand. “I was hand-sanding and making bodies,” Dale told me when we met in the ‘90s.

“I was making them out of pine, painting them with grey paint, and sticking them in the oven until you got a crackle finish. There were about three or four people working there at that time. The steel guitars were the big thing, that was the craze that was on. There were a few amplifiers being put together, too, but very few.”

An early ad for the Fender Electric Instrument Co’s wares in the late-‘40s showed just three lap-steels and a couple of amps. “The company didn’t change much at first—we didn’t have enough money to change anything very fast. You could change the name, but you didn’t really change what you were doing,” Dale added with a laugh.

Early K&F Amp

He recalled that the store-cum-workshop was located at 107 South Spadra Road in Fullerton. All these years later, that road today is called South Harbor Boulevard, and the building survives. If you want to look at it on Google’s Street View, you’ll see that 107 South Harbor now boasts a sign for Ellingson—a firm that makes parts for the aerospace industry.

“It’s just south of the main intersection in Fullerton at Harbor and Commonwealth,” Dale told me back in ’92. “Yes, the building is still there, but the tin shed where we actually made those early guitars on the back side of the building has been torn down. The last time I was over there and looked it up, the concrete slab for the shed was all that was left of it, and they were pulling up and parking on it.”

Facing Economic Recession, Fender Expands

Leo expanded production into larger premises nearby at 122 Pomona Avenue, at the corner of Santa Fe Avenue, separate from the radio store and described by one of his associates as “two plain steel buildings, not very handsome.” Meanwhile, Don Randall and his colleagues at Radio-Tel continued to sell the early Fender steels and amps. “They placed some pretty good orders and production boomed for a while,” Dale recalled.

“Then, all of a sudden, the economy went downhill and we had a big recession in that period of time. I was the only one working in the daytime, and Leo would come in during the evening, because the bank was looking for him, trying to foreclose—that was probably the summer of ’47, maybe into ’48.”

Radio-Tel wasn’t the only Fender distributor at the time. “Radio-Tel was the first distributor and they’re given all the credit for Fender, but that’s not exactly so. There was a company called Pacific Music Supply,” Dale added, “and they were located in Los Angeles. They’re often overlooked. About 1950, a total of about five salesmen were working for the company.”

No one is sure who first came up with the idea of a Fender Spanish-style electric—the type today we’d think of as a regular guitar, in contrast to a lap-steel—although the Radio-Tel salesman Charlie Hayes may have suggested it to Leo. If he did, then it must surely count as the most important contribution he made to the company’s prosperity, even beyond all the amps and instruments he sold and the dozens of dealers he enrolled and encouraged.

The Broadcaster and Other Early Electric Struggles

As all good Fender historians know, the company launched its two-pickup Broadcaster solidbody in 1950, soon renaming it Telecaster (alongside the single-pickup Esquire). This marked the change of course that would make the Fender name. It was at this time that Leo added a more permanent concrete building alongside the two steel ones on Pomona Avenue, presumably with increased production in mind.

Early Telecaster Ad

Dale Hyatt saw it all firsthand. “We sold guitars directly out of the factory, and I sold many of them on the bandstand myself, simply out of necessity to keep bringing money in. Leo and I and George Fullerton, we’d go out on to the bandstands, contact the individuals, meet the guitar players who might want to use them.”

Also at this time, Dale had taken over Leo’s store. “He had got so busy with the factory that he couldn’t manage both,” Dale said. “So I made a deal with him to buy his music store back, and I was selling the merchandise. I was out every night somewhere. Some bandstand somewhere, if there was some group playing, I was out there with the new guitar. But I didn’t last too long with the store. I had a very short tenure as a music merchant,” he said with a smile.

“'Course, right after the war, things were hard to get, television was just beginning, and there was a big change in the record industry,” Dale continued. “I couldn’t see any future in that. So in ’51 I closed up the radio shop, went to work for Douglas Aircraft as a tool-and-die maker, but I didn’t like that too well. I finally decided I wanted to be in the sales end, which I enjoyed. I joined a company selling automobiles, first Hudson, then the Mercury dealership in Fullerton—and as a matter of fact I sold Lincolns to Mr. Fender. I was always in contact with him.”

The new solidbody model did not prove immediately easy to sell, as Don Randall soon discovered. When he went to the NAMM instruments trade show in Chicago in July 1950 he had a sample of the new guitar with him. Don represented Fender alongside salesmen Charlie Hayes and Don Patton at Radio-Tel’s display at the Palmer House. Don said he got laughed out of the place, that their new guitar was called everything from a canoe paddle to a snow shovel.

'50s-Style Stratocasters

He did have at least one useful meeting at that show, when Al Frost from National explained that the absence of neck strengthening in the sample would likely cause problems later for neck stability. Don immediately contacted Leo and told him plainly that they must have a truss rod in the new guitar. Leo replied that they didn’t need one, saying that his neck was rock maple and pretty sturdy. Don was not pleased and suggested that no truss rod would mean no sales. The tussle was concluded and the result was that a few early Fender solidbody models had no rod, but soon they were leaving the Pomona Avenue factory with a truss rod in place.

Dale Hyatt, meanwhile, had to struggle with a less than serious view of the new Fenders when he tried to sell some further north. He had his samples and was out selling them in Manteca, a few miles inland from San Francisco. Dale’s brother, who lived in the area, had tipped him off about all the country musicians playing around town—just the kind of players who were beginning to show interest in the new Fender electric.

Bill Carson in a 1950s Fender ad.

“They had these nightclubs going and guys playing honky-tonk and country-western,” Dale told me about Manteca. “I’d taken five guitars with me. So I got a guy playing one. He quite liked it—and all of a sudden it just quit, and he didn’t know what was wrong with it. It was embarrassing. So I went out to the truck and got another one. It lasted about 30 minutes and it quit. Then they started saying: ‘There he goes again, ladies and gentlemen—wonder how many he’s got?’ Anyway, the third one kept on going and worked for the rest of the evening.”

Dale had stumbled on a weakness of the solidbody’s pickup shielding in the most public way imaginable. This was the cost of trying to sell pre-production versions and working prototypes. “But anyhow, that was the start of it,” Dale said, laughing at the memory.

“That gentleman came down to my brother’s house the next day and brought his son’s electric train set, which he wanted to trade for one of the guitars. Another of the first ones sold of what we now know as the Telecaster—it might have been the second or third I sold, I’m not sure—was to a gentleman in Long Beach. He was one of the very first people to buy Leo Fender’s solidbody guitar, and I know he played that thing for years and years.”

Meanwhile, business picked up as news of the Telecaster and Esquire spread and as Radio-Tel’s five salesmen—Charlie Hayes, Don Patton, Dave Driver, Mike Cole, and Art Bates—began to persuade store owners to stock the company’s new solidbody instruments. Fender launched another important instrument at the end of 1951, the Precision Bass, the first commercially successful solidbody electric bass guitar.

Moving Into a New Era

Early in 1953, Fender’s existing sales deal with Radio-Tel was reorganized into a new distribution company, Fender Sales, operational by June. Based like Radio-Tel in Santa Ana, Fender Sales had four business partners: Leo Fender, Don Randall, Francis Hall, and Charlie Hayes—the last three all from Radio-Tel.

In June that year, Fender acquired a three-and-a-half-acre plot at South Raymond Avenue and Valencia Drive in Fullerton and put up three new buildings. Fullerton’s City Council was on a programme of rapid and significant industrial development.

Fender Factory, 1950s.

“Prior to 1950,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “Fullerton was a citrus area with its industries primarily devoted to citrus products and food processing.” The paper quoted a Fullerton official on the changes being made in the new decade. “Everyone liked the peaceful area geared to country living. But some began to realize that industry was needed to balance the economy as more and more people came in. Now there’s almost 100 percent support for [the expansion].”

Fender’s new buildings in the heart of Fullerton’s development area were a sign that the company was continuing to expand its line of products. As well as the two electric guitars, the Telecaster and Esquire, Fender had a line of seven amplifiers—the Bandmaster, Bassman, Champ, Deluxe, Princeton, Super, Twin Amp—along with five electric steel guitars—Custom, Deluxe, Dual, Stringmaster, Student—and the Precision Bass. But the firm wanted to produce more. The Music Trades magazine reported that, with its new property, Fender “hoped that production will be upped by almost 100 percent in the next few months.”

First, however, the haphazard production methods that had developed without much planning or forethought over the last few years needed to be organized more efficiently. This job fell into the capable hands of Forrest White, who joined the firm in May 1954 and set about the uphill task of improving the workflow throughout the growing Fender factory.

Inside the Fender Factory, 1950s

Toward the end of ’53, Francis Hall brought about his own departure from Fender Sales by buying the Rickenbacker company from Adolph Rickenbacker—in the process effectively becoming a competitor. Two years later, Fender Sales would shift down in size again, to a partnership between just Leo and Don, when Charlie Hayes was killed in a road accident. In reality, though, it was Don who ran this pivotal part of the Fender business.

Dale Hyatt remembered well the tragic accident in 1955 that ended the career of Charlie Hayes. “He was the top salesman in the country,” Dale said. “I was still working at the Lincoln dealership, and about 5 o’clock one day I took Leo’s Lincoln back to him after it had been serviced at our shop. Charlie and Leo were there and everybody else was gone. I talked to Charlie for a while, then I left with the two of them—Charlie was leaving the next day for the NAMM show in Chicago. On the way home, he was killed in a three-car accident. His car didn’t show that much damage—and I had sold him that automobile—but he died en route to the hospital.”

One thing led to another, and Dale ended up taking over Charlie’s patch. “I think through Leo’s insistence and so on, I was hired to go into the field to sell Fender. I know there were a lot of other people wanted the job, so it must have been Mr. Fender who did the pushing on my behalf. And that’s how I came to go back into selling Fender, in 1955.”

A 1959 8mm film of the Fender factory, shot by Forrest White.

Fender was into a new era, the early days of struggle were mostly behind it, and this part of the story draws to a close. By the time of Dale’s return, the new Stratocaster was on sale. “Yes, and of course it became the hit of rock’n’roll,” Dale said. ”Even though Fender started off with the country enthusiasts, it really did start with rock. And later, when guys like Jimi Hendrix came along playing all that wild stuff, then we couldn’t build enough of them. As a matter of fact, I think Jimi Hendrix caused more Stratocasters to be sold than all the Fender salesmen put together.”

I asked Dale if he was surprised to have someone like Jimi as a leading Fender salesman. He laughed, then added: “As a matter of fact, he was not one of my favorite musicians, not at all. I never could get with it. To me it sounded like a bunch of junk. I have to hear a melody for it to be pleasing. I’m still the same today.”


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Electric Guitars: Design & Invention, The Ultimate Guitar Book, and The Fender Electric Guitar Book. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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