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Don Randall, sales and marketing force behind Fender instruments, dies at 91

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Don Randall, the dynamic sales and marketing force behind legendary electric guitar designer Leo Fender's phenomenal success during his company's first two decades, has died. He was 91.

Randall, one of the founders of what is now the Scottsdale, Ariz.-headquartered Fender Musical Instruments Corp., died of age-related causes Dec. 23 at his home in Santa Ana, said his son, Tim.

Fender, who died in 1991 at age 81, was world-renowned for designing and manufacturing the iconic electric guitars played by Ritchie Valens, Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and countless other music legends.

But "Don Randall put Fender on the map through his sales effort and marketing genius," said Richard R. Smith, author of "Fender: The Sound Heard `Round the World."

Randall was general manager of the Radio & Television Equipment Co., a Santa Ana electronic parts wholesaler, in 1946 when he discovered that Fender had begun making lap steel guitars and small amplifiers in his small radio shop on what is now Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton.

"Radio & Television Equipment Co. was a wholesaler in a very price-competitive business," Randall recalled in a 1996 interview with the magazine Music Trades. "The idea of getting involved in a product where we controlled the brand name seemed exciting."

He had no idea just how exciting -- or how important his contribution to making the name Fender known around the world would be.

The teaming up of Fender and Randall, as Music Trades put it, "proved to be an inspired partnership."

"Don was very affable and an excellent salesman and an outgoing promoter of the instruments," Smith said. "He attended all the sales meetings and trade shows and went out selling to the dealers. Whereas Leo was pretty private and quiet and, in some ways, shy. He pretty much stayed in his lab working on new developments."

With his own background in radio and electronics, Randall provided significant input into the designs of Fender's guitars and amplifiers, said Tom Wheeler, a former editor in chief of Guitar Player magazine and the author of two books about Fender, "The Stratocaster Chronicles" and "The Soul of Tone."

"But it was really in the sales and marketing -- how they were presented to the public -- where he really made his mark on the entire industry, because he changed the way the general public viewed guitars and playing music," Wheeler said.

In Fender's catalogs and advertisements by the early `60s, Wheeler said, "you saw young people, and you saw people playing all styles of music. They were having fun; they were indoors, they were outdoors. You saw guitars at the backyard barbecue; you saw them with kids with surfboards at the beach, on stages and recording studios."

After initially handling sales and marketing for Fender through the Radio & Television Equipment Co., Randall became head of the newly created Fender Sales in 1953 -- as well as becoming Fender's partner.

At Fender, Randall held another distinction: He named most of the classic Fender products, both guitars and amplifiers.

That included the Broadcaster, Fender's first commercially available solid-body electric guitar, which was introduced in 1950. And, after a trademark dispute with the Gretsch company, Randall soon renamed the Broadcaster the Telecaster.

"Television was brand new at the time, and Telecaster seemed like an even better name," he told Music Trades in 1994.

In 1954, when Fender introduced his newest guitar, Randall -- an aviation enthusiast and pilot -- dubbed it the Stratocaster.

"The Stratocaster, made famous by everybody from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan, helped revolutionize the way players approached the instrument," Wheeler said.

For his role in the Fender success story, Randall was reluctant to take credit.

"He was almost modest to a fault, almost to the point of being self-effacing," Wheeler said. "None of them were aware they were making history, which they were.

"It's highly unlikely that Fender could have achieved anywhere near as worldwide success without Don Randall, despite those wonderful products and despite the genius of Leo Fender."

Randall negotiated the 1965 sale of Fender's firm to CBS for $13 million, and he became the vice president and general manager of the Fender Musical Instrument and Fender Sales divisions of CBS. He resigned in 1969.

A year later, he founded Randall Instruments in Irvine, where he designed and manufactured amplifiers and public address systems. He sold the business in 1987.

Randall was born Oct. 30, 1917, in Kendrick, Idaho, and moved with his family to California when he was 10.

He developed an interest in radio and audio amplifiers in high school and earned his ham radio operator license as a teenager. He also built a portable amplifier and speaker system that he used for parties and dances.

After graduating from the community college in Santa Ana, he worked part time as a salesman for a Santa Ana radio supply shop, during which he first did business with Fender.

After serving in the Army Corps of Engineers, the Signal Corps and Army Air Forces during World War II, Randall returned to the radio business.

Randall's wife of 63 years, Jean, died in 2003.

In addition to his son Tim, he is survived by his daughter, Chelena "Kathy" Grimshaw; his son Don; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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