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Phyllis Fender Gives a Firsthand Account of How Her Husband Started a Guitar Empire
Buddy Holly played a Fender; in fact, there is a picture of his favorite Fender guitar on his gravestone. It’s ironic—they spelled Buddy’s name wrong, but they got the guitar right!
Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction.
The above tidbit—taken from the very first page of the new book Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World—is fact. Holly’s gravestone reads “In Loving Memory of Our Own Buddy Holley.” Apparently, whoever engraved Holly’s headstone was so focused on creating a meticulous rendering of his beloved Fender Stratocaster electric guitar that they forgot to fact check the spelling of his last name.
Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World is packed with tons of fascinating stories and facts like this one—both about Fender himself and about the world-conquering guitar empire he built. More than just a cliff notes biography about a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, though, this book provides an intimate look at the man behind the music. One of the co-authors of the book is Phyllis Fender, Leo’s wife and widow. Phyllis gives readers front-row-seat insight into the life of her husband, from his quiet demeanor—so at odds with the roaring electric guitar sound he created—to his favorite guitarists. “There are already lots of wonderful books written about Leo’s guitars,” Phyllis writes early on; “This book is less about guitars and more about the man who invented them.”
As the name of the book implies, Leo Fender—born Clarence Leonidas Fender in August of 1909—was a true introvert. Phyllis recalls that, in all her husband’s years as an inventor, innovator, and gamechanger, he hardly ever signed autographs or gave interviews. Leo rarely even met the musicians who turned his guitars—particularly the solid-bodied Stratocaster—into rock ‘n’ roll iconography. It wasn’t that he was a recluse: he was just too busy designing guitars to pay much attention to what people were actually doing with them. One of the funniest stories told in the pages of The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World sees Prince—himself a somewhat reclusive figure, particularly later in life—demanding a meeting with Fender. Leo acquiesced—albeit, reluctantly.
Fender got the idea for the electric guitar in the early 1940s. While the rest of the world was stuck in the darkness of World War II, Fender was back home in the United States, running sound for war bond dances that were supposed to help support the troops. As an able-bodied man in his early 30s, Fender was prime age for military service. However, as Phyllis notes, he never got drafted because of his vision. When he was eight years old, Fender developed a tumor that cost him his left eye. He lived the rest of his life with one glass eye, a curse that turned into a blessing when it saved him from military conscription. It was during the war, at one of the dances he ran sound for, that Fender got the “lightbulb moment” for the electric guitar. In a big band full of loud, bombastic brass instruments, Fender noticed that the acoustic guitar players were being firmly drowned out. They needed a louder instrument, and Fender was just the man to build it.
The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World, with its conversational tales and fond memories of Leo Fender and the musical world he helped create, is fascinating for how it charts the path of fate. In Phyllis Fender’s mind at least, it seems as if Fender was born to build the electric guitar. If a few things had gone differently—if he hadn’t lost his eye as a kid, if he’d been fit to go to war, if he’d been drafted, if he hadn’t been at that war dance that night, watching those guitar players struggle to be heard—then he may never have invented the electric guitar. And if Fender hadn’t invented the electric guitar, the world of modern music would have been uncountably different. After all, so many of rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers and so many of its most accomplished guitarists made their noise using Fender instruments. From Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan to George Harrison, and even modern greats like John Mayer and John Frusciante, Fender guitars have shaped the sound of multiple generations. Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World, is worth a read for anyone who has ever enjoyed the sound of those guitars.
Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World is out November 1 from Leadership Institute Press. You can preorder it on Amazon now.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.