Arts

Remembering Phyllis Fender

Twenty-seven years ago, doctors told a 58-year-old beautiful blond she had 6 months to live. She didn’t like that, so she went to another doctor who said the exact same thing. Yet, neither doctor knew who they were dealing with. She just kept on living, and ultimately, this remarkable woman outlived both of them.

And what a life.

Mrs. Phyllis Fender was married to the legend Leo Fender. She was a part of the magical era where acoustic sounds were electrified. Indeed, it is safe to say that Leo Fender has influenced every person on earth – at least everyone who has ever heard a song. The problem was that although millions wanted to know what made Leo tick, he was so painfully shy. On the other hand, Mrs. Fender never met a microphone she didn’t like. This was a match made in heaven.

Some time ago, I heard Mrs. Fender speak. I was in awe. I happened to be standing next to her son Paul, who was kind enough to introduce us. I said, “Mrs. Fender, do you know what you just did?” She answered, “Yeah, I just told my Leo stories.” I replied, “No, you shared history. This needs to be documented, and you and I are going to write a book.” She looked a little surprised, but sure enough, the next Monday we met at Polly’s Pies to kick it off. We were just a stone’s throw from where Leo and Freddie Travaris invented the Fender Stratocaster. My dad, Pete Bell, also worked there, and I was taught important values. Love God, be good to your family, do your chores, and play a Fender.

Mrs. Fender and I began our weekly ritual, where the hostess at Polly’s reserved our favorite booth in the very back corner. Mrs. Fender would typically order a wedge salad with blue cheese and iced tea. I got my standard turkey sandwich and tropical iced tea. I would turn on the recorder, and we would start talking. Right off the bat, she set me straight that there was no law that says you can only play a Fender. You should also play a G&L. She loves them both, and I got my act together.

I am proud of my childhood home of Fullerton – which my high-school friend Kirk San Roman aptly refers to as, “The center of the world.” Mrs. Fender loved all things Fullerton, especially volunteering with Kelly Chidester at the Fullerton Museum, and she sure never got tired of Polly’s Pies.

At times we would laugh and laugh about all the wacky things that Leo did while creating a billion-dollar empire. Other times we just talked about life and how tough it can be. Her stories hypnotized me, but I quickly realized Mrs. Fender had a heart of pure gold. So, loving, genuine, and authentic, I once told her, “Forget Leo! I just like hanging out with you!”

Sometimes we were joined by Fender historian Richard Smith, or by Lon Gibby, who was featured in a 1960s ad where he played a Stratocaster while riding a skateboard. Other times, former Fender or G&L employees would come, or my 98-year old mom would join us. Often, other restaurant patrons would recognize her, and she would invite them to visit. Her laugh was pure gold. With Mrs. Fender, life was just pure bliss. Our ritual continued for months on end and it became the highlight of my week. It was a thrill to be with her as the stories kept coming, along with the miracles. The right people came along with key parts of Leo’s story. Old documents would show up. Keith Richards endorsed the book. One day I told her, “I can’t believe it, but I somehow got [the domain] www.LeoFender.com. She just smiled and said, “It’s all a God thing.”

Finally, our book, “Leo Fender” was a reality.

Phyllis Fender and Randall Bell at the Fullerton Museum Center. Photo by Mike Ritto.

Finishing a book is like the kickoff of a football game and the rest is promotion. Together we did many radio, newspaper, and television interviews. No matter what, Mrs. Fender instantly connected with the audience. We had a system. I answered the technical guitar questions, and she took on all the Leo questions. Most importantly, we agreed to laugh at each other’s jokes.

She had a brilliant gift connecting with people. I once went to an event where Mrs. Fender walked into the room, which was literally full of rock and country stars. The whole crowd came to a hush, and then an outburst of awe at her simple arrival. She, on the other hand, had her eye on the roast beef sandwiches. At that moment, I learned society’s true hierarchy. Fans chase the rock stars, the rock stars chase Mrs. Fender, and Mrs. Fender chases the roast beef sandwiches. Honestly, she has more energy than any of them, and we were the last to leave. I have yet to meet a rock star that can out-party Mrs. Fender.

To Mrs. Fender, it did not matter if you were a rock star or scrubbed toilets – she was just happy to see you. The only star that really got her attention was Willie Nelson. When I learned this, I called his manager and mentioned that Mrs. Fender would like to meet him. Instantly, I was sent backstage passes to his show.

Mrs. Fender was so excited, and I was happy to be her chauffeur. We went backstage, and sure enough, Willie came riding up in a golf cart. He hopped out and came right up to me, and stared at me in the face. I said, “Mr. Nelson, I wrote a book with Mrs. Fender. It tells a story about the one argument that Leo and Mrs. Fender had – and it was about you!” Willie stared at me and said, “Good. I like causing trouble.” He then turned and gave hug after hug to Mrs. Fender. If Willie didn’t have a show, I think I may have driven home alone. They just kept chatting and chatting while an audience of 18,000 waited. He invited us to sit with his family on the side of the stage, and he walked out to thunderous applause.

I was honored to take Mrs. Fender to her first rock concert. She looked at me as if to say, “What is all this ridiculous noise?” I said, “Hey, they are all playing Fender instruments so you got to deal with it.” It was Kenny Loggins who got Mrs. Fender on her feet to dance for the first time – especially with Scott Bernard’s lead solos.

Think about it. You will not find a more eclectic or diverse group of people than in the world of music. Mrs. Fender was royalty. She was the queen. How many 85-year-old women are capable of making instant friends with 17-year-old punk rockers? Yet for Mrs. Fender, that was an easy day at the office. It did not matter if you were into acid rock and had a tarantula tattooed on your face, Mrs. Fender loved you.

There was never a doubt that Mrs. Fender loved her family. She never mentioned her daughter Chris without using the word “perfect.” She described her son Jon as, “That rascal that keeps me laughing.” Once, her son Paul was walking across her driveway while Mrs. Fender and I were pulling out in the car. Mrs. Fender told me to stop. She just wanted to watch him as she told me how proud she was of him and his bright, kind, and industrious nature. She adored her two sisters, Laurie and Trish. Her face glowed as she talked about her family.

The secret of Mrs. Fender was that she loved people, and she sure loved Jesus. If you were agnostic or atheist, that was okay. Mrs. Fender figured that Jesus loves you, too. Once Mrs. Fender and I were having lunch at Polly’s Pies. Out of nowhere, she said, “Ya know Randy, I love Jesus so much, I’m almost excited to go to heaven!”

On July 22, 2020 the world lost an icon in Phyllis Fender, who died at 85. For me, and for countless others who have a deep love for Mrs. Fender, it is impossible to accept that this day has come. I miss her so much. But I’m sure that Leo is up there tuning the electric harps, and Mrs. Fender is busy making a perfect heaven just a little more perfect.

In the end, Phyllis Fender taught us all a lesson. It’s so simple. The lesson is always love.

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