I interviewed Don Randall in 1992, when I was researching my first book about Fender. In the beginning, Don had worked for Fender’s distributor, Radio-Tel, but in the early ’50s he joined Fender as the head of sales, staying there until a few years after CBS’ takeover in 1965.
I met Don at his office in Tustin, California, and spent a couple of enjoyable hours chatting about the old days, necessarily concentrating on his view from the business side of Fender—and, in particular, discussing the controversial CBS purchase.
Sitting in his wood-paneled office, he looked to me a little like an aging astronaut—sleek, tanned, and self-assured. He certainly helped take Fender into the stratosphere.
Would it be a fair comment, Don, to say that Leo Fender was the driving force behind the Fender company?
Well, no, it wouldn’t be. Leo was a very introverted individual. He of course has taken credit for inventing the solidbody guitar, which really isn’t true. Paul Bigsby was actually the guy that came out with the solidbody guitar with the lute head and so on. That pre-dated Fender’s guitar, and prior to that when Leo was messing around [at K&F], a fellow by the name of Doc Kauffman was the important driving force.
I hope you’ll take this in the manner in which it is intended, because Leo’s gone now [he died in 1991, a year before this interview], and I don’t mean to put him down. But there’s been so much misinformation about these things, I think it’s time that someone put the record straight.
That’s one of the reasons I came to see you, because I’ve read so many conflicting reports about what happened. So tell me how it all began.
My time with Leo goes back before World War II. I operated a small radio wholesale house, selling parts and equipment, and Leo had a little radio repair shop and a service station, over on Spadre, which is now Harbor Boulevard [in Fullerton]. I sold him radio parts and so on. We had a very good association. He had a wife, Esther Fender—a lovely lady, very beautiful—she was keeping the books, and she worked for the phone company.
That went for on for, oh, I don’t know how long, and finally of course I had to go in the army. I spent almost three years in the service. Leo during that time wasn’t in the service because he had only one [working] eye. He wasn’t taken in. During that time he expanded his radio service business because—well, during that period there weren’t too many people about to do that kind of business.
When I got out of the service, I came back and started doing business with Leo again, selling parts and equipment. That went on for a while, and by that time he and Doc Kauffman had some falling out on these things. I didn’t ever know exactly the reason for Doc’s separation from Leo, but it seems that he had family problems that meant he was afraid to carry on with the business. But Doc was a very nice guy.
At the same time, Leo had a fellow by the name of Ray Massie working for him, who was actually beginning to build some amplifiers, and Leo would go out to the country-and-western places locally, take ’em out and let them play ’em. This led to Leo first of all making a little tiny steel guitar. We started selling those at Radio and Television Equipment Company [Radio-Tel] because we were doing business with Leo at the time.
Was Radio-Tel your company?
No, that was owned by a man name of Francis Hall. I was the general manager there. Leo and Francis really didn’t get along. They just rubbed each other the wrong way. We had another fella selling for us in the south, by name of Charlie Hayes—this was in 1953. We formed that year the [Fender Sales] company, and the four of us became partners. I was the managing partner, plus Leo, Charlie Hayes, and Francis Hall.
That went on for a little while, and the antagonism in the company was such that I felt like a referee. Charlie and I were doing one thing, and Leo and Francis another. So then in 1955, Leo and Charlie and I were on a phone hook-up, Charlie was over at the factory—I think it was in April, if I’m not mistaken. It was about six o’clock at night, just before it was getting dark, and Charlie said he had to get home, Dorothy had dinner waiting for him. That was from Fullerton to Santa Ana.
I got a call, couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes later I don’t think, and Charlie had been killed by a head-on car accident on State College Boulevard, which then became Raymond where the factory was. So that left Francis, Leo, and me in the company.
How old was Charlie when he was killed?
He would have been in his late 30s, I guess. He’d been in the service also. Anyway, this animosity continued to grow, and Francis bought the Rickenbacker company, and that sealed his fate there. We decided we couldn’t have him in the company, so we made him a buy or sell offer, which he felt he couldn’t handle, so we bought his interests.
The company became Leo and myself, and it continued in that vein until we sold it to CBS in 1965. During that time a lot of things transpired, and a lot of people became involved, and now they all want to say they had a stamp on the company, which absolutely wasn’t true. It didn’t happen.
Who were the most important people at Fender in those early days?
Well, Leo and myself were the only real principals in the company. Everyone else was hired hands, you might say. Forrest White was very active in running the factory, and he was very good at it, a very efficient operator. The rest of them—Dale Hyatt, George Fullerton, all the rest of them—have indicated we did this, we did that. They really had nothing to do with the company at all. They were hired hands and had no influence on the company or its designs or anything about it.
Presumably, Don, Leo was happy for you to take care of the business matters?
Well, I remember once when Leo and I were involved in a tax case—they took our personal tax situations and our companies’ tax situations and brought them all into one. So we had to go to a tax court up in LA. Leo was really funny in lots of ways. He was such a strange guy. So we were up there, and Leo was on the stand, and the tax attorney was cross-examining him. And everything was “I don’t know,” “I don’t remember,” “I don’t know.” You could see the guy was getting more and more frustrated with this.
Leo actually didn’t know anything about the business when it came right down to it—but he knew more than he let on. Finally, the guy was exasperated, having just run some figures by him that Leo should have known about, so he says, “Mr. Fender, did you go to school?” Says, “Yes, I went to school.” “Did you go to grammar school?” He says, “Yes, I went to grammar school.” “Did you go to high school?” “Yes, I went to high school.” Says, “Did you go to college?” “Yes, I went to junior college.”
So he says, “You went all through school, all through two years at college, and what did you major in at college?” Leo says, “Accounting!” I thought I was gonna fall under the table. Oh my god, can’t believe it.
We were traveling back and forth to LA with our attorneys, and on the way home I said Leo, “You’ve got to be the worst witness I have ever heard of or seen or thought of in my life!” “Wha’s the matter Don, wha’d I do?”
I said, “For one thing, when the guy had you on the stand, he asked you what is your name. And you looked at him, thought for a minute, and said, ‘Would you repeat that question?'” Leo says, “Oh, I didn’t do that did I?” ‘Course, the attorney was about to crack up. As a matter of fact, Leo did work for the state highway department for a while in the accounting department.
You say Leo was introverted. Why was that?
Just his nature, I don’t know why. His wife, Esther, was very outgoing, she was a super gal, full of life and fun. Leo would never want to go any place. Later he got to traveling some. But he didn’t have any friends, any relatives. Oh, he had a relative, Ronnie Beers, who was kind of his right-hand man at the shop, worked for him—a gopher was what he was.
Ronnie worked for a long time for him at Fender there, and then when Leo had this little company [CLF Research] after he left CBS. He did some messing around and Ronnie worked with him there. He finally put Ronnie out to pasture and he had no friendship or nothing, nothing to show for all the time.
Leo was a strange man. He didn’t form any alliances. He smoked at one time, and he quit smoking. He didn’t drink. He wouldn’t go back to shows. I’d have people out here on these purchase investigations and it was like pulling teeth to get him to meet them.
He just didn’t want anything to do with it. He was gracious enough once we got them together, you know, but it was only about a five-minute meeting and that was it.
I suppose strangers would think he was shy.
Yeah, he was just one of those guys, hardly did anything. His whole life was wrapped up with tinkering, fiddling around the shop.