Fender's Don Randall Offers Revisionist Take on Leo, CBS, and the Company's Early Days | Bacon's Archive

Photo used with permission.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. Stay tuned for more interviews from Bacon's Archive coming soon.

In previous installments, Tony has talked with Fender's George Fullerton, as well as Dan Smith, the visionary Fender executive that turned around the company after the CBS years. Below, he speaks with Don Randall, Leo Fender's principal business partner from the beginning of the company through its sale to CBS in 1965.

The conversation uncovers a tense relationship and many points of contention between the former partners.

I interviewed Don Randall in 1992, when I was researching my first book about Fender. In the beginning, Don had worked for Fender's distributor, Radio-Tel, but in the early '50s he joined Fender as the head of sales, staying there until a few years after CBS' takeover in 1965.

I met Don at his office in Tustin, California, and spent a couple of enjoyable hours chatting about the old days, necessarily concentrating on his view from the business side of Fender—and, in particular, discussing the controversial CBS purchase.

Sitting in his wood-paneled office, he looked to me a little like an aging astronaut—sleek, tanned, and self-assured. He certainly helped take Fender into the stratosphere.

Would it be a fair comment, Don, to say that Leo Fender was the driving force behind the Fender company?

Well, no, it wouldn't be. Leo was a very introverted individual. He of course has taken credit for inventing the solidbody guitar, which really isn't true. Paul Bigsby was actually the guy that came out with the solidbody guitar with the lute head and so on. That pre-dated Fender's guitar, and prior to that when Leo was messing around [at K&F], a fellow by the name of Doc Kauffman was the important driving force.

I hope you'll take this in the manner in which it is intended, because Leo's gone now [he died in 1991, a year before this interview], and I don't mean to put him down. But there's been so much misinformation about these things, I think it's time that someone put the record straight.

That's one of the reasons I came to see you, because I've read so many conflicting reports about what happened. So tell me how it all began.

My time with Leo goes back before World War II. I operated a small radio wholesale house, selling parts and equipment, and Leo had a little radio repair shop and a service station, over on Spadre, which is now Harbor Boulevard [in Fullerton]. I sold him radio parts and so on. We had a very good association. He had a wife, Esther Fender—a lovely lady, very beautiful—she was keeping the books, and she worked for the phone company.

That went for on for, oh, I don't know how long, and finally of course I had to go in the army. I spent almost three years in the service. Leo during that time wasn't in the service because he had only one [working] eye. He wasn't taken in. During that time he expanded his radio service business because—well, during that period there weren't too many people about to do that kind of business.

When I got out of the service, I came back and started doing business with Leo again, selling parts and equipment. That went on for a while, and by that time he and Doc Kauffman had some falling out on these things. I didn't ever know exactly the reason for Doc's separation from Leo, but it seems that he had family problems that meant he was afraid to carry on with the business. But Doc was a very nice guy.

At the same time, Leo had a fellow by the name of Ray Massie working for him, who was actually beginning to build some amplifiers, and Leo would go out to the country-and-western places locally, take 'em out and let them play 'em. This led to Leo first of all making a little tiny steel guitar. We started selling those at Radio and Television Equipment Company [Radio-Tel] because we were doing business with Leo at the time.

Was Radio-Tel your company?

No, that was owned by a man name of Francis Hall. I was the general manager there. Leo and Francis really didn't get along. They just rubbed each other the wrong way. We had another fella selling for us in the south, by name of Charlie Hayes—this was in 1953. We formed that year the [Fender Sales] company, and the four of us became partners. I was the managing partner, plus Leo, Charlie Hayes, and Francis Hall.

That went on for a little while, and the antagonism in the company was such that I felt like a referee. Charlie and I were doing one thing, and Leo and Francis another. So then in 1955, Leo and Charlie and I were on a phone hook-up, Charlie was over at the factory—I think it was in April, if I'm not mistaken. It was about six o'clock at night, just before it was getting dark, and Charlie said he had to get home, Dorothy had dinner waiting for him. That was from Fullerton to Santa Ana.

I got a call, couldn't have been more than 30 minutes later I don't think, and Charlie had been killed by a head-on car accident on State College Boulevard, which then became Raymond where the factory was. So that left Francis, Leo, and me in the company.

How old was Charlie when he was killed?

He would have been in his late 30s, I guess. He'd been in the service also. Anyway, this animosity continued to grow, and Francis bought the Rickenbacker company, and that sealed his fate there. We decided we couldn't have him in the company, so we made him a buy or sell offer, which he felt he couldn't handle, so we bought his interests.

The company became Leo and myself, and it continued in that vein until we sold it to CBS in 1965. During that time a lot of things transpired, and a lot of people became involved, and now they all want to say they had a stamp on the company, which absolutely wasn't true. It didn't happen.

Who were the most important people at Fender in those early days?

Well, Leo and myself were the only real principals in the company. Everyone else was hired hands, you might say. Forrest White was very active in running the factory, and he was very good at it, a very efficient operator. The rest of them—Dale Hyatt, George Fullerton, all the rest of them—have indicated we did this, we did that. They really had nothing to do with the company at all. They were hired hands and had no influence on the company or its designs or anything about it.

Presumably, Don, Leo was happy for you to take care of the business matters?

Well, I remember once when Leo and I were involved in a tax case—they took our personal tax situations and our companies' tax situations and brought them all into one. So we had to go to a tax court up in LA. Leo was really funny in lots of ways. He was such a strange guy. So we were up there, and Leo was on the stand, and the tax attorney was cross-examining him. And everything was "I don't know," "I don't remember," "I don't know." You could see the guy was getting more and more frustrated with this.

Leo actually didn't know anything about the business when it came right down to it—but he knew more than he let on. Finally, the guy was exasperated, having just run some figures by him that Leo should have known about, so he says, "Mr. Fender, did you go to school?" Says, "Yes, I went to school." "Did you go to grammar school?" He says, "Yes, I went to grammar school." "Did you go to high school?" "Yes, I went to high school." Says, "Did you go to college?" "Yes, I went to junior college."

So he says, "You went all through school, all through two years at college, and what did you major in at college?" Leo says, "Accounting!" I thought I was gonna fall under the table. Oh my god, can't believe it.

We were traveling back and forth to LA with our attorneys, and on the way home I said Leo, "You've got to be the worst witness I have ever heard of or seen or thought of in my life!" "Wha's the matter Don, wha'd I do?"

I said, "For one thing, when the guy had you on the stand, he asked you what is your name. And you looked at him, thought for a minute, and said, 'Would you repeat that question?'" Leo says, "Oh, I didn't do that did I?" 'Course, the attorney was about to crack up. As a matter of fact, Leo did work for the state highway department for a while in the accounting department.

You say Leo was introverted. Why was that?

Just his nature, I don't know why. His wife, Esther, was very outgoing, she was a super gal, full of life and fun. Leo would never want to go any place. Later he got to traveling some. But he didn't have any friends, any relatives. Oh, he had a relative, Ronnie Beers, who was kind of his right-hand man at the shop, worked for him—a gopher was what he was.

Ronnie worked for a long time for him at Fender there, and then when Leo had this little company [CLF Research] after he left CBS. He did some messing around and Ronnie worked with him there. He finally put Ronnie out to pasture and he had no friendship or nothing, nothing to show for all the time.

Leo was a strange man. He didn't form any alliances. He smoked at one time, and he quit smoking. He didn't drink. He wouldn't go back to [trade] shows. I'd have people out here on these purchase investigations [when Fender was up for sale in the '60s] and it was like pulling teeth to get him to meet them.

He just didn't want anything to do with it. He was gracious enough once we got them together, you know, but it was only about a five-minute meeting and that was it.

I suppose strangers would think he was shy.

Yeah, he was just one of those guys, hardly did anything. His whole life was wrapped up with tinkering, fiddling around the shop.

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

Perhaps, Don, some people couldn't get on with Leo's single-mindedness.

Well it was true, because for all his introvertedness, he had a super-ego. Freddie Tavares would be working with him in the shop on a particular design—let's say changes of one kind and another, upgrading. He'd tell Freddie to do something, and he'd go ahead and do it, and then he'd always have to bring it back for Leo's inspection. Leo would take a look at it with that one eye, and sometimes he'd take a loupe out and look at it.

"That's pretty good, Freddie, but I tell you what, I think you ought to move that pole up just an insy winsy bit this way, just an itsy bitsy bit." And Freddie would have to get another piece of metal and redo the thing. But for no reason at all he'd say, "I think I'll move that hole up an insy winsy bit."

Some people have said to me that Leo wasn't good at crediting the creative input of other people at Fender.

That's exactly right, I haven't mentioned that. He had an ego such that he really lived on the fact that he had a lot of patents to his credit. Leo and I were partners and everything, but as far as business was concerned I had a terrible time with Leo, and if I do say so myself—and I'm as self-serving as the next guy—if it hadn't been for me, I don't think Leo Fender would have been in business. He used to make the most awful decisions, and I used to have to fight him like crazy. And he was kind of afraid of me because I didn't back off.

Things were pretty primitive back then, and this was a small community. Fullerton [where Fender was based] was a town of about 6,000 people, Santa Ana [where Radio-Tel was based] was a town of about 35,000 people. Anyway, one time, Leo had a scratch polish remover—back then, radios had wooden cabinets on them—so you'd rub this on the scratch on the cabinet and polish it out.

There was a book out one time called the Book Of Ten Thousand Formulas, and it'd tell you how to make all these things. I said, "Leo, you must have all those books of formulas." And he says, "Oh no, Don, I figured this all out myself." And I said, "Oh come on, Leo."

Early Telecaster Ad

Tell me about that first Fender Spanish solidbody.

I took the original guitar—at first we called it the Esquire guitar, looked just like the Telecaster—I took it to the trade show in Chicago, and I just got laughed out of the place. It was called everything from a canoe paddle to the snow shovel. By this time, Merle Travis was playing the guitar that Paul Bigsby had made, and the word was getting around, so we started selling a few of them.

Who designed that one, the original Esquire? The one that quickly became the Broadcaster and then the Telecaster.

I think Leo did. It was just a block of wood sawed out with a semi-lute type head on it, which came as close as you could imagine to the fancy one that Paul Bigsby had made. A simple thing that you could just cut out, you'd have no problem with it.

Did George Fullerton have any involvement with the design of that?

No. None of these guys did. They all want to take credit for it, but none of these guys really had any input in this particular field. George was working in the factory, he was painting guitars, or sweeping the floors, or something. Now don't misunderstand me, George is a very nice man, very mild, very soft-spoken and everything. But everyone wants to crown themselves with the crown: I did this, or I did that.

I guess you took the original guitar to the Chicago show in, what, 1950?

Around '49, '50. And a guy from National/Valco, Al Frost, he came and looked at it. And he said, "Don, do you have a neck [truss] rod in it?" I said, "No, it's just a solid maple neck—we don't need one." He said, "Look, I want to tell you one thing. If you don't have a neck rod in it, you're in for a lot of trouble. We've been through this and I can tell you first-hand."

So I contacted Leo, I says, "Leo, we've got to have a neck rod in there." "No, we don't need one, it's rock maple." I said, "I tell you one thing, either we put a neck rod in that, or we don't sell it! Now make up your mind to it!"

And this was the way I had to handle Leo. He was actually kind of afraid of me. I don't why. I was the only guy who could handle him and make him do things. Rest of them it was, "Oh yeah Leo. Yes, Mr. Fender." But Leo was about two-thirds afraid of me, because I really romped on him to get him to make changes that were necessary. So anyway, we put out just a few of them without a neck rod, and then we put a neck rod in.

Who helped design that first guitar?

Leo was what I call a crisis operator. Everything was fine until the axe would fall, and then bang, I'd have to jump on him with both feet, and rant and rave and scream and yell and get him to change things. Same thing happened with the various tube changes in the amplifiers—that was my field, really.

The guitars, even though we all contributed somewhat to it—and here we go again, you know, trying to put the crown on our heads—but this was the way the guitars happened, there was input from a lot of people.

At the starting of that guitar, we had what we called the guinea pig process. A guitar would start out, and we'd put it in the hands of the player, and tell him to play it and tell us what he liked and didn't like about it. This would go, and the guy'd say, "This knob ought to be here, and this one here, this switch ought to be so-and-so," things of that nature.

Finally, after three or four guinea pigs, you'd come up with a composite of these various ideas, and it would pretty well satisfy most of the players. That's really the way the guitars happened—same with the Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, and so forth—they were just an offshoot or an improvement or a change of the ones that had gone before. Either a body change, or appearance, more pickups, a switching arrangement, just an outgrowth of whatever went before. So it wasn't a matter of inventing or anything like that—it was just development.

Surely that first guitar was an innovation? You mention the Bigsby Travis guitar, but the thing about Fender is that you actually put a solidbody electric guitar into production. Bigsby didn't make many of his—it was a very low-key thing.

Well, you see the thing that brought that along—this was forced on us. We had been making steel guitars—lap models, student instruments, a nicer deluxe instrument—and that was fine for a time. There were big guitar schools that sold all these things. Then all of a sudden rock'n'roll began to come about. Guys found out they could learn to play Spanish guitar, standard guitar. It was moving towards that more and more, and the steel guitar was becoming more and more an instrument in these country-and-western bands.

These big Hawaiian schools that were going, like the [Oahu publishing company's] Honolulu Conservatory of Music and all these companies, they were not faring very well. Accordion schools were also making a big splash then. And we were kind of forced into the so-called Spanish guitar market, the standard guitar. That's kind of what brought this evolution about.

Fender was certainly instrumental in bringing about the early popularity of the solidbody electric guitar.

Well, yes, because we sold them. You see, the guitar player in the band without amplification was lost, because you couldn't turn up the volume on a guitar till you had so much feedback you couldn't play it. So with the solidbody guitar, all of a sudden the guy could play as loud as a drummer—he could blow the drummer off. It was just a matter of necessity, being in the market and seeing all these various things that we did that were timely and we took advantage of.

How quickly did the business grow in the early years?

Well it grew pretty linearly, at least in the early stages, and then it became an algorithmic thing, because one sells one, two sells four, four sells eight, that type of thing. The curve starts going up.

Before the Stratocaster came along in '54, were you selling hundreds of guitars a year? More? Less?

Oh, well, it's hard to say. We were selling several hundred, let's put it that way. The figures weren't enormous. The first year we wrote a million dollars in volume at what was reduced prices. You must remember that the prices we were selling those things at then were a lot cheaper than what they are today.

What percentage of Fender's sales were Spanish solidbody guitars back then?

The amplifiers were the biggest volume item, then the standard [Spanish] guitars, and then the steel guitars—this was after the big steel guitars school thing began to decline.

I believe you came up with quite a few of the model names, Don.

Yes, I named every instrument that was made, apart from the Precision Bass. Every one of them. All the amplifiers and all the guitars.

"So, hmm, broadcast. About that time, television was getting big, so telecast—Telecaster! And then when the Stratocaster came along, why, they were talking about putting guys into orbit, so Telecaster, then Stratocaster into the stratosphere."

How did you come up with the names?

It wasn't easy. I tried to maintain a family reference. For instance, we had the Broadcaster, we put it on the market, then we got a wire from the Fred Gretsch company and they were making a drum set called the Broadkaster, and they put us on a notice to cease and desist, which we did. I got to thinking, Well, what do we do now? So, hmm, broadcast. About that time, television was getting big, so telecast—Telecaster!

And then when the Stratocaster came along, why, they were talking about putting guys into orbit, so Telecaster, then Stratocaster into the stratosphere. With amplifiers, we had a student amplifier, and nobody really wants to be known as a student. So I named it the Champ. Then we had another we called the Princeton, and the Deluxe, and the Harvard.

So what happened with the Precision name?

When Leo came out with the Precision Bass, it had frets on it—a new type of thing. He was saying, "Oh Don, it's right down to hundredths of an inch, guy plays this he's going to be perfect. What are we going to call it?" I fiddled around with it and I couldn't come up with anything. So Leo says, "Why don't we call it the Precision Bass? Because it really is precision." OK Leo, there you go: the Precision Bass.

1952 Fender Precision Bass Blonde

But I must have written out lists of names, 25 names at a crack, trying to fit things together as a family. Doesn't sound like a chore, but it is, to find something that has a euphonic sound, that is acceptable, and that kind of fits into the family of what you're doing.

How did the sale of Fender to CBS in 1965 come about?

Looking back on it, Leo and I could see that it was expanding so rapidly that it required either a lot more money, or forget about it. We had this accountant, Wade Tapert, he handled all the books of the company. I had at that time organized several other companies—we had Randall Publishing Company, and Leo had a couple of other companies, too, like Fender Acoustic, which was separate. Before we actually sold to CBS, Wade Tapert said, "Don, we ought to buy the company." And I said well, it's a good idea. But Leo was always a kind of hypochondriac, always something wrong with him, going to the chiropractor, taking pills, various things.

He was ill?

Leo was a faddist, he'd get on these health kicks. So he heard that carrot juice was the thing, the panacea. So he and Ronnie Beers got these big commercial juicers that at that time were two or three hundred bucks for a juicer, and they went out here some place and bought carrots by the sack-load. And all of a sudden they started turning red! That cured him of that. Then his next kick, he'd come and say, "Hey, try this, this is the best thing for you, you can't believe how good it makes you feel." You had to have a tablespoonful of cider vinegar in a glass of hot water. I said, "Oh come on, Leo."

So was he ever that ill, really?

He would mope around a lot, looking for sympathy in some respects, and if he felt ill he'd go to a chiropractor. I said, "Leo, why don't you go to a real doctor." "Oh, he knows what to do with me." And if it makes you feel good, I guess it works. I don't really think Leo had anything wrong with him. I mean, he lived into his 80s.

OK, so tell me how the sale of Fender to CBS came about.

It was all me—Leo had nothing to do with it. In our conversations back and forth, Leo intimated that maybe he'd like to get out of the business. So he offered to sell it to me for a million dollars [laughs]. And I though, Well, I'm not ready to forfeit a million dollars right now, because of one thing and another.

So that went on, and about a year later I said, "Leo, you've been talking about selling the company, what about it now?" And he said, "Well, Don, I think I ought to get a million and a half dollars now." I said, "Well, that's probably not too far off"—not knowing exactly what we were talking about.

I said to Leo, "Well, you're obviously tired and want to do something else, and you want to get out of the business. Why don't I go ahead and see what I can do with the companies?" "OK, Don, go ahead, do what you want to do."

So I started looking around, and I didn't really know where to start. But the bank said you won't have any trouble: do this; do that. About that time, I made contact with the Baldwin piano company, guy by the name of Morley Thompson, one of the head men at Baldwin. We spent a lot of time together, did a purchase survey, the whole thing, laid out a plan. This was prior to '65, either '63 or '64. In the meantime, I got in touch with Dean Woodman, a bank guy at Merrill Lynch, and he had taken a number of companies along the possibility of going public.

Fender Artists ad, 1956

Leo said he didn't want to go public, and I said well, I kind of feel the same way—we should get rid of it. So now I had Baldwin and I had Merrill Lynch in on the deal. Dean Woodman had a couple of passes at other entities, and eventually came up with Columbia [CBS]. Now we've got two companies up there. So I had to tell Morley Thompson that I'm not playing one against the other—I know you think that, but I'm selling the company and I have to maximize the return for Leo's benefit, it's out of my hands. He said, "OK, Don, I understand that."

Well, we spent a lot of time with Baldwin, and the upshot was that their attitude to purchasing was totally unsatisfactory for our purposes. It was a kind of work-out buy-out type of thing—in other words, you put some money into it and work your head off and see how you do. I said [laughs], "I'm not interested, I'm working my head off now! I've got the whole thing, why should I give it to you?"

You switched focus to CBS?

Yes, finally, we got down to the nitty gritty with Columbia, and I made about, oh, half a dozen trips back and forth to New York, I guess, jam sessions with their attorneys and our attorneys, financial people, and so on, going back and forth. Dean Woodman was representing us, from Merrill Lynch. He was really a high-powered guy. He had the attorneys and everybody standing on their ear. They didn't really know what was going on hardly.

The guys at CBS hit me with a shocker. They came in with a really low price at first, and it was, "Ah, we'll have to go back and get a reading." That was their favorite expression every time we came up with something. Eventually we came to a fairly agreeable price [$13 million], and I called Leo and said how does that suit you?

He had expected to get out of the business for a million and a half bucks. He said, "Oh Don, I can't believe it, are you trying to pull my leg?" And I said, "No, I'm just trying to let you know. Does that sound like a satisfactory deal, that we can close it?" "Well, anything you say Don, that's fine, you just go ahead and do it."

And so the rest is history, we went on and sold it to CBS. It was after a lot of investigation. Arthur D. Little did a big study on us, and other entities came in to justify the sale and price paid, because they got the sale for cash. So we consummated the deal. Leo wouldn't go back to New York even for the signing, for the pay-off, or anything. "You get the money and you bring it out to me."

What was Leo up to while you were doing this?

He was working all the time. But that was Leo's only outlet. He didn't do anything else. He just did not do anything else. He didn't know how to do anything else. Sitting in his little tinker shop over there was his sole pride and joy. After we sold, he bought a boat, and he ran that back and forth to Catalina, got a mooring over there, and did some other piddling around. The sale was conditional on the fact that I would stay with CBS for five years, so I had a five-year employment contract.

How did you find that period after CBS took over?

The first year was OK—the rest was miserable. And I left before the five years was up. I think it was about four-and-a-half years. It just got to be such an impossible situation. Before we sold, they assured me that we would continue like we were. We were a very profitable company, and we didn't want to do anything to disturb it. And that might have been the intent of the top corporate people, but it doesn't figure with the other executives in finance and personnel and all the other sort of thing.

You have these little fiefdoms that exist in these big corporate structures. The corporate ladder is a strange thing. Everybody's climbing the corporate ladder, and everyone is stepping on everyone else's fingers as they climb up. You have a tremendous amount of in-fighting.

We went from 10 or 11 million dollars the year we sold the company [1965] to maybe 19 the next year and 21 the next, as I recall. Extremely successful and extremely profitable. But then the burden descended, and I got loaded with engineers that we didn't need, draughtsmen that we didn't need.

"Everybody says, you know, about 'pre-CBS,' but that's a fallacy, that's not true at all. I will say this for CBS, they were just as interested in quality as we were. They spared no amount of time or effort to ensure the quality was there."

I had a corporate office in the CBS building across from the New York Hilton, and because I was the division president I had to have a division president's office. Everything was about the pecking order, you know? Next down was the vice president, and pretty soon you'd get down to the clerk, who had a room he couldn't turn around in.

That all gets charged to the corporate overhead. And I had all these systems people, and all these other people, and it just became an impossible situation. They started getting into the day-to-day operation of the thing. They sent out a whole bunch of systems analysts, time study people and so on, and they interviewed all of my people.

Did any of this affect the Fender product?

Well, I don't think it affected the product. I think that's a fallacy. Everybody says, you know, about "pre-CBS," but that's a fallacy—that's not true at all. I will say this for CBS, they were just as interested in quality as we were. They spared no amount of time or effort to ensure the quality was there.

Are you saying it was just a different approach?

A different approach and a different entity. There's always this suspicion when a big company takes over that they're going to make a lousy product and sell it for a higher price, and that's not true here. But the other problems that existed were multiple.

After interviewing all my people, they wrote job descriptions for everybody. We didn't need that sort of thing—we knew what we were doing. And I have to admit, it wasn't a very sophisticated operation we had, but it worked. But they divided everything into its cost-center, down to the last nut, bolt, and screw. We had more cost-centers than you could ever imagine. Everything had to be moved from one cost-center to another cost-center for corporate bookkeeping. The burden became horrendous.

So they interviewed everybody. Told them their job descriptions. Now your job is this. So everyone went back to work, and they'd be saying, "Don't tell me to do that, that's not my job!" Before, everyone worked as a team, pushed the product through. Anything that went wrong now, it was, well, that's not my job, you take care of it. This led to a lot of problems. One thing after another, and finally I wasn't a corporate kind of guy. I'd been too independent all the time. They paid me the balance of my contract and that was it.

We had signed a no-compete deal. It was like for 10 years or something, probably outrageous at the time. I went to a law firm in LA and they wrote one letter to CBS and that was all it took for me to be able to start another company [Randall Instruments]. I don't know what happened there after I left Fender, of course, but for the five years or so I was there the quality of the product was not compromised.

CBS did so many, if I may say so, stupid things. They took some of our equipment that we'd paid a whole lot of money for, and because they didn't really know how to operate it, they put it out in the back lot and let it rust and go to pot. Thousands and thousands of dollars of specialized equipment.

Did CBS management's attitude to Fender instruments change at all while you were still there?

CBS didn't really have an attitude towards it. They didn't know what the hell was going on. They hated the business and couldn't understand it. Goddard Lieberson [president at Columbia/CBS] was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music—his interest was all in classical music. He'd built a classical library for CBS and was very well-known and adept in his field.

1974 Fender Rhodes Stage 88 Mk I

When CBS bought the company, I literally had to force them to buy Leo's acoustic company, which was outside the business—that was his own personal company. He put quite a bit of money into that company, but it wasn't going any place, and CBS didn't want it. And neither did they like the idea of buying the Fender-Rhodes piano.

Anyway, Goddard Lieberson comes out here, and when he saw the piano, he just couldn't handle it. He says, well, why do you call it a piano? Pretty obvious, I said, 88 keys like a piano, it's a professional instrument—just doesn't use strings and sounding board like a piano, it uses pickups. As far as we're concerned it's an electric piano.

But he didn't like it. They tried everything in the world not to buy the piano or the acoustic company. I just put my foot down and said if you want the companies, you're going to have to take these, too. Because I didn't want Leo sitting out there on a limb with an acoustic company, which he couldn't operate and wouldn't know what to do with, and the piano company, which would be a blow for Harold Rhodes. Well, there wasn't all that much involved. I think with the acoustic company it was three or four hundred thousand dollars. And we negotiated a deal, as far as I remember, for Harold to get so much a key for each Fender-Rhodes that was sold. They bit the bullet and bought it.

How about Leo? Did his attitude to producing guitars and amps change over those years?

Leo was pretty much non-committal on those things. He'd take it all in his stride. He never exhibited a whole lot of enthusiasm one way or the other—or a whole lot of emotion, let's say. He was a very strange personality that way. He did like the fact that we were selling a lot of them. He knew that, and that impressed him.

He had all these machines. He was a machinery nut. Leo would buy all this equipment, and it'd stand idle for 20 days out of the month as far as usage went. But he liked to see them run, and the more things we could pour through there to make those machines run, the better it was.

We had 60-ton and 100-ton presses, and we made most all of our own metal parts. We could knock out enough on those presses to last for eons. But this was Leo's life. The more things we could put through there to make these things go, why, the better he liked it. Which was only natural. I would do the same thing.

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 The Stratocaster Guitar Book, The Telecaster Guitar Book, and Squier Electrics. His latest is a new edition of Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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