On this 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, it’s appropriate to discuss one aspect their impact on American kids: The desire to play rock-and-roll music themselves!
I had heard many rock-and-roll records, but it wasn’t until the Beatles that I wanted to play that music myself. I played sax in our elementary school band but after watching the Ed Sullivan show that February Sunday night in 1964, I knew I’d never feel the same way about it.
Later that year, my mom and dad gave in to my begging and ordered me a Silvertone guitar for Christmas from the Sears catalog. It was a solidbody in sunburst (a Japanese Teisco-made 1435 model) and cost about $65. It looked great but the thing was miserable to play, especially when fitted with Black Diamond strings, which was the only kind you could buy at the drug store. I had no amp, and I almost killed myself when, using some parts I found in my dad’s tool chest, I made a cable that had a 1/4” microphone jack on one end and a two-prong electrical plug on the other. I didn’t realize that an electric guitar needed an amplifier, so I was ready to just plug it into a wall outlet. Luckily my dad walked by just before I plugged the thing in and explained some things to me!
I was able to use an old shortwave radio that had a mike input jack as my amp after that.
One day in 1966, when my family was living in Marathon, Florida, one of the kids in my ninth-grade class brought in a full-color Fender Electric Instruments catalog he had ordered by mail. I vividly remember four or five of us boys spending every lunch hour for the next week reading that catalog and studying the photos. Our discussions were funny as I look back on them:
“Hey! Are these the coolest guitars in the world or WHAT?!?! I wish I could buy one!”
“Yeah, but these are described here as professional instruments. I don’t think they sell them to kids.”
“They have student guitars in the back of the catalog. Kids could buy those ones.”
“Maybe. But I don’t think they sell them anywhere but in California.”
“I bet you’re right about that. I’ve never seen one in the stores.”
“Don’t forget you’ll need an amplifier, too. So we’d better study those.”
“They’re expensive. That Stratocaster model like Buddy Holly played is over $250!!!”
“My folks would never buy me something that expensive!!!”
“If these Fenders are so great, why don’t the Beatles play them?”
“It’s probably because they live in England. That’s a long way from California. Maybe they haven’t heard of Fender guitars.”
“They play Rickenbackers, and those are made in California.”
“Maybe Fender guitars are just for surf music.”
“No; you can play any kind of music on these. It says so right in the catalog!”
“Well, they sure are amazing looking.”
“If you could have any one of these you want for free, which one would you take?”
We took turns borrowing that catalog overnight and reading it over and over.
I remember I wanted a Fender Jazz bass and a Bassman amp, because a bass, played with single notes, was more like a saxaphone than a guitar was.
Over the years, I had several Fenders. I still do and still get a thrill out of those wonderful instruments and amps. But I’ll never forget the excitement of reading that catalog over and over and dreaming of having whatever Fender guitar, or bass, or amp I wanted for free.