The (Way) Back Beat: A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody

Fretted cheesecake advertising through the years, Part Two
The (Way) Back Beat: A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody
Mary Osborne and the green Gretsch.

Last month, we began looking at some of the more entertaining fretted instrument advertising of the 20th century, in what could be loosely called the “cheesecake” style!

This term generally refers to the gratuitous – or at least technically questionable – use of female charms to get a reader’s attention. Over the years, the popularity of this approach has waxed and waned but a glance through any current guitar-oriented publication will show it’s very much in fashion again.

Gibson’s Bass Banjo Babe.

Of course, most vintage cheesecake looks almost charmingly innocent and tame in an era of Victoria’s Secret television commercials and porn stars as celebrities, but that’s the fun of a retroactive viewing. As concepts of political correctness and what’s acceptable to the market in general wax and wane, one eras’ fun becomes another’s exploitation. Early ad material that featured ladies tended to fall into two camps; the straight endorsement (with a bit of leg thrown in!) and the use of a fantasy female (usually a “spirt” or “muse”) who could appear more undraped than the actual article.

In our previous installment we featured quite a bit of material from the Gibson company’s early period. Gibson aggressively promoted both the company and its distinctive products, and was second to none in the use of artist endorsement from the company’s early years. It often seemed anyone who actually bought a Gibson and sent in a stiffly posed photograph would eventually get stuck in the catalog somewhere! Indeed, in the mid 1920s Gibson’s promotional catchphrase was “The Music Pals Of The Nation” and several period catalogs featured fold-out covers lined with tiny anonymous portraits of Gibson users of all ages, styles, and sizes. This phase soon passed and the company’s catalogs were cut back and put the focus on the instruments and a limited number of endorsers who were at least nominally professional. While a number of smiling young ladies appeared cradling their banjos, guitars, or mandolins, they appear innocent enough, and don’t really qualify for the overt “cheesecake” label.

Red River Dave and Gretsch heaven.

Here’s a tasty exception; the absolute classic Gibson “babe” of this era – indeed one of the company’s most entertaining artist presentations – is this young miss with her improbably gigantic bass banjo. She’s described as “A member of Miss Jean Rankin’s Blue Belles” further characterized as “One of the top-notchers in vaudeville.” The Rankin organization was a reasonably successful act, one of a number of all-female orchestras that sprang up in the roaring ’20s. The Blue Belles were Gibson endorsers starting in the late 1920s, first appearing as a band fully equipped with an assortment of banjos in catalog B-4, from 1929. This particularly lovely image of the pert young banjo-bassist stepping out on her own with the marcelled bob in the skimpy spiderweb dress was run as a full-page item in Gibson catalogs for several years beginning in 1930, until the company gave up giving so much printed space to such an unsellable instrument! At least a few of these gigantic bass banjos were actually constructed – one very similar to the illustrated example turned up some years back in the collection of the late Scott Chinery. The sheer size and weight of the thing, which requires a stand even in the well-airbrushed illustration, along with the maddening difficulties in keeping constant tension on a piece of stretched cowhide as large as the whole side of a cow must have quickly doomed these bass banjos even as a novelty item! With a flashy Florentine-style pearloid peghead inlaid with rhinestones, this behemoth must have been something to see, if not to hear. “The new Gibson Bass Banjo compels attention wherever used” trumpeted the attendant text in 1930. “Few instruments can yield greater pleasure to either player or audience.” The young lady pictured looks game, if slightly dubious, as she leans in for a mighty pluck, but sadly both she and the “Noblest instrument of all” faded back into obscurity, leaving only this delightful image. Incidentally, someone at Gibson does seem to have had a recurring eye for female bassists; a slightly stern and well-draped Eleanor Camp was the pictured Mando-Bass demonstrator in catalogs circa 1926!

Getting back to reality, by the 1930s, much of the actual market for guitars and banjos – at least the professional market – was male. Most of the advertising materials from this time promoted higher-end instruments and usually featured the fretted star of the age; the “orchestra” guitarist – a dapper and sleekly suited man pumping out the rhythm in a big band. While thousands of girls and women were still learning to play fretted instruments, there were few role models for them to look to follow into professional entertainment, and they would have been primarily considered sales prospects at the student level. With the exception of “all-girl” bands still primarily treated as novelty acts, the female performers in this field were almost universally stand-up singers, not instrumentalists. The growing popularity of radio and film entertainers in the Country/Western field was inspiring countless young players of both sexes, but surprisingly little advertising was directed at this market. A few smiling “cowboy” (and occasionally “cowgirl”) entertainers were featured in period catalogs (primarily Gibson’s) but were the definite minority. Of course the fact that the C.F. Martin company, the other favorite guitar brand of this style of players, did no endorser advertising at all, does tend to tip the balance a bit! In fact, Martin did virtually no advertising of any kind in this period, issuing a dainty if somewhat dryly informative catalog about once a year and letting the orders roll in! Gibson, Epiphone, Vega, and National were the main contenders, and put considerable resources into promotion as the decade wore on.

Harmony leads the way (away!).

Down Beat magazine, where many manufacturers’ ads appeared regularly, was certainly never adverse to a little cheesecake. Before transforming into a fairly intellectual progressive jazz journal in the mid ’50s, Down Beat was a much more colorful musician’s general news organ. The ’30s and ’40s, newsprint tabloids had a penchant for featuring band “thrushes” or “canaries” as the singers were termed, and even female musicians pictured showing as much calf or cleavage as could be arranged! It’s no surprise that Epiphone’s notorious “Emperor and the maid” promo which featured a scantily draped woman whose charms were discreetly covered by the even more voluptuous curves of the 18″-wide archtop guitar was run there, not as an ad but as a news item. “Some piccolo or fife manufacturer ought to get hold of this idea” snapped the paper’s editorial comment! While ads run in the Music Trades and Fretted Instrument News were generally aimed more at the dealer market, the primary canvas for print advertising for active players and the hip segments of general music-loving public for instrument makers was Down Beat and the similar if somewhat stodgier Metronome.

One of Down Beat’s most consistently enthusiastic advertisers in the ’40s and ’50s was Gretsch, as the company worked to bring the status of their guitar offerings up to the level of Gibson and Epiphone. With the introduction of their upscale Synchromatic line in 1939, Gretsch began an aggressive print promotional campaign concentrating on the alleged “Seven Points of Supremacy” of the new instruments, while simultaneously featuring a range of endorsers, many of whom were fairly obscure even at the time. The biggest name was probably Harry Volpe, who did quite a bit of Gretsch promotion before jumping to the sinking Epiphone ship in the early ’50s. Volpe was a well-regarded musician who published a number of sophisticated guitar arrangements and teaching methods, but was not a big name to the general public. A Gretsch ad from 1948 spotlights an entertainer a bit more “down home” – “Red River Dave” McEnery. Ol’ Dave was a fairly well-known country and western entertainer, but the real star of this particular piece of promotion from ’46 is the celestial blond seen beaming from the heavens. “Red River Dave and other outstanding artists prefer blondes” runs the ad copy, and as Dave gazes skyward it’s up to the reader to decide exactly where he’s resting his peepers! The actual guitar being flogged here – the Synchromatic 115 – was not one of the Gretsch company’s high-end instruments, indeed the guitar Dave’s actually playing (a blonde Synchromatic 200) was a much classier lady. This ad is really a more modern variant on the old “beauty as muse” theme seen decades earlier, and it sure looks as if this softly-shadowed siren with the platinum Veronica Lake forelock is going to inspire some impassioned yodeling from her moonstruck cowboy.

And the guitar can be fun too…(Harmony).

Gretsch did eventually find an actual female guitarist to use in its promotions, and although “she had the glamour angle,” as one of their ad men put it, Mary Osborne’s appearances never crossed into cheesecake territory. Mary was easily the musical equal of most male guitarists of the ’50s, and having heard Charlie Christian first-hand early in her career, was no slouch in the hard swinging department. Osborne recorded quite a bit of classy guitar music with many major names, including an intriguing 10″ LP entitled “Cats Versus Chicks” (MGM E255, 1954) for which critic/producer Leonard Feather enlisted five very serious female musicians to “do battle” with five well known jazz men. Osborne appeared in a number of print ads for Gretsch in the 1950s, one of the few female artists to be so seen. She is usually seen cradling an early Cadillac Green Country Club guitar, but for the cover of her 1959 album A Girl and Her Guitar shows off a gleaming White Falcon. Perhaps part of the wages of her endorsement deal? Gretsch also featured the lovely if somewhat demure C&W singer Martha Carson in some 1950s promotions, although she too was always pictured in very classy poses (Carson was well-known for her gospel material). At least it showed that someone at the Gretsch office had an eye for the dames, or a progressive social attitude… or both!

Fender soon responded and found a classy female entertainer to feature in the company’s advertising. Although her promotional participation was limited, her name has since been perpetuated on a guitar model she never even played! Mary Kaye was a well-known singer and guitarist who led a hot swinging trio popular in Las Vegas. While Kaye was a deft rhythm guitarist her primary appeal was as a vocalist; still, when Fender asked her to pose for a promotional shot, she readily agreed… after all, the band did use Fender amplification. Featuring Mary’s broad come-hither smile, low-cut dress, and stunning blond Stratocaster, this quickly posed picture was the highlight of many pieces of 1950s Fender literature, and to this day a blond maple neck Strat with gold hardware is routinely called a “Mary Kaye” model. Kaye herself stuck to her D’Angelico guitars and never owned or played that Stratocaster, but was amused many years later to learn how much impact the single picture had. She has since been honored by Fender. After all, many players have had guitars named after them, but usually it was after a longer relationship than this “one-shot stand”!

Don’t Bug Me, Baby! (Magnatone).

Have guitarists ever been so wrapped up in their instrument they’ll refuse the attentions of an eager lady? That’s the premise of the 1958 “Don’t Bug Me, Baby!” ad. Was the admittedly seductive sound of Magnatone’s 1958 guitar and amplifier line really more compelling than the amorous attention of a willing blonde in a backless dress? Magnatone’s advertising department would have us believe so. After all, that guitar is a Paul Bigsby inspired Mark IV, and those amps have a heavenly sound all their own… These instruments were the company’s most serious shot at the big-time! Note that the uptight – or at least upright – guitarist and his comely companion are both definitely adults, not teenagers. Most ’50s fretted advertising was still directed at professional (or would-be pro) players and at dealers. Despite the growing rock and roll culture that was already fueling increased sales, guitar manufacturers and their advertising departments were slow to catch on to the rapidly expanding youth market. The diffident guitarist pictured here already looks like a throwback to the early half of the decade.

By the early 1960s more and more guitar advertising – especially electric guitar advertising – would be aimed at young males. “Play our guitar and get some female attention” was the implied if unspoken promise of many of the new ads. By the turn of the decade, even the most audacious marketer didn’t have to stretch credulity too far to get that message to the ever-growing hordes of teens turned on by rock and roll and/or folk music. Guitar marketing, by this point, was directed less at professionals and teachers and more directly to “the kids” themselves. In the wake of the initial rock and roll explosion came the twist craze, the surf music fad, the British invasion and folk-rock and the electric guitar was suddenly everywhere, the most desired tool of youth culture (along with a car!).

Mary Kaye, a smile and a Strat.

Chicago’s Harmony company was certainly a market leader at bringing the message to the 1960s “youthquake.” Since Harmony’s instruments were geared to the lower end of the market, it made sense that they would benefit from directly appealing to the less affluent kids buying guitars in droves. Circa 1960, Harmony’s advertising department presented these charming – in a “wink-and-a-nudge” sort of way – examples of just what awaited the enterprising young guitarist equipped with the new Harmony Meteor or Stratotone. The graphics are breezy and light, the young couple clean-cut and charming, in a Sandra Dee/Tab Hunter sort of way. The overall look of these two was still acceptable to adults, even if the obvious premise of where that electric guitar is taking the young gent might raise eyebrows! As the ’60s geared up, this path would become even more obviously exploited, as we’ll see next month!

This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

CLICK HERE to read Part 1.
CLICK HERE to read Part 3.

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