When Jimi Hendrix stunned hundreds of thousands with his guitar virtuosity at the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969, he was probably unaware that his beloved white Fender Stratocaster was originally developed with the help of a humble musician from Paia, Frederick Tavares.
Among his many accomplishments, Freddie was the first musician to play the Fender Precision Bass (the first successfully marketed electric bass), he backed Elvis on ukulele in "Blue Hawaii," he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, and he even had a guitar named in his honor - the Freddie Tavares "Aloha" Stratocaster.
Freddie and his brother, Ernest Tavares, will be honored with posthumous Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts in a ceremony on Saturday at the Hawaii Convention Center.
Bill Tavares, younger brother of posthumous Hawaii Academy of Record Arts Lifetime Achievement Award honorees Frerick and Earnest Tavares, holds a Freddie Tavares Commemorative Aloha Stratocaster (one of about 152 produced).
Photo courtesy of John Blumer-Buell
Freddie Tavares on guitar and brother Ernie on pedal steel with the South Sea Islanders.
Photo via steelguitarforum.com
The brothers share a remarkable history that began on Maui and would eventually influence the course of a variety of musical styles.
Born in Paia on Feb. 18, 1913, Freddie's blended heritage of Portuguese, Hawaiian, Chinese, English and Tahitian-Samoan led him to once announce: "The Portuguese makes me stubborn, Chinese makes me smart, English makes me high-class, Hawaiian gives me the music and Tahitian gives me the beat. I couldn't ask for more."
Educated at Kamehameha Boys School, by 15 he was playing rhythm guitar with the Mary Kunewa Orchestra on Maui. After moving to Oahu, he was hired by legendary band leader Harry Owens in 1934, playing electric steel guitar at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Performing with the Harry Owens Royal Hawaiians, it was Freddie who played the steel guitar heard on the first broadcast of "Hawaii Calls" in 1935. The show initially reached the West Coast by shortwave radio, and at its height, it was heard on more than 750 stations around the globe.
To further his music career, Freddie moved to Anaheim, Calif., and on one of his first studio sessions, he played the distinctive steel guitar glissando heard at the opening of the famous Looney Tunes cartoon logo.
From 1949 through 1953, Freddie played almost nightly with the country band Wade Ray and his Ozark Mountain Boys at the L.A. club Cowtown. To improve his dexterity, he was known for playing Bach's piano inventions on steel guitar.
Then in early 1953, he was introduced to legendary guitar/amplifier maker Leo Fender, who hired Freddie as an assistant engineer, based on his consummate musical skills - he also played acoustic guitar, bass, and ukulele - and his knowledge of electronics and technical drawing.
"I met Leo Fender about March of 1953," Freddie recalled in the book "The Fender Stratocaster." "Leo said we need a new guitar. The first real project I had was to put the Stratocaster on the drawing board."
Until his retirement from Fender in 1985, Freddie participated in the design and development of every guitar and amplifier made by the company, and field tested the prototypes before they hit the production line.
He was also renowned as the world's leading technical authority of the Fender Jazz Bass and collaborated with Fender to invent the split-finger mechanism for the Fender 1000 pedal steel guitar.
It was his work helping develop the Fender Stratocaster that led to his acclaim in the world of electric guitars.
"I would challenge anybody to come up with a better design for a guitar. It's about as close to being perfect as any electric guitar can be." - Eric Clapton on the Fender Stratocaster.
First launched in 1954, the Strat was later adopted by guitar gods from Jimi Hendrix to Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. It was a Strat that Buddy Holly played on "Ed Sullivan" in 1957; it was a Strat that Dylan employed at his historic "electric" debut at the Newport Folk Festival; and a Strat was favored by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour on "Dark Side of the Moon."
"There was nothing special or theoretical about that design," Freddie reported in "The Fender Stratocaster." "It was just hit or miss, trial and error."
Discussing the Maui musician, Western star Bill Carson noted in "The Soul of Tone: "In my opinion he was the greatest man in both musical talent and personal integrity that I worked with at Fender."
The legendary Fender design proved to be the most popular and most imitated electric guitar of all time.
To honor his contributions, in 1994 the guitar company released the Freddie Tavares Aloha Stratocaster, emblazoned with Hawaiian scenery graphics. Today one of these limited edition guitars may sell for around $15,000.
While working at the Fender company, Freddie became a founding member of the Polynesian Society in California and recorded with many fellow Hawaiian musicians including Sam Koki, Joe Keawe, Sammy Kaapuni, Bernie Kaai Lewis, Vince Akina and his brother.
With Akina, the brothers toured as The South Sea Islanders trio, often playing the "Hawaiian night" at the Coconut Grove at L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel.
Freddie's varied credits include performing on radio and TV shows with Red Skelton, Roy Rogers and Spike Jones; and he played steel guitar with Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage on the weekly radio show "All Star Western Theatre."
Famous artists he recorded with included Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, the Andrews Sisters, Henry Mancini, Lawrence Welk, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Martin Denny.
Among the movies he played on were "Tora Tora Tora," "Donovan's Reef," "In Harm's Way, "Irma La Douce," "Gidget Goes Hawaiian," "Tahiti Nights" and "Song Of The Islands." And his TV credits ranged from "The Lawrence Welk Show" and "Magnum PI" to "Hawaii Five-0" and "Fantasy Island."
During his retirement years, Freddie would often take his Fender pedal steel guitar, Stratocaster and a ukulele to entertain folks in retirement homes and veterans hospitals.
Freddie died in 1990 at the age of 77. Laid to rest in Nuuana Cemetery, Jerry Byrd, Barney Isaacs and Alan Akaka all played steel guitar tributes at his funeral.
"Freddie was a constant inexhaustible source of knowledge, humor and true human kindness," brother Bill Tavares recalled. "His legacy will live on, with the guitars he designed, the music he created and the love that he shared so freely."
In 1995, Freddie was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, as "one of the great masters."
Brother Ernest Arriga Tavares was equally as talented. A versatile multi-instrumentalist, he played steel guitar, lead guitar, bass, ukulele, flute, clarinet, saxophone, piano, organ, and Hawaiian and Tahitian percussion.
Born on Maui on April 29, 1911, Ernest began his career as a performer and arranger with the Harry Owens Royal Hawaiian Orchestra. He played sax, flute and clarinet for seven years with the legendary orchestra, while Freddie played steel guitar.
Both brothers were heard playing with Owens on the soundtrack to the movie "Coconut Grove," and on the Oscar-winning Owens' composition "Sweet Leilani." He later played with the Spike Jones Orchestra during the time they recorded "The Hawaiian War Chant."
The leading artists he recorded with included Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and Alfred Apaka.
A talented singer, songwriter, arranger, conductor and choreographer, Ernie shared his brother's aptitude for engineering and invention. He's credited with developing the pedal device that led to the pedal steel guitar.
An article in the Honolulu Star Advertiser in 1947 announced: "Ernest Tavares introduced his newly developed steel guitar. The new guitar invention makes intricate chord progressions more simple due to the use of a harp tuning principle."
Some years later, a Maui News story about his revue show that played in Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe proclaimed: "A show of your own is every performer's dream, especially so with Ernie, for his Hawaiian heritage finally rebelled against listening to any more stereotyped pseudo-Hawaiian entertainment such as one often encounters on the West Coast. The answer for Ernie was to leave the studio with his fabulous steel guitar, which he made himself by the way, in pursuit of his dream."
And a review of his "Hawaiian Hullabaloo" show in Variety praised: "Tavares has taken Hawaiian music, which had become jaded through exploitation and injected new life into it to produce an entirely new sound that is delighting audiences."
Ernie also loved jazz, and played sax and clarinet in a jazz band that regularly appeared at the Hollywood Palladium. And a passion for classical music led him to study the works of Wagner, Grieg, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. After his death in 1986, his ashes were laid to rest in the Tavares family graveyard at the Po'okela Church.
"Ernest was a phenomenal musician," brother Freddie recalled in the book "The Hawaiian Steel Guitar." "He also sang beautifully and was a fine arranger and song writer."
Sen. Daniel Akaka recently paid tribute to the brothers in Washington, D.C., with an announcement entered into the Congressional Record (Volume 157, Number 49) on April 6.
"Mr. President, I congratulate Hawaiian music legends Frederick 'Freddie' and Ernest Tavares for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts in recognition of their contributions to the music industry.
"Both men enjoyed long careers in music and played important roles in popularizing Hawaiian music across the United States. Their many talents and innovations had a great impact on the music industry and made Hawaii proud.
"I am honored to recognize Freddie and Ernest for their numerous and invaluable accomplishments in the music business. Although both brothers are no longer with us, I extend my aloha and sincere thanks to the Tavares family for keeping the legacy of Freddie and Ernest Tavares alive."
-Some information in this article derives from a profile by Lorraine Lewin in 1999.