“What started in California?” you ask. The list includes a broad range of inventions, fads, pop culture, and social movements. The Golden State brought forth Levi’s, iPhones, surf music, hot rods, low-brow art, Eichler homes, and of course, electric guitars.
A list of the latter includes Rickenbacker, National-Dobro, Mosrite, a bunch of lesser-known brands, and one of the most successful – Fender – which wisely linked itself to California pop-culture imagery. More than any competitor, the company cashed in on the teenage love affair with electric guitars, which started in the unassuming town of Whittier (yes, the one where Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon attended college!) and a long-forgotten band of teenagers who were the first to use Fender electric guitars.
In 1947, a door-to-door salesman pushing steel guitars packaged with a set of music lessons knocked on a door in Whittier. The steels, not much more than planks of wood, pickups, and strings, came from a small shop that had taken on the important-sounding name Fender Electric Instrument Company. Leo Fender, the company’s founder, was a quiet guy who, in the ’40s, busied himself taking the first shots in a music revolution that would forever change pop culture. The little lap steel was a case in point. The ideas it incorporated – a solid body, straight string pull, and biting tone – portended the formula for a commercially successful electric-Spanish guitar. In the ’40s, Fender was setting the stage.
Back to that day in Whittier…
Youngsters Arlis McMinn and his sister, Delpha, listened as their dad fielded the salesman’s pitch. He was preaching to the choir, albeit one wearing cowboy boots. Mr. McMinn quickly agreed that the kids should have a musical education. But electric steel guitar? Why not piano or accordion? Dad loved Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the megastars of Western swing. That’s why. A musical education on guitars fit the Arkansas native’s notion of the proper way to start, so he signed them up for lessons.
The kids were very fast learners and, in their singing-cowboy Western outfits, almost too wholesome. In no time they were picking and grinning, playing music throughout Los Angeles and Orange County. The idea for adding players and forming a band followed close behind, and the first recruit was a neighbor named Harold Courtright, who played a Martin acoustic. By the time Arlis went to high school in 1949, the group picked up a stand-up-bass player/guitarist named Jack McClure and another superb musician named Jim Corwin, who eventually took over on bass.
Arlis and Delpha both started on Fender Princeton lap steels. Their dad built an amplifier that looked a lot like the one Leo Fender had made for Bob Wills (with chrome strips set horizontally across the grillcloth instead of vertically, like the ’40s “woody” Fenders). Harold bought a Fender Dual Professional amp, a DeArmond pickup for his Martin, and had some work done on its neck by a local repairman named Paul Bigsby.
The now-classic dome knobs on Harold’s Martin were installed by Leo Fender, who was soon to become the band’s equipment mentor. Though Whittier lay in Los Angeles County and Fullerton in Orange, it was a simple 13-mile drive in the Model A to the Fender factory. Arlis believes his dad met Leo at one of the band’s gigs, but it’s possible they met at Leo’s place, which was open to musicians and managers. Leo was known to sell instruments directly, sometimes at cost, and, to prime the pump (if the pros played Fender – and they did – student players noticed), he gave guitars and amps to the top players like Noel Boggs and Leon McAuliffe.
The boys went to high school, where they performed as a trio called Arlis, Harold, and Jack. As she entered high school, Delpha quit music to pursue other interests, and Kay Francis joined on steel. In 1950, Arlis decided to play a Spanish-style electric guitar, and his dad took him to Fullerton to talk with Leo about an instrument.
Parking the car on Pomona Avenue, the McMinns ventured toward the pre-fab steel-and-sheet metal buildings, where they found the inventor at the door. Fender listened to their request, went back in, and emerged shortly with a guitar he had been using as a “guinea pig” loaner for the guys playing around town. Arlis remembers paying $100 for one of the first Fender Spanish electrics ever sold – a pine-body Esquire. It had no case, so Arlis made one in his garage (sturdy as it was plain, it still protects the guitar more than 60 years later). Soon, Harold was playing a prototype twin-pickup Esquire, a gift from the band’s friend and musical role model, Charlie Aldrich, who got the guitar directly from Leo.
Howard Roberts’ “Black Guitar”
The first “Fenderized” teen band owned an arsenal of the earliest Fender instruments as well as Martin guitars and DeArmond accessories. Arlis McMinn and his sister, Delpha, started on 1947 Fender Princeton lap steels with the “boxcar” direct-string pickups devised by Leo and Doc Kauffman at Fender’s Radio Service. The two shared an amp made by their father. Arlis had a DeArmond volume foot pedal, and Delpha owned what in photos appears to be a Martin 00-18.
When it came to a Spanish-style guitar, Arlis played one of the first single-pickup Esquires. Made in March and April 1950 (based on Leo’s records of tool purchases and date codes on the pots), it has no truss rod and the distinctive four-screw black pickguard. This guitar was refinished in the ’50s with white enamel paint, then later stripped back to its natural wood grain. The serial number is 0095, but the guitar was among the first seven or eight made. It has steel bridges, closed-back Kluson tuners, and the standard three-way switch. Its laminated pine body is chambered. Such bodies were quite light but labor-intensive – Fender scoured just a handful in this manner, and ultimately opted to make the Esquire a solidbody. The neck plays true with modern strings despite the lack of steel reinforcement.
The 1946-’47 Fender Dual Professional amplifier (serial number 0035) Arlis used at the time was painted with enamel, like the guitar. The Dual Pro occupies a revered place in Fender history as the first “tweed” amp. It had dual 10″ speakers. Fender amps had a reputation for reliability, and when Arlis turned his on after it sat unused for nearly 50 years, it worked. You won’t part with yours, either.
Harold Courtright’s customized Martin 000-18 was popular with other players at the Arkansas Picnics in Fullerton, where the band played every July 4. Paul A. Bigsby had re-set the neck and attached a compensated Bigsby saddle. In addition, he installed a DeArmond pickup with controls for Tone and Volume. Leo Fender sold Harold the dome knobs on the guitar today for a quarter a piece. He played it through another Dual Professional, though it could have been a later V-front Super Amp (essentially the same as the Dual, but made later).
Kay Francis, the steel guitarist who replaced Delpha, had a Fender Dual Professional doubleneck with the early boxcar pickups, and apparently shared amps with the guys. The band appeared on guitar-ace Charlie Aldrich’s TV show and many other gigs, as his opening act. Leo gave Charlie (who was a good friend) what was perhaps the first dual-pickup Esquire. This guitar had no truss rod, a pine body, and a rough-hewed rhythm pickup with no cover. When Charlie got an updated version, he gave the original to Kay. Still, Harold got the most use out of it.
By 1951, the Playboys knew Leo well enough for him to give them the third Precision Bass. “Make sure a lot of people see it,” he told them! He also gave them either a Pro or Bassman Amp – probably a Pro, as Leo perfected the bass amp and released it in ’52. Jack McClure and Jim Corwin played the Precision before Jack switched permanently to lead guitar.
Much in demand for his flaming solos, Bill Galvan, (a.k.a. Fireball) played with other groups in the early ’50s in addition to the Playboys. He had a triple-neck Fender Custom and a “TV-front” Pro Amp onstage at Knott’s Berry Farm in 1954, where he appeared every Sunday afternoon with the Carlton Brothers Melody Rangers (whose rhythm guitarist singer, Eddie Cochran, went on to make a name before his untimely death). Fireball also played a Bigsby steel with the California Playboys, but it seems he always used a Fender amp. After all, these young players had happened into history – the right place and the right time – to be the first “Fenderized” teenage band. – Richard Smith
Arlis took guitar lessons from an oil worker who moonlighted as a music teacher; one-hour sessions cost $1.50. After several years, he started with a new instructor who taught him to read music, but, when asked to sight-read sheet music at one lesson, the teenager played a tune he had learned off the radio. This infraction infuriated the teacher and promptly ended McMinn’s formal music education. Still, he continued with guitar in the band – you might say he hadn’t learned enough music theory to hurt his playing!
Following in Bob Wills’ footsteps, members chose the name Arlis McMinn and the California Playboys. They were all from California, and they were all playboys… except, of course, the girl members! That contradiction was pretty obvious, but throughout the band’s history, the girls maintained equal status onstage. The name worked, even if it didn’t reflect reality.
And that reality was cooking. The Playboys found themselves in the middle of a vibrant country-music scene; they played television shows, store openings, dances – you name it. Arlis’ dad built a flatbed trailer equipped as a portable bandstand for outdoor shows. Pull up, plug in, and play. Arlis kept small notebooks to keep notes about gigs and the pay they received, and it was not unusual for the group to do three in one day.
One of most important annual events for the group was the July 4th Arkansas Day Picnic held at Amerige Park in Fullerton. Here, the group became the de facto house band as other performers used their Fender amps, prototype Esquires, and the third Precision Bass ever made. Leo Fender, with his ever-present camera, pocket protector, and glass eye, was there every year and provided extra equipment. His photographs documented events that included very early performances by T. Texas Tyler, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and Ferlin Husky, a future Country Music Hall of Fame inductee.
The Playboys’ personnel changed as the ’50s unfolded; drummers came and went, Kay Francis married Harold and became the band’s bookkeeper. Her red-headed replacement on steel, Bill Galvan, lived up to his stage name, Fireball. His playing adhered to the West Coast style pioneered by steelers Noel Boggs and Joaquin Murphey – jazzier and more sophisticated than country. In a very short time Arlis, Jack, and Billy had become extremely competent players, as evidenced by taped performances. They often played two- and three-guitar arrangements of classic Western-swing numbers, an ensemble approach that presaged rock bands such as the Allman Brothers.
Arlis’ teen band, remaining a tried-and-true Western-swing outfit, missed the move to rock and roll and rockabilly after Elvis hit. Though the band’s peers such as Eddie Cochran and Rose Maddox cashed in, the Playboys did not.
“If we’d just recorded ‘Hound Dog,’ we’d all be bazillionaires,” said Galvan, summing up the squandered opportunity.
Timing was everything in those years, but just as rock and teen bands became the latest craze, Uncle Sam made other plans for the group.
By 1956, Harold was drafted into the Army, Arlis enlisted in the Air Force, and Fireball joined the Air Force Reserve. The band broke up. Arlis took his guitar and amp to play for fun in the service. When he returned, he picked up his career as a machinist. His Fender guitar languished in the garage for decades – an arena where Fenders were quite comfortable given that playing in a garage band has been part of growing up for many teenagers since the ’50s. Imagine a world without kids playing electric guitars? Fender guitars – or as Arlis would say, the Fender “hardbody” – helped make that world. A salesman in southern California going door-to-door, and a curious inventor named Leo behind the scenes helped kickstart a musical revolution. The up-to-now unsung heroes who first put that revolt on a stage were the teen pioneers Arlis McMinn and the California Playboys – the world’s first all-electric Fenderized band.
This article originally appeared in VG December 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.