I mentioned recently that I was going to try to find a means of sharing more excerpts from The Birth Of Loud with y’all, and I did that thing, huge editing pain in the ass though it is. But man alive, what a fascinating book. I am by no means ill- or uninformed about Fender and Les Paul history and all, but I still learned a lot I didn’t know. The thing is just teeming with inside dope and fascinating, obscure stories. Such as:
It was a problem Leo Fender just couldn’t understand. By then, Leo had taken a liking to the young Richard Monsour, bonding with him after the young player apparently came around Fullerton begging for a guitar. The two would call each other with new technical ideas late at night, and spent time sitting in Leo and Esther’s living room, listening to Marty Robbins country records. Leo found Dick Dale’s amplifier conundrum intriguing. He and his lab assistant, Freddie Tavares, spent weeks developing improvements for Dale, building stouter versions of the new amplifier line they were developing. Dale would drop by on Thursday afternoons in 1960 and play through the new circuits and the wall of speakers Leo used for testing. Inside the concrete bunker of Leo’s lab, his guitar sounded like a machine gun. It was deafening how Dale played the instrument, his tanned left arm bulging as he knifed the strings with his pick.
Yet at the end of every weekend, Dale trudged back to Fullerton with whatever supposedly powerful amp Leo had given him, and it ended up with its capacitors smoked or the speaker cone torn or both, and Dale still claimed that it hadn’t given him the sound he wanted. “Leo kept asking me, ‘Why do you have to play so loud?’ ” Dale remembered. After what he claims were some forty or fifty amps destroyed, Freddie Tavares finally told Leo that to truly understand the problem, they’d have to go see Dale perform in person.
Mr. Fender and Mr. Tavares, middle-aged professionals heading out to get a taste of the local teen mania, must have been quite a sight: Freddie in his round metal glasses and Hawaiian shirt, grinning, the ever-curious musician; Leo in plain khakis and a blue button-up, slightly frowning, battling an ulcer after nearly fourteen years of running his own instrument company. On that weekend evening, they joined a line of cars three miles long down Balboa Boulevard and found the Rendezvous parking lot crammed full. The two grown-ups must have moved awkwardly through the crowds of teens hanging around, the kids surreptitiously drinking or necking or getting into precisely the mischief the town fathers had feared. Out on the darkened beach, the crashing waves left trails of white foam that glowed in the streetlights.
After the cool damp of the outside, the humid air inside the Rendezvous hit like a wall. In the ballroom darkness they could just make out the bulk of the crowd: three thousand teens knotted together, twirling, spinning, stomping. Boys in neat gray jackets and ties; girls in flannel skirts and closed-toed shoes, leaning on one another. A few more rebellious types in Pendleton flannels and huaraches, their collars torn open, dancing alone. The boys would put one foot down, slide it a little, then the next foot, slide, and so on: the surfer’s stomp. A forest of young faces, sweating, smiling, their white skin turning pink with exertion, everyone absorbed in the music and each other.
Leo and Freddie clumsily made their way to the center of the room and focused on the stage, where their friend was leading his band. Dale was a marble statue, animated: a shovel-chinned superman wearing a madras blazer and a tie. A curl of greasy hair fell over his face while his dark eyes stared down at the veiny hands pummeling his Stratocaster. There were perhaps five more musicians up there, all dressed as immaculately, all swaying in unthinking unison to the beat, which was relentless. There was a drum kit alongside a Fender Precision Bass cranked up, and a trio of horns, but the star was Dale’s left-handed Stratocaster. It wasn’t playing just rhythm or lead, but somehow both. As the loose shuffle of the band swayed beneath him, Dale jackhammered electric notes out into the ballroom, as if trying to stab the sound of his guitar through the chests of his fans. His picks disintegrated on his thick guitar strings, and flurries of white plastic rained down on the checkerboard stage at his feet. Dale was punishing his guitar, pounding it, sawing it, threatening to tear it in half, and the resulting blare was like nothing Leo Fender or Freddie Tavares had heard. It wasn’t a sweet, clear melody. It was a jagged rhythm, a howl of steel, a squall of electric nails to which every single one of the three-thousand-something young people inside the Rendezvous Ballroom appeared desperately and completely in thrall.
Amid the din and the sweat, Leo turned to Freddie. “Now I know what Dick is trying to tell me,” he yelled. Some weeks later, Leo called Dale down to the factory. He’d ordered a new fifteen-inch speaker from the James B. Lansing company and installed it in its own cabinet. An amplifier he’d built for Dale was housed separately, to make the rig easier to move. During use, the amp box stacked on top of the speaker cabinet. Both pieces were wrapped in cream-colored vinyl.
“This is you,” Leo said to Dale. “You are the Showman. This is your amp.”
It was the first amp Fender had made specifically to meet the needs of one player. The Fender Showman was also one of the first so-called stacks, the towering amplifier arrays that would become common as rock ’n’ roll evolved into rock. Based on other Fender circuits, but heftier—and, at eighty-five watts, more than twice as powerful as a common Fender Bassman—the Showman pointed the way to an even louder future, an age in which electric guitarists would require speaker boxes the size of refrigerators—or, at least, would really, really want them.
It still wasn’t loud enough for Dick Dale. Just as with the earlier trials, the Showman roared in Leo’s lab, but inside the Rendezvous, a room filled with thousands of sound-absorbing bodies, the thick bass Dale wanted wasn’t there. Even the new JBL speaker couldn’t stand up to his playing. Dale remembered Freddie Tavares holding the JBL cone in his hands and marveling at the strange contortions his rat-at-at guitar style forced out of it, eventually tearing the edges of the paper. Dale told Leo he wanted even more power, and two fifteen-inch speakers in the cabinet, not one.
One afternoon, Leo and Dale worked inside the beige walls of Leo’s lab, tweaking the Showman. As Dale’s guitar shot out of the speaker, Leo thought he heard a malfunction in the electronics and told Dale to stop playing. He reached over to the amplifier chassis and turned up the volume to maximum. Then he put an ear to the speaker grille and listened carefully for any unwelcome hum or hiss. This was a common procedure for troubleshooting amps, the best way to hear a faulty circuit—just turn it up and listen to what should be silence. But perhaps Dale bumped the guitar, or tripped over it, or smacked it; maybe he didn’t see where Leo’s ear was. Something struck the guitar, which was still plugged into the amp, which was turned all the way up and had Leo Fender’s head against its speaker. The full force of the machine bulldozed into Leo’s skull—the chomp of a Stratocaster at eighty-five watts, producing a violent metallic blast. Leo felt his eardrum crumble. He leapt away from the speaker, howling in agony, his hand covering his ear. But the damage was done; Leo’s ear collected only silence and pain. For days afterward, he could hear nothing out of it, and only a meager sensitivity ever returned. It was a cruel stroke of irony. Leo had already learned to live with one eye; now, he’d have to develop musical instruments using little more than one ear.
See? Betcha didn’t know that, did ya? I sure didn’t. As I said before: if you have any interest in this sort of thing, you really must get this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
As it happens, I have a Dick Dale story of my own for ya. Years ago, back in 96 or 98 or so, my band opened for Dale in Orlando, at the famous Sapphire Supper Club downtown. Our hotel, and Dick’s, was an easy stroll from the venue, so after our set was done we walked back to our rooms to imbibe a few cocktails and such in preparation for Dale’s headlining set. As I was walking back, I ran into Dick on his way to the venue, stopping him to thank him for having us on the bill and telling him I was a fan and really looked forward to hearing him play. He looked deep into my eyes, placed a hand firmly over my heart, and quietly said in a deep, serious voice: “It’s one thing to hear it. But you really gotta FEEL it.”
I was, I dunno, flabbergasted yet flattered to have been granted a moment of such serious attention from him. It felt like he was sharing something that was truly important to him, although I was admittedly a bit puzzled by it in the moment. Then we got back to the joint just as he was cranking up, and that shattering volume hammered at my chest like artillery. And then, right then, I knew just what he meant, I got it.
Dick used two of the standalone reverb tanks he had designed himself for Fender back in the 60s, and everything sounded just great. Funny thing about those reverb units, though: if physically disturbed at all when in use, they make this horrible, earsplitting, echo-ey CRASH that just rings on and on until the springs inside calm back down. I used one myself for years, but sitting it atop my amp was out of the question; I had to make sure to place it on the floor behind and well away from it, since I liked it pretty loud myself back in the day.
Curiously, a lot of the surf guitarists would kick their reverb units to produce the crashing racket I found so irritating, as in integral part of the song. I never really got that, but a few years later when I had tired of lugging the reverb and Echoplex around and was looking to streamline my setup a bit, I got a much more compact Danelectro reverb pedal that had actual springs in it, unlike the crappy digital ones that just never sounded as good as the old original tanks. The Dano pedal had a little kick-pad on it specifically for reproducing the horrible racket. I don’t think I ever used the danged thing once. Not on purpose, I didn’t. Drunkenly stumbling over the thing mid-song might be a different story, maybe, but I ain’t copping to nothin’. It never happened, I wasn’t there, I know nothing about it, and anyway it was three other guys. So there.
Anyways, Dick had come up with an ingenious solution to the problem; he ran the reverbs at a way higher lever than I ever did, making them even more susceptible to crashing from all the vibration, and something had to be done. So as I stood off to the side of the stage, I saw how he’d gotten around the problem: the reverb tanks were suspended from the rafters, hanging near his amps by a long, stout rope. I thought that was brilliant. Way cool too, and not something I’d have ever come up with myself.
The show was great, and the afterparty at the hotel was…well, it was your typical outrageous BP debauch, that’s all. Dick stayed well away from the proceedings, which speaks very well of him, and is a testament to his good character. I could report further on that segment of the evening, but I ain’t sure if Florida’s statute of limitations has expired on all the numerous offenses against decency, propriety, and the law committed that night yet, so I won’t.