On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 3

It’s time to take another look at music history. As always, these posts reflect my music taste and, as such, are not meant to be a complete account of events that happened on the select date. With that reminder out of the way, let’s take a look at February 3.

1959: Sadly, the first item here is the tragic and untimely death of early rock & roll star Buddy Holly at age 22. During a short 7-year professional career, the man from Lubbock, Texas recorded such original gems as That’ll Be the Day, Words of Love, Everyday, Not Fade Away and It’s So Easy, as well as great tunes penned by other songwriters like Peggy Sue and Oh, Boy! On January 3, 1959, Holly and his band embarked on the Winter Dance Party tour. Following a gig in Clear Lake, Iowa, they were supposed to travel to their next show in Mason City, Iowa. After Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch had been hospitalized for frostbites in his toes due to icy conditions on the tour bus, Holly decided to look for alternate transportation and chartered a small propeller plane. But the four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza never reached its destination. In the early morning hours of February 3, it crashed into a frozen cornfield close to Mason City, instantly killing Holly and the three other people on board: Fellow rock & roll artists Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper), as well as the pilot Roger Peterson. In 1971, the tragic event became known as “The Day the Music Died” in American singer-songwriter Don McLean’s tune American Pie.

1967: The Beatles were at Abbey Road’s EMI Studios to add overdubs to A Day in the Life, one of my all-time favorite tunes from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band studio album. According to The Beatles Bible, the session began at 7:00 pm and finished at 1:15am the following morning. Each of the overdubs replaced previously-recorded parts: Paul McCartney’s and Ringo Starr’s bass and drums parts they had recorded on January 20. McCartney then overdubbed his lead vocals to correct a wrong word sung during the previous session. Starr’s drum part recorded that night became one of his most- admired upon the album’s release in May of the same year. Here’s a neat clip.

1973: Elton John hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Crocodile Rock. According to Songfacts, John said the retro tune contains flavors of a lot of his favorite early rock songs, including “Little Darlin'”, “At The Hop” and “Oh Carol” as well as songs by The Beach Boys and Eddie Cochran. The title is a play on the Bill Haley song “See You Later Alligator” – Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” even gets a mention, as that’s what the other kids were listening to while our hero was doing the Crocodile Rock. With music written by John and lyrics penned by Bernie Taupin, Crocodile Rock was John’s first no. 1 hit in the U.S. It also topped the charts in other countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland, and became a top 5 hit in Australia, the UK and a few other European countries. Crocodile Rock was also included on John’s sixth studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, which had been released in January that same year.

1979: The Blues Brothers featuring comedians and actors John Belushi (“Joliet” Jake Blues ) and Dan Aykroyd (Elwood Blues) proved they were no joke, topping the Billboard 200 in the U.S. with their debut Briefcase Full of Blues. Capturing a live gig in Los Angeles from September 1979, the album also featured a formidable backing band. Among others, it included guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, both formerly of Booker T. & the M.G.’s., and blues guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy who had worked with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy and Etta James. Belushi, Aykroyd, Cropper, Dunn and Murphy all would appear the following year in the cult comedy picture The Blues Brothers. Here’s their rendition of the 1967 Sam & Dave classic Soul Man, a tune written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.

1986: Dire Straits were on top of the UK chart with their fifth studio album Brothers in Arms. The British band’s second-to-last studio release turned out to be their most successful one. It also reached no. 1 in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and various other European countries. Additionally, with more than 30 million copies sold globally, Brothers in Arms is one of the world’s best-selling albums. It also holds the distinction of being one of the first albums recorded all digitally (DDD). One could argue its extremely clean sound gave it a bit of a sterile feel. Here’s the beautiful Your Latest Trick penned by Mark Knopfler, the group’s leader and main songwriter. The stunning saxophone part was played by American jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music Calendar; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts; This Day In Music; YouTube

The Hardware: Fender Stratocaster

Perhaps no other model embodies the electric guitar more than the Fender Stratocaster

To me the Fender Stratocaster is the Porsche 911 of electric guitars. Similar to the iconic German sports car, the Strat was designed decades ago but its basic shape has remained unchanged.

The Stratocaster was developed by the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company (“Fender”) Leo Fender, guitarist and adviser Bill Carson and company associates George Fullerton and Freddie Tavares. It was Tavares who came up with the two-horned body shape, similar to the Precision Bass that Fender had launched in 1951.

Stratocaster Headstock

Introduced in 1954, the Strat became Fender’s third defining model after the Telecaster and the Precision Bass. While Les Paul built the first solid-body guitar, it was Leo Fender who started mass-producing the first such guitar in 1948, the Fender Broadcaster. A few years later, it was renamed the Telecaster and introduced in 1951. The Telecaster gained quick popularity among country and early rock & roll guitarists.

It is quite amazing that to this day, more than 60 years later, the Telecaster, Precision Bass and Stratocaster continue to be manufactured. By the way, it was Fender’s head of sales Don Randall who came up with the name Stratocaster.

Stratocaster Comfort Contours

The Strat featured several innovations. It was the first electric guitar with three pickups; the Telecaster had two. The Strat’s rounded edges and deep body and forearm contours were another first. The so-called “Comfort Contour Body” was another contrast to the Telecaster with its squared-off body that dug into the player’s body and picking-hand forearm.

The new shape, which has been attributed to guitarist Rex Gallion, made the instrument more comfortable to play. Gallion reportedly once asked Leo Fender, “Why not get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?” The new shape also looked pretty cool – there was simply no other guitar like it!

Stratocaster Tremolo System.JPG

Another key innovative feature of the Strat was its spring tension tremolo system. Leo Fender came up with the design after scraping the initial vibrato system due to poor performance. In the new design the whole bridge moved with the strings rather than having the strings move over rollers with the bridge remaining stationary. The spring tension tremolo system allowed the pitch to vary by at least three half steps.

The tremolo system turned out to be hugely impactful. For example, without this feature, Hank Marvin, lead guitarist of The Shadows, could not have created his signature sound on Apache and many of the band’s other songs. And more than a decade later, Jimi Hendrix’s epic performance of Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock would not have been possible without his guitar’s vibrato bar.

Stratocaster Close-Up

Despite all of its novel features, the Strat was not an overnight sensation. Many guitarists considered it gimmicky. The early rock & rollers largely relied on flat-top acoustic or big, hollow-body electric guitars by Gibson and Gretsch. Leo Fender and his staff continued tweaking the Stratocaster until 1957 when they finally had improved it to the form that largely has remained unchanged to this day.

The Strat is a versatile guitar that has been used in many music genres, including blues, country, soul, rock, punk, heavy metal and jazz. Following are some of the influential musicians who have played the Strat.

Buddy Holly was the first “Strat hero.” According to Fender’s official website, Holly purchased his first Strat in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas in 1955, with money he had borrowed from his brother Larry. He helped popularize the guitar with his 1957 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Peggy Sue also happens to be one of my favorite tunes from that era.

Hank Marvin reportedly was the first U.K. owner of a Strat. His initial preference for the guitar was based the wrong assumption that his favorite guitarist James Burton, who played with Ricky Nelson at the time, was using that model. “We loved the sound he and Buddy Holly had,” Marvin told Vintage Guitar Magazine in 2006. “We just assumed that James would be using the same, because it seemed to be the top model…That’s how I got my Strat. And it was a beautiful guitar, [Fiesta Red] with a birdseye maple neck and gold-plated hardware.”

Like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix helped popularize the Strat, especially his favorite white-finish version, the guitar he used at Woodstock. Two years earlier, at Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix also proved you can set a Stratocaster on fire – don’t try this at home!

Eric Clapton became a Strat enthusiast in 1967, after originally having played Gibson guitars. The guitar he used to record Layla was a second-hand 1956 sunburst-finish Strat he had purchased in London in May 1967, which he nicknamed “Brownie.” Clapton’s other main Fender guitar, “Blackie,” was assembled from three different Strats. He used it until the mid-80s. In 1988, Fender introduced the Eric Clapton Stratocaster, the first model in the company’s signature series. Here is Clapton with It’s Too Late, together with Derek & The Dominos.

Rory Gallagher was well known for his battered 1961 sunburst Stratocaster, which he described as “a part of my physical make-up.” Since 1997, Fender’s Custom Shop has built the Rory Gallagher Signature Stratocaster, an exact replica of the Irish blues rocker’s instrument. Here is a clip of a 1977 live performance of Tattoo’d Lady on German TV music broadcast Rockpalast.

Mark Knopfler, another big Strat enthusiast, has been using this Fender model throughout his career. Together with his fingerstyle playing, he created his own signature sound. Sultans of Swing is one of the finest examples. In an interview with Guitar World last year, Knopfler commented on the role his Strat played for the song. “I thought it [the National Steel guitar he used to write the tune] was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same. It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan is another great guitarist who is closely associated with the Strat. In January 1992, Fender introduced the Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster, a signature model based on his favorite guitar, “Number One.” Here is a clip of Pride And Joy, together with Double Trouble.

David Gilmour is considered to be one of the more influential Stratocaster players since the instrument’s invention, according to Wikipedia. He has played the Strat during his time with Pink Floyd and as a solo artist. Here is a clip of Comfortably Numb, which includes an epic Strat solo.

Buddy Guy has played a Strat throughout his career. There has been a Buddy Guy Signature Stratocaster since the early 1990s. Here’s a clip of one of my favorite Guy tunes, Whiskey, Beer & Wine. It rocks like a Hendrix reincarnation!

Bonnie Raitt has owned a Stratocaster since 1969 and told Guitar Player she hasn’t missed one concert with that guitar since then. She also owns various Bonnie Raitt signature Strats. Here is a clip of Gypsy In Me from her last album.

In 1965, poor health made Leo Fender sell the company to CBS. While Fender significantly grew over the next 20 years, there was a lack of commitment and true understanding of musicianship at CBS. In 1981, it brought in new management to “re-invent” Fender. Eventually, CBS sold the company in 1985 to a group of Fender employees and investors. That transaction started a turnaround of the company and may well be reason why it’s still alive today and hopefully will be around for many years to come.

Sources: Wikipedia; Jeff Owens: The History of the Fender Stratocaster: The 1950s, Fender website; Mental Floss; Guitar Player; Vintage Guitar Magazine; Guitar World; YouTube