Unlikely Duo Fuel the Surfin’ Sound
Leo Fender: Accountant
Leo Fender was perhaps an unlikely figure to pioneer the big surf sound. He emerged as a guitar designer from a background working in an electrical shop repairing electronic and sound equipment. He was not a musician and, in fact, had a professional background in accounting.
He first turned his attention to building quality amplifiers which were sturdy, affordable and easy-to-repair, in response to helping out musicians who needed their equipment to stand up to the rigors of set-up, tear-down and travel.
Writer Kent Crowley’s account of surf music “Surf Beat Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Forgotten Revolution”, surf music was provided with it’s distinctive sound when Leo Fender contacted a young guitar player in 1954 informing him that he had something new that he might be interested in.
The guitar player was Dick Dale and the guitar was Leo’s Stratocaster, a guitar which had been in the development stage for about four years previous. Fender had been testing the guitar with various musicians including Noel Boggs from the Spade Cooley Band, Pee Wee Crayton and Eddie Shamblin of the famous Texas Playboys.
The Stratocaster was the successor to Fender’s Telecaster which was a favorite among country guitarists. Crowley relates that jazz musicians often leaned toward the Gibson ES 175.
Fender passed around his prototypes to many guitar players for tryouts, but his friendship and unofficial partnership with Dick Dales would lay the foundation for the surfin’ sound. Both Dale and label mate Ritchie Valens adopted the Stratocaster into their sound, and many would follow.
But it was from a rather unlikely source that the Stratocaster and it’s marriage to rock ‘n’ roll would take place. Band leader Lawrence Welk was the creator of the very popular “The Dodge Dancing Party”, Welk’s original show. Welk was always on the lookout for new talent and so he launched his “All American Music Contest” in 1955. Kent Crowley takes it from there:
“…the mother of a young guitarist (Buddy Merrill) from the L.A. suburb of Gardenia, sent in a homemade tape of his triple-tracked steel guitar version of ‘Mr. Sandman’. Upon hearing it, Welk contacted Merrill personally.”
Merrill would soon join the Welk show as soon as he graduated, and would trade in his Fender Telecaster for one of Leo’s new Stratocaster.
Crowley continues, “Welk gave Merrill a solo spot in each show to develop a younger audience with what Fender referred to as his “Fender guitar”.
Let’s Go Trippin’
Sales of the new guitar would soar after this, with Merrill’s appearances on the adult program making the purchase of the Stratocaster more receptive to the parents who would be approached by the future rock ‘n’ roll lead guitarists across the nation!
Dick Dale, fronting the Del-Tones, and Eddie Bertrand of the pioneer surf group, The Belaires, would both take to the Stratocaster and surf music was on it’s way!