Robert Perine

How I helped Leo Fender
How I helped Leo Fender

In all modesty, my role was small – especially in Leo’s eyes. Here was a man whose sole interest was making guitars and amps sound better, not worrying about the immeasurable whims of advertising. He was happiest hidden there in his Fullerton factory lab soldering and tweaking and listening for results. But for me, Fender Electric Instruments was mighty close to being the perfect account because, as Fender’s advertising guru, I was allowed to frequent the sales office and play.

By “play,” of course, I mean play guitars! The latest models were always on hand – in Stan Compton’s office, the sales display room, later in the recording studio – all factory-tuned and poised for action, luring visiting artists to sit down, exercise their fingers, and offer an opinion. And if Leo happened to be around, he was the most curious about what that player had to say. His aim was improvement and his reaction and follow-up to good suggestions often meant changing a component, finding a better material, even reshaping or restyling a body. I was to learn that this trait drove most of his associates up the wall, despite the fact that such rabid attention to customer need is what ultimately made his guitars and amps so favored by professionally-skilled players.

But let me back up a moment. I had graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute, in Los Angeles, in 1950 and gone off to set the world on fire as an artist of some kind. Following World War II, we all wanted to get on with life get through school, find a good job, get married. In 1956, after freelancing for several years, Ned Jacoby (my office mate) and I decided to escape the L.A. smog and move to the fresh air of Orange County. We found rentable space near the fishing boats in Newport Harbor and went about the task of starting over, calling ourselves Perine/Jacoby, knocking on the doors of young industries sprouting up nearby – plastics, electronics, boating, etc. (O.C. was then the third fastest-growing county in the U.S.).

After a Rickenbacker ad I designed for F.C. Hall appeared in Music Trades Magazine, I received a call from Stan Compton at Fender Sales, asking me if I would be willing to do something similar for Fender. Like your average citizen in those days, I hadn’t heard of Rickenbacker or Fender guitars, yet I jumped at the chance to lend my graphic design skills to a product I had learned a little about in the service. During my time in the Navy, I was assigned to the South Pacific twice for a total of 28 months and during that time took up the study of guitar, learning my chords here and there from G.I. buddies willing to sit on my bunk and teach, loaning me their instruments for an evening. I sent home for a Georgie Barnes chord book and when it arrived I began expanding my repertoire of tunes, all on borrowed instruments. Later, on my second stint in the Philippines, I took an Epiphone rhythm guitar and a DeArmond pickup along for the ride and played in a company jazz band for a while.

So the Fender phone call appeared to be providential and I was soon being instructed in the fine points of the solidbody electric by the likes of Compton and Don Randall, chief of Fender Sales. In 1957, my ad designs for Fender began appearing regularly in Music Trades, Downbeat, and one or two other publications, and by catalog time in 1958 I’d convinced Compton we should at least have a full-color cover on their major sales tool… the yearly product catalog… and, by the way, I had noticed the various Fender departments had been using no less than 13 variations of their logo on products and literature. Wasn’t it about time to integrate?

“Yes, of course,” Compton agreed. So I made a collage of these disparate, amateur-looking trademarks to accompany my official modernized version for the cover of the upcoming 1958-’59 catalog. Randall and Compton mulled it over for a week or so and after a short conference, Compton gave me the green light.

Leo, who was obviously focused on his own problems, or was left out of the loop, remained unconcerned about the inconsistencies of his potpourri of trademarks. Then one day after the catalog was printed, Randall called and asked me to go see Leo at the plant. Certain “people,” it seemed, were unhappy with the radical restyling of Leo’s very personal signature. Randall assured me that Leo and I could work it out if I took along an alternative sketch, perhaps a compromise version. Unclear as to what that actually meant, I drove to Fullerton with yet another design option. Leo, feeling put on the spot by the meeting, stared at my sketch for a long time, focusing mainly on the F.
“It’s not a regular F, you know. It’s a German 7,” he informed me.

“I know, but you see them all the time,” I said, adding my personal permission.

Leo smiled. “Of course. That’s why I like it. But it’s having the right curve that counts.

“Beg your pardon?” I said.

Leo ran his finger the length of the F’s contour.

“You see, Bob,” he said. “It should be like the curve of a woman’s back: it has to be just right. Higher here, a little lower there. I don’t think you’ve got it yet.”

Having no answer for such subjectivity, I laughed, which I don’t think Leo appreciated. I could tell he respected my ability, but had to remain in the act somehow, to exercise the smallest iota of control over the final outcome. After all, hadn’t he been dictating the subtle curves of guitar bodies for nearly a decade?

“So get that curve right and you’re okay,” he said in his Jean Hersholt voice, a kind of final pronouncement to send me on my way.

The fact that I had left unchanged the double-loop style of the two Es was of little interest to him. His only concern was the damned F. I had the feeling I was expected to refine that curve and not come back. When I told Randall about the meeting he simply replied, “That’s Leo.”

And so that’s how the 40-year-old Fender logo got its initial approval, back in 1958 in Leo’s modest little lab. Fender Sales immediately adapted my design for promotional materials, but the factory took almost four years to use up the old decals and name plates. Leo, it seems, could not abide waste.

During the early 1960s, Fender guitars and amps caught fire, with our ads and collateral materials lending a steady boost to the process. A backlog of orders stacked up. Randall and Compton emphasized the teenage market was of vital importance because kids in every major city were being encouraged by dealers to take guitar lessons, so I slanted many of the ads towards them, going to teenage fairs in southern California, finding teen models, putting them in situations where the guitars looked user-friendly. Musically I wasn’t much sold on rock and roll, even though my three teenage daughters were filling the house with the sounds of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and so forth. My choice since high school had been jazz and the big band sound, and the jazz players I knew treasured the mellow sound of the big acoustic electrics, like Gibson’s L series. The solidbody guitar sounded raspy, too sharp, had that loud, pristine sound Leo struggled against convention to achieve, doggedly distilling it with the filters of precision-wound pickup coils and crafty amp circuits. The impurities were thus removed and this annoyed musicians who preferred the more funky, throaty sound that’s caused by the resonating wood of an amplified acoustic chamber.

Some jazz players, especially electric bass players like Monk Montgomery, for example, liked the sustained, “singing voice” they could achieve; Oscar Moore (with Nat Cole) was another willing trier of the Telecaster, and Joe Pass supposedly played a Jazzmaster on rare gigs. But others like Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, and Charlie Byrd remained diehard acoustic/electric devotees. One night I carried a new Jaguar and a Twin Amp to a private party where I knew Hall would be playing and coaxed him to try it. While he gracefully obliged, I could see it was a foreign object to him, too harsh and crispy for his sensibilities. He did, however, like the brilliance and separation the amp was able to produce over a wide tonal range.

Leo tried hard to win over the jazz guys with the Jazzmaster, the Jaguar, and (later) Roger Rossmeisl’s thin-body Coronado – a beautiful-looking instrument that didn’t play as well as it looked. Correcting Fender’s image as a country/western, rock and roll guitar producer was already a losing battle, it seemed, though acoustic players had no beefs with the rugged, durable, and powerful tube amps Leo was releasing.

For me, the guitar as a basic instrument was a winner – always had been. Your well-made, generic guitar was versatile, easy to tote, a pleasure to hold and play, no matter its technical history or the player’s musical sensibility. I wanted Fender ads to express this universal quality, this love affair relationship a musician develops with his instrument which, in a sense, is his best friend, surely his voice, if not his lover.

In the late 1950s, I conceived the idea of doing a series of ads that would photographically show this relationship of guitar to player. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to depict musicians of all ages unwilling to leave their wonderful, precious Fender guitars unattended. Why not play with this idea of attachment run amok, the needle hitting the peg on the possessiveness meter? The headline “You Won’t Part With Yours, Either” came to me one day and for the next decade this line triggered several dozen imaginary situations covering a whole spectrum of guitar players from as many walks of life. My associates played with the theme, as did ad directors Jim Williams and Charlie Rosenthal. More situational ideas surfaced than I could possibly fit into my photo shoot schedule. Finding the right models and locations became a challenge, but did I care? This was a natural. For the next few years these ads were unprecedented in the musical instrument industry. Dealers chortled with enthusiasm and Fender-lovers sent in comments. Wrote itchy dealers, “Why are my orders not being filled?” Wrote one visionary potential customer, “Can you make me a Telecaster with tiger stripes?”

By 1965, Fender guitars and amps were on a roll and reached the first apex of their success and popularity. This is obviously why CBS stepped in that year and unintentionally altered the Fender landscape by buying out Leo, Don Randall, and company for $13 million cash. The influx of new money from the coffers of the blue chip giant activated an immediate expansion (a new, larger plant, a line of acoustic guitars, new Fender-Rhodes models, and a completely new line of solidstate amps) which began to tax the Fender team, spreading them inordinately thin. In due time, we predicted from the outside, quality control would weaken.

After this noteworthy acquisition, however, Randall enlisted me to design a new face for the experimental solidstate reverb unit and Model S-125 amp, assuming that a graphic designer like myself could double as an industrial designer. I worked hard restyling control panels and reshaping the speaker box, visiting the plant occasionally to offer design “guidance.”

When the solid state line went to market, however, they were an abject failure. Players continued still preferred the old tube amps because they simply “sounded better,” though there was no clear reason that Paul Spranger and his CBS team could see why the “old” electronics would sound better than the “new.”

I like to believe that Leo was secretly delighted over this rejection, since he had spent years bringing his tube circuits to a kind of divine perfection. He was, after all, the sound wizard, having trained his ear (and his eye, incidentally) to the finer points of musician preference. Though he had been fitted with a glass eye because of an accident when he was a boy, Leo was phenomenal at distinguishing between string gauges.

“That’s an 065 D-string,” he insisted to George Fullerton one day when stringing up a prototype Jazz bass, while I was looking on.

“Sorry, Leo, it came out of the 070 bin,” Fullerton assured him.

“Well, it’s not an 070. Go get the right size.”

“Come on, Leo, you can’t tell the difference between 065 and 070 with your naked eye!”

“Of course I can. This is the wrong size.”

Fullerton trudged off grumbling but came back in a while with the correct string. “Sorry, Leo, you were right,” he reported. “It got put in the wrong bin.”

Our yearly catalog shoots were a test of ingenuity and endurance. Lugging heavy amps all day, unwrapping new guitars, then returning them to their shipping boxes was always challenging. Protecting these gorgeous instruments against damage was another factor, especially when we shot the products in outdoor settings – guitars hung from trees, amps on rocks in the middle of a stream or on the beach, acoustic models scattered among wagon wheels at Knott’s Berry Farm, banjos on the wharf, Fender-Rhodes pianos set up on the Hollywood Bowl slopes or under the Balboa Pier. On three occasions, I was plenty relieved when instruments entrusted to my care were spared damage; once when it was necessary to trust an itinerant surfer to paddle out and catch a wave with a Jaguar strapped on his back; again when we handed over a Jazzmaster to a skydiver we had hired and watched fall from 10,000 feet and float majestically to the ground in front of us; and once again when another shiny new Jag endured a swift run down the ski slopes on Jim Williams’ back. In all three cases, the instruments received nary a scratch nor a dunking.

One of my favorite photos is in the 1968 catalog, the page featuring the all new Coronados. My daughter, Lisa, is getting into my red ’57 T-Bird carrying a red Coronado. To enhance the red theme, we parked the T-Bird in a Santa Ana brickyard. Another page depicts a distraught young lady running down an LAX runway trying to flag down a departing jet, her suitcases resting just beyond an array of solidstate amps. Phrases like “the non-stop sounds of today” and “Fender solidstate supersonics” and “the jet roar sound” helped make the point.

Another ad line we used was “The Most Imitated Guitar in the World.” One of this series depicted three thugs huddled over a Jaguar late at night with tape measure and calipers, implying that Fender quality and design was being copied, even clandestinely, and that certain zealous imitators were already getting away with it – namely the Japanese. Having imitators, of course, was inevitable, but for Leo such gall was simply a form of flattery, proof that he was the prime developer of the solidbody guitar and would remain the main man forever, even though, when prodded in later life, he would say modestly, “I just wanted to make a better instrument so musicians could achieve the effects they wanted.”

Even after he left Fender and formed G&L with George Fullerton and Dale Hyatt, he continued struggling with the nitty gritty of bringing off new and better versions of his former successes.

History tells us now that the pre-CBS years were probably Fender’s best – the most creative, the golden period of genuine team effort, when factory men like Freddie Tavares, Forrest White, George Fullerton, and Bill Carson worked together to achieve a common end, backed by several dozen skilled craftspeople, many of them Mexican-Americans, who were loyal to the Fender cause year after year. I consider myself fortunate to have been around in those days, able to put in my oar to aid the cause at the right time, right place. For me, the Fender account developed into a graphic designer’s dream, given its modest start.

The beginnings of such relationships are often that way – slow, casual, trusting. I’ll never forget my first visit to the Fullerton factory in late 1957. I parked my little Fiat 600 inside the chain link fence that enclosed the parking lot and got out, wondering which of six identical buildings I should enter. Down the way was a young fellow hitting a tennis ball against the building. I approached, wearing my ad man’s sports coat and tie. He squeaked his tennis shoes and stopped swinging.

“Are you looking for Leo?” he asked me as the ball rolled back against the fence.

“Yes. Where do I find him?”

He pointed at a door. “He’s in there. I’m Freddie Tavares, Leo’s assistant.”

When Freddie put out his hand I shook it, wondering how the boss man’s assistant was able to get away with such casual recreational activity. Well, he did look sort of Hawaiian, and Polynesians are known to be fairly laid back. Besides, it was nearly lunch time.

“We’re working on a new student guitar,” he went on. “Are you a musician?”

“Not a professional,” I said. “I’m doing your advertising. Don and Stan sent me over.”

“Well, come on in and see what we’re doing,” he said, and proceeded to lead me to Leo, who shook my hand quickly and asked the same question, then went on working. But Freddie launched into an immediate explanation of the merits of this instrument lying on the table before us, as if he were Leo’s designated spokesman. They had made modifications, he said, on an older guitar Randall had named the “Broadcaster,” then the “Telecaster,” and which had evolved into this, the contoured-body “Stratocaster.” Little did I know at that moment I was looking at what was already on its way to being Fender’s best all-time selling guitar – the infamous Jimi Hendrix axe.

It’s difficult to remember the details of Freddie’s off-the-cuff lab tour that day, but with hindsight it seems quite likely I was being informed of Leo’s current modifications on the Strat and the Pedal 1000 steel guitar. I vaguely recall that someone (maybe Alvino Rey?) had trouble with the pedals and pedal rods on the 1000 and Leo was determined to fix it before another instrument was shipped.

After 11 years of playing a part in the Fender success story, content to watch silently through the years as numerous official and unofficial Fender books have ridden the waves of Fender success, it seems timely to write this anecdotal version of how I helped Leo make it big. As a non-Fender employee, it was easier for me to maintain an outsider’s objectivity, as it was for Richard Smith in his recent book, Fender: The Sound Heard ’round the World. Though, as a young kid growing up in Fullerton, Richard knew Leo in somewhat the same way I did (though much later), his book maintains a clear historical perspective, has no axes to grind. It was no surprise, then, that Richard and I joined forces to make his well-researched book a reality.

When he came to Encinitas in 1993 to see me, I finally knew why I had saved all my Fender memorabilia – ad proofs, catalogs, brochures, and photographs with their negatives. I believe the Smith book to be the most complete and balanced appraisal to date. I wrote with enthusiasm beneath Leo’s mug shot on the jacket flap: “This is the ultimate, definitive Fender book, whether you are a musician, a lover of Fender lore, an avid instrument collector, or simply a curious history buff.” I guess there’s nothing wrong with being flagrantly prejudice, since Richard’s heavily-illustrated book contains 162 of my images!

If I was to become the artist I had dreamed of in art school, then Leo Fender, in an odd way, began helping me do that back when I was young and eager and full of ginger. After Perine/Jacoby’s exodus in 1969, when CBS and its delusions of infinite, rapid expansion shifted Fender advertising into fifth gear – bringing in an uptown L.A. ad agency – my artistic life was ready to take new twists and turns.

Both Fender and myself had reached the point where more had become less. Guitars, like art, are slightly uncomfortable with commercialization, mass market proliferation. Serious musicians look for tailoring and craft, not rubber stamp. While nostalgically I missed seeing Randall, Compton, Williams, and Rosenthal, I was glad to move on to other pursuits. A move to San Diego was only about a year away for me, and by 1970 Perine/Jacoby had dissolved, its partners amicably wishing each other well.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sept. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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