No doubt everyone has heard of Fender guitars and amplifiers. The 1950 Broadcaster (later renamed Telecaster) and 1954 Stratocaster remain the gold standard of electric guitars almost 70 years later. Leo Fender started Fender’s Radio Service in 1938 in Fullerton, California, repairing radios, phonographs, public address systems and instrument amplifiers. In 1945, he began manufacturing Hawaiian lap steel guitars and amplifiers.
A few months ago, I wrote about the history of the steel guitar and its origins from Hawaii. A few weeks later I was contacted by a nice lady named Dutchey Landry, who has spent much of her life in Muskogee. I soon learned about her unique connection with Leo Fender.
Dutchey grew up in Fullerton, California, where Leo’s shop was located. In 1948 she suffered an accident that badly damaged her left hand. Her family doctor and a local surgeon worked hours to save her hand. However, after healing, she was told some type of therapy was necessary to keep from losing her hand. Her mother strolled into Fender’s Radio Service after seeing a lap steel in the window. After sharing her daughter’s tragic story with Leo, he gave her a lap steel and amplifier, on the condition she play it. Leo provided a bar and finger picks and explained to her parents how they were all to be used. Dutchey took to the steel, practicing hard and learning as much as she could soak in. Miraculously, her hand survived from the use of it on the steel guitar. The original single neck steel that Leo gave Dutchey had a chrome fret board that she soon learned was distracting when she performed at a California Angels baseball game and the bright lights would reflect and make it difficult for her to see. Leo soon changed the design to eliminate reflections.
Dutchey’s will and hard work paid off, and soon Leo gave her a double neck steel guitar. In 1950, she won 1st place in the International Guitar League competition. She even had the opportunity to sit in with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys when they came through Fullerton. Dutchey credits Leo’s kindness and generosity in saving her hand. Working the bar on the fret board was exactly the kind of physical therapy that she needed and wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Leo.
Dutchey eventually married a fellow steel guitar player, but sadly stopped playing as her husband thought one player in the family was enough. They moved to Oklahoma in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, while she was back in California visiting her family, her husband sold the original steel that Leo had given her. However, she still possesses the double neck version that Leo gave her after she learned to play.
Leo’s service shop remained open until 1951 as he had renamed his company Fender Electric Instrument Company and began manufacturing instruments in a larger facility in Fullerton. Leo had become intrigued with vacuum tube amplification and would improve on design flaws of other companies to develop his own line of amplifiers.
Leo sold his companies in 1965 to CBS for $13 million. This was $2 million more than they had recently paid for the New York Yankees! Also, the style of playing steel guitar went through an evolution during the 1950s and 1960s. Innovation created pedals and levers for steels, while complicating the playing. The style of Leon McAuliffe, where he stands up and fronts a band while playing, has diminished greatly. Robert Randolph recently played G Fest and demonstrated his unique talent in fronting a band while playing steel guitar. There are very few who play this style anymore. The Texas Playboys, Tulsa Playboys and Asleep at the Wheel all feature great players who play this style. I’ve always likened playing a non-pedal steel to continually solving a mathematical puzzle while playing a pedal steel is like continually solving a calculus and physics problem simultaneously.