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Del Casher

Talks About the Ecco-Fonic
 
Del Casher Talks About the Ecco-Fonic

Although he claims to play guitar more like the late George Barnes than Les Paul, comparisons between Del Casher and his “adopted uncle” Leo reveal two outgoing youngsters who have played music all their lives, learned the ins and outs of technology while taking it a step or two further and show no signs of retiring or even slowing down. A wealth of musical and related hardware knowledge and nearly 50 years of experiences turned into a few hours of phone conversations, from which this interview has been assembled. A shared interest between the interviewer and the interviewee in musical trivia and asides cheerfully led to the talks off the subject on more than one occasion, requiring a condensed version here to keep to the topic of Ecco-Fonic. His willingness to retrieve prototype units, papers and promo records, as well as share his firsthand knowledge of the subject is greatly appreciated. For more on Mr. Casher’s fascinating story, including his association with the Vox Wah-Wah, Elvis’ Roustabout, Roland’s first guitar synth, etc., see Willie Moseley’s interview (VG, January, February ’97).

Vintage Guitar: Let’s start with the Fender Ecco-Fonic flyer from mid ’59 (sent to Casher by the author).
Del Casher: That must have been something I wasn’t aware of. I was really enthralled by this, even the logo was an earlier version. Possibly Ray Stolle had contacted Fender, he had the Ecco-Fonic stuff in the back room of his TV shop.

It was really short-lived. It wasn’t in the ’58-’59 catalog and it wasn’t in the ’60 catalog. It was just in the eight-page ’59 DownBeat insert and this flyer. I don’t think it was in any of the price lists. Anyway, look where the wheel is placed, for the delay time…
That wheel, I don’t know if that was a wheel. Ray didn’t have the movable arm around the flywheel. He was doing a thing where there was a tape loop and it moved sideways, left to right. I wouldn’t have wanted to get onstage with it.

Maybe it controlled the tape speed, hooked up to a pot.
That could have been it. By the way, Fender did come out with the Ecco-Fonic concept again much later, but that was Automata, after Bob Marks took over, after Milton Brucker.

(laughing) We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. Who was responsible for the Ecco-Fonic? The company men?
Ray Stolle was a guy who had a little TV shop on Sunset and he was trying to make this machine work, with a little tape loop. And he had limited resources, it wasn’t working really well; I didn’t think much of the unit because it wasn’t stable enough. There was a guy named E.S. Tubin, he had some financial backing, like an industrialist, and he set up a factory in Los Angeles, on Vermont Avenue, and he knew I was playing, performing with the Three Suns. He said, “Look, I’d like to have you help me get this off the ground. What do we do with this thing?” I’d had the idea, when I lived in Hammond, Indiana (mid ’50s). I thought, “Gee, if I could glue some tape around a turntable, and put the heads around the table, I’d have it!”

So I talked to several of my older friends, who were engineers, and they said that’s a great idea, but I was trying to get through college, things like that. So, Eddie (Tubin) liked the idea and they built one. The idea was to have a cylinder so there would be no tape flutter, so it was stabilized. He said, “That’s a great idea,” and I said, “If you make the playback head swing around in a cylindrical fashion, then your echo could be any speed you wanted.”

Yeah, which the EchoSonic that predated the Ecco-Fonic didn’t. He had, in the patent, specified that you should be able to move the head. And change the tape speed.
That was the main point I told Tubin, was the problem there with slowing the tape down increased your chances for wow and flutter. And if you slow your tape down, the fidelity goes down, the biggest problem with tape loops was you wanted the highest natural fidelity. I said, “Get it at the maximum speed and then don’t change the speed because your quality would change.” 7-1/2 IPS was the absolute slowest you could possibly go. The way you change your echo was with the spacing, with the [distance between record and play heads].

Back to Stolle and Tubin…
Ray still had the thing, originally. Eddie Tubin put the money behind him to build the Ecco-Fonic – that was with the circular device – and they built me the prototype in ’59; in December I took that unit to Las Vegas and then Japan. We had the biggest-selling album in Japan, called The Three Suns In Japan, and we went there to perform. And I had it, it was like a little suitcase, behind my Fender Amp, so when I stomped on the pedal, that just blew the Japanese away. They thought it was all coming out of the amplifier. Of course, when we played Vegas nobody cared ’cause they were all gambling! But when we went to Japan, I didn’t realize we were really huge there. We’d have like 5,000 people at these concerts. Eddie Tubin said, “Make sure you let the people know in Japan.”

An interesting thing was that our “roadie,” the gentleman who loaned us our Hammond B-3 – the only B-3 in Japan at the time – was renting us this organ for every show and he was always telling me, “I’d like to buy that from you.” And everywhere we went, he would say, “I want to buy that from you,” and I kept telling him “No, no, no!” Many years later I met him in the U.S. and he said he still had pictures from our tour. Turned out he was Mr. Kakehashi, president of Roland.

How long did Mr. Tubin run Ecco-Fonic?
Eddie Tubin was bought out about a year later by Milton Brucker, who was a very wealthy man, but for some reason he was fascinated by this Ecco-Fonic. He sent Joe Maphis and I to the NAMM show, doing promotions. I did one, I still have my itinerary, on Ecco-Fonic stationary; (reading) leave United States, Monday evening, February 27th, 1961, go to the Statler Hotel in New York for Sacks & A
andes to demonstrate the Ecco-Fonic. It says we are going to announce shortly sales plans for the Vaudevillian and the Singalong, those were part of the grandiose plans to fill all possible markets. So if you’re looking for a Vaudevillian, I don’t think you’re going to find it. It also says Ecco-Fonic dominates the field and explains the company has been in business for approximately two years, this was a note to me, however for the past four or five months has been under new ownership of Milton Brucker. It says it would be great for churches and cathedrals and synagogues and auditoriums, talk about various models, the Encore, the Vaudevillian. Okay, when Milton Brucker took it over, he started to develop different models, he wanted to sell to, like to radio stations. I don’t know if this is important or not.

Sure, this is great stuff. So five months from February would be, like August or September of ’60 for Brucker.
Yes, because that was about the same time I bought my house. He took over the factory and paid Tubin off and that’s when they started to modify it and do the broadcast units. Then they moved to nicer offices over on Santa Monica. That went on a year or two; enter Bob Marks, who was with Litton Industries, a technical firm. He was an engineer, early computer days, a technical guy, and he formed a company called Automata and that’s who took over from Milton Brucker.

The first thing Bob did was ask me, “How much have you been making with Milton?”

I said, “Whenever he calls me, he pays me,” and he says, “I’m going to put you on a retainer and send you a check every month.”

So whenever they needed me they would call and I’d be there in 20 minutes. But that made my house payments for a few years! We worked on a new model with multiple heads, for getting real short echos, more like reverb. I still have the prototype, it was called the 109-C, in a black box. But at that point, what Bob wanted to do was take the Ecco-Fonic out of being a tube circuit and into solidstate. That was what Automata was doing, but we were also working on a unit with multiple heads, I’ve still got that. I thought if you had a lot of points where you could pick up the echo, you’d get reverberation. At that time, Bob got very close to Don Randall, who was with marketing for Fender. Bob was able to strike a deal where he was going to have the Ecco-Fonic marketed under the Fender name, the solidstate version. They presented it at the NAMM show, but it was short-lived.

Did they make some? Because Fender did do a tape echo around ’63, before they went to a disk.
Fender came out in ’63 with it and that was the Ecco-Fonic patent.

But they didn’t call it Ecco-Fonic.
No, it was called a Fender and it had the Fender logo on the front. I still have mine.

What happened from there?
The Fender thing was short-lived and they just felt it wasn’t going to be a viable product, in keeping with the other Fender amps and guitars. It was a nice gadget, but it didn’t really take off. At that time, Bob Marks had suffered a heart attack, he survived it but at that point he went into retirement. And that was it.

Any tips to current owners on how to maintain theirs?
None of the guitar players understood you had to clean the heads, had to swab the heads, if you didn’t it wouldn’t work right, and they weren’t really into that much technology at the time. They didn’t even want to lift the lid up. And it wasn’t real accessible to get to the heads, you have to take out a thumbscrew to clean the playback head. Even the folks at Ecco-Fonic didn’t realize that you had to make sure the record head was clean, too.

And the erase head, and the pinch rollers.
On a lot of my units, I just left the cover off, so I could clean the heads; it wasn’t a big deal to make it work well, if you knew how to maintain it. The players weren’t willing to take the responsibility to maintain it.

Any way of figuring out how to wind that cartridge? I have one that’s missing the tape, and another with it, but I don’t dare sacrifice the good one!
Very carefully! And be sure to take a tranquilizer before you start! It takes a lot of patience. How you wind it is, you take one big loop of 1/4″ tape and just wind it around the cartridge, making sure you have the right side of the tape out. It comes into the cartridge straight, vertically, and exits the cartridge at the bottom. It comes out at kind of a slant, at a 45-degree angle (note: it leaves laying horizontally and is twisted a half turn on the way to the first tape guide).

And the tape just goes around like a regular reel of tape?
Yeah, you just wrap it around the wheel. But it’s just a loop, about seven or eight feet long and you wrap it around loosely.

Now, would it draw the loop tight once you started running it?
Yeah, and when you stopped the deck, the tape relaxed. And when you turned it back on you hoped it would pick up again and stay in alignment (laughs)!

How about the promotional records.
I was very much involved in the project, I recorded all the promotional records. The Ecco-Fonic came out first with a basic LP, which was only recorded on one side. This was followed by two more 7″ records, these were also 33s (note: these records are a must-hear). I would play “Dark Eyes,” “Two Guitars,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” that was Merle Travis style, “Blue Echo,” to demonstrate what it sounded like with and without the effect. I showed what it sounded with a little echo and then with more. Brucker would always say, “This is one Expensive record!” I have “Expensive Record” on mine!

Later, I made the Fender Ecco-Fonic record, it was a red disk, a 7″, and I play “Caravan” and “Steel Guitar Rag,” all kinds of things on it. I also did the Vox Wah-Wah record (laughing), that’s what my real career was, making those records.

You did use the Ecco-Fonic for years in your studio though…
I recorded with it all the time. Frank Zappa came to me in around ’65 – I didn’t know who he was, he had a beard and everything – and he wanted some real wild sounds. And we did this little production together and I just dug the tape out about a week ago and I said, “Geez, I can’t believe I did all this with the Ecco-Fonic!” And when I was doing the New Zoo Review television show for children in the ’70s, I used the Ecco-Fonic quite a lot, because we only had four musicians on the recording sessions. So the Ecco-Fonic always seems to surface. I’m glad there’s still interest in it!



Del Casher with the short-lived Ecco-Fonic Style 5 (a solidstate version version made for Fender) and the 7″ red-vinyl demo record on which he played. Photo courtesy of Del Casher.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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