Hartley Peavey On The WWII Meeting That Connects Him & Les PaulMonday, November 26th, 2012
Canadian Music Trade had the pleasure of sitting down for a lengthy conversation with Peavey Electronics Founder Hartley Peavey during his visit to Cosmo Music in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Peavey started his company 47 years ago, in 1965, from his basement in Meridian, Mississippi, and has made it into one of the largest designers and manufacturers of instruments and audio gear in the world. As you would expect, he has many interesting stories and anecdotes to tell, such as this story Peavey told CMT about the World War II meeting between German scientists and American engineers that determined the fate of both him and fellow music pioneer Les Paul.
Here is the story in Peavey’s own words:
A very interesting thing happened at the end of World War II; the Germans invented tape recording. Now, magnetic tape recording was not new because we had what they called wire recorders where they took a spool of wire and ran it through a magnetic head. But wire recording had a problem with surface noise and “shhhhhhhh” in the background and it was very difficult to get rid of.
But the Germans invented what they called Magnetophons and at the end of World War II, the Russians were coming in from the east and our people were coming in from the west and to be honest with you, our guys were not real gentle with these Germans because they were over there sleeping in tents and seeing their buddies get their head blown off and eating c-rations, which are horrible on the best day. So, they were kind of rough on these folks. But this one particular signal core intelligence unit was in this factory not too far from Frankfurt that made what the German’s called Magnetophons. These [Americans] were all engineers and they were amazed by what these German scientists had been able to accomplish under the worst conditions you can imagine.
Now, to make a tape recorder is a good enough trick, but to make a tape recorder with no tape, it would have been useless, so they developed the tape too. So, these guys were there for several weeks and as they were packing up to leave, these German scientists called a meeting and they said, and I’m paraphrasing here obviously, they said, “You boys treated us very civilly and with respect and you didn’t have to do that and in order to pay you and to express our appreciation, we want to present to you something that will make you all wealthy men when you go back to America.” So, they presented them with the schematic diagrams of the electrical thing, the mechanical drawing of the tape transport, the formula for making the tape, the binder, the iron oxide, everything. And so these guys kind of divvied it up.
So after the war when they came back to the United States, one guy had the formula for the tape, he went to Alabama and started a company making recording tape. His name was John Herbert Orr and he started a company called Irish Brand Recording Tape. For many, many years Irish and 3M were the only people in the United States making recording tape. The other guy had the mechanical drawings for the transport and the electrical circuitry. So, he went to California, got a bunch of money from people like Bing Crosby, and he started a little company you might have heard of called Ampex.
Meanwhile, there was guy in New York and he was a studio musician, his name was Lester Polsfuss, otherwise known as Les Paul. Well, after the war he decided to move to California, which he did, and he got hooked up with Bing Crosby and he was part of what they called The Bing Crosby Trio. Bing Crosby had a radio program and Les was there and Les had been playing around with multitrack recording, but he was trying to do it with a disk. The way that they cut the grooves in the disk with two heads, but he never could get it synchronized and he went to the people that made movie soundtracks and in those days there were two people. A division of Western Electric called Westerex and another, which was RCA. So, if you’ll looked at the old black and white movies, if you look down at the credits in the lower right hand corner you’ll either see a Westerex logo or a RCA logo. So, he went to them, talked to them about doing a multi-track and they told him it was impossible.
So, on the West Coast, Les was talking about trying to get these heads aligned, which he never could do, and one of them said, “You know, Bing has got some money in this outfit out there in Redwood City and he’s making tape recorders. Why don’t you go up there?”
Anyway, to make a long story short, Les goes up to Redwood City to talk to the Ampex people, tells them about his multi-track and they said, “Oh yeah, we think we can do that.” He said, “Well, I’d really like to be able to hear what I‘m recording. You got a recording, you got an erase head and you got a record head, could you put another head on there that plays back?” “Oh, well yeah, we can do that.” So, they did. They created a multitrack recorder and it had a record head and just to the side of it they had a playback head. Well, Les being the inventive fellow he was, he used to do all this [mimes finger tapping a guitar]. Nobody could figure out how he was doing that. That’s how he was doing it, multitrack recording. He’d figured out one day that he could take the playback head and mix that back into the other thing and there’s tape echo. All that stuff came about as a result of this thing in World War II.
What the hell does that have to do with me? Well, I told you, the other guy got the tape.
This guy goes back to Opelika, Alabama, just a short distance from Auburn. He formed this tape company, it’s very successful and by late-1950s they are trying to figure out how to use tape in cars and a reel-to-reel tape in a car is totally impractical. So, they had to come up with some kind of a cartridge and there were basically two formats of what later became an eight-track tape cartridge. This guy Orr ran a company called OrrTronics and he had this endless loop they called a Mobius Loop and it was round can with a extension and when you put Orr’s tape cartridge in the player, this big ol’ ugly round thing stuck out. But his competitor was Bill Lear of Lear Jet-fame. Bill Lear developed this nice little cartridge. When you put Lear’s cartridge in, only about three quarters of an inch stuck out.
Long story short, Lear won the format battle and Mr. Orr was too proud to take a license from Lear. So, he had all these engineers, so he advertises in magazines, Solid State Engineering Services. Well, I didn’t know anything about Solid State Amplifiers, all my amps had been tube amps. So, Mr. Orr’s group developed my first transistor amplifier.
Had it not been for that situation in Germany at the end of World War II, Les Paul wouldn’t have had his career and I wouldn’t have mine and when I introduced Les at his 90th birthday party, I got the opportunity to spend about an hour or so back stage with him and he filled in a lot of the blanks that I didn’t know. But it was a totally ironic happenstance that Les’s career and my career are connected by this event that happened at World War II.