Leo Fender, the back-yard inventor who created an electric guitar made legendary by some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most famous musicians, was remembered in a memorial service Saturday by some of the artists and music fans touched by his craft.
“Probably the best tribute we can give is the sound of his instruments,” said John Jorgenson, guitarist for the country-rock band Desert Rose, about the 81-year-old inventor, who died at his Fullerton home March 21 of complications from Parkinson’s disease.
On a stage bedecked with floral arrangements and vintage Fender amplifiers, Jorgenson turned up the volume on his silver metal-flake Fender guitar and let fly with the bright, twangy sound that Fender introduced to the world more than four decades ago.
About 200 friends, family members, musicians and music fans attended the memorial at Temple Baptist Church. Other tributes, musical or spoken, came from steel-guitar legend Alvino Rey, Western swing star and comedian Hank Penny, singer Eddie Dean and business associate Forrest White, many lauding Fender’s genius and influence throughout the music world.
Fender’s widow, Phyllis, told the audience that her husband would not know what to make of the praise he received Saturday: “Leo would probably be embarrassed today, or wonder who in the world you were talking about, because he never thought of himself in the way that you remember him. He truly was that humble little custodian out in the garage, and he loved that.”
She was referring to Fender’s hands-on approach to his work, which often would leave visitors to his factories believing that he was an employee rather than the boss.
Fender was buried Tuesday in a small family funeral.
The memorial was held less than 2 miles from the small shop on Fullerton’s Harbor Boulevard where Fender developed his solid-body electric guitar more than 40 years earlier. That instrument, dubbed the Telecaster when it went into production in 1950, revolutionized the sound of popular music.
Fender then developed the Stratocaster guitar favored by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and countless other artists, as well as the now-ubiquitous electric bass, lines of amplifiers and other products for musicians.
He sold the Fender company in 1965 but continued in the last 12 years to refine his invention with another line of electric guitars--G&L--also; based in Fullerton. Fender could be found there at his workbench until the day before he died.
Though his functional yet flashy instruments were used by the most famous performers in country, rock and blues music, the memorial was a low-key, informal event, framed by the warm recollections of friends and business associates and by spirited performances on the guitars that bore his name.
White recalled that when he started working with Fender in management in 1954, the inventor instructed him to wear old clothes “because I was going to be in the factory a lot and needed something to wipe my hands on.”
White also remembered a time in the 1950s when he, Fender and associate George Fullerton--who also attended the memorial--left the plant to try out a new Cadillac. The snooty salesman, he said, “just saw these three jugheads coming in in their old clothes,” and became only more perplexed when Fender got down on all fours to satisfy his curiosity about the car’s construction.
Fender, he said, applied that same curiosity to his instruments, constantly checking with musicians to see how he could better serve their needs.
Western swing star Penny said he first noticed Fender in the 1940s in the audience at his concerts with pencils and a slide rule.
Penny said he believes that Fender is now attending a concert in heaven, watching history’s greatest musicians and still “sitting in the front row with his pencils and slide rule, grinning like a mule eating molasses.”
In addition to two instrumentals by Jorgenson, the tributes included two country-tinged songs from Dean, 84, plus musicians Gene Galien, Jeff Ross, Lowell Shyette and Troy Robbins. Letters of remembrance were also read from surf music originator Dick Dale and the Academy of Country Music.
Though a few tears were shed, most of the memories remained humorous and upbeat. Most of the speakers seemed to share the feeling of local musician and Fender friend Robbins, who said, “For those of us left behind, we’ve still got Leo in every way, in his guitars and in the music you hear everywhere.”