Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Orville by Gibson Guitars

Orville Redenbacher

When I think of the name Orville the first thing that comes to mind is the popcorn guy that graced our TV screens back in the 1980’s, hawking his popcorn as being superior to all the rest.

Then in 2015 there was a television series that was produced and starred Seth MacFarlane, of Family Guy fame. It was called The Orville and was a science-fiction comedy drama in the genre of Star Trek. 

But for all you guitar connoisseurs I am sure you are thinking about Orville Gibson.  Mr. Gibson was a luthier that lived and worked in the Kalamazoo, Michigan area. 

He developed an unusual concept for creating mandolins and guitars that involved the use of violin carving techniques to carve the instruments back and top into shape rather than pressing or bending the wood. The instruments sides were also carved instead of being bent. Mr. Gibson was able to patent this process around 1898.

1902  The Start of
The Gibson Guitar Company
By 1902 five local investors who lived in Kalamazoo liked the idea, and offered him money for his intellectual property thus creating The Gibson Guitar-Mandolin Manufacturing Company. Unfortunately the investors did not care much for Orville Gibson. Historical documents show the investors wrote a company motion stating that Orville Gibson only be paid for the actual time he worked for the company. This memo did not mention if Gibson was employed there full time or as a consultant. 

Apparently Orville, at the time, had some ideas that his investors  considered to be too eccentric.  

In 1908 Gibson drew a salary of approximately $500 a year from the company, which is the equivalent to around $20,000 in today's dollars.   

Orville Gibson was not a healthy man. He was hospitalized for endocarditis in 1907, 1911, and 1916. He passed away in 1918 at the age of 62 while he was living in the state of New York. His designs were eventually replaced by those of Lloyd Loar.  Of course the Gibson Guitar company went on to become one of the most successful and well known guitar manufacturers in the United States.

Teisco Guitars 1965
As we know, beginning in the the mid-1960's the United States market was being flooded by Japanese manufactured copies of electric and acoustic guitars. Although some of the foreign guitars had original shapes, many were copies of Gibson and Fender instruments. Japan manufacturers apparently did not see any patent infringement as they considered these to be “tribute instruments” paying homage to the originals, but also making money for these offshore manufacturers. 

Though both Gibson and Fender threatened lawsuits,  it was in 1977 that Gibson actually filed suit.  The case was known as Gibson V Elger Music. 

Former site of Medley Music
A small businessman, Harry Rosenblum, opened Medley Music in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania. Though his store was located not far from C.F. Martin’s Nazareth facility he was unable to get a franchise to sell Martin guitars.  An upset Mr. Rosenblum hired a couple of luthiers which made acoustic guitar for him under the Elger brand. 

And they were very nice guitars. However this venture proved to be too costly. Within a year he had to let the luthiers go.

Elger Guitar
Next Mr. Rosenblum contracted with the Japanese manufacturer, Hoshino Gakki.  This company was distributing guitars under that Ibanez brand name. Sensing hostility to the Japanese brand by his American customers, at first Rosenblum put the Elger badge on these guitars giving the illusion they were made in the USA.

Eventually Hoshino Gakki purchased the Elger brand and Medley Music with the intent of using the store as their US based distribution center. 

After the purchase Hoshino began importing their electric as well as acoustic instruments through Medly (Elger) Music. Those electric guitars and basses, though not the quality of their US counterparts, certainly looked like Gibson and Fender instruments. 

In 1977 attorneys for Gibson sent Elger Music, owned by Hoshino Gakki, a notice of a lawsuit in federal court for copyright infringement. The suit was eventually settled out of court.  Guitars produced during this period are known as Lawsuit Guitars, although only not all were actual lawsuit guitars.

Afterward, though some of the bodies retained a similar shape, to appease Gibson the open book headstock was not allowed to be used on the Asian made guitars. 

If you were like me, growing up in the 1960’s, you will remember all of the cigarette commercials  that flooded television much like the overpriced medicine commercials we see today. In those days there was a cigarette called "Tareyton" whose commercials featured smokers with black eyes that declared, “I’d rather fight than switch”. 

1971 Japanese Made
"I'd rather fight than switch" became the motto of Gibson, Fender, and other guitar manufacturers until they realized they could make a lot of money licensing their guitars to be built by Asian labor at a lower price point, generally under a different brand name. The motto soon changed to "I'd rather switch than fight."

Since then we have Epiphone and Squier guitars. Both companies also realized there was quite a large, untapped market in Japan for their instruments. Which brings us to The Orville Guitar.

Orville by Gibson also known simply as Orville, was a brand of guitars that was managed by the Gibson Guitar Corporation to be licensed solely for the Japanese market during the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. 

Yamano Gakki Shop
The name, of course, refers to Orville Gibson, the namesake of the Gibson Guitar Company. These guitars were all manufactured in Japan by the Yamano Gakki Company. This company is one of Japan's largest musical instrument distributors and retailers. 

In 1987 Yamano Gakki obtained the Gibson and Epiphone dealership solely for the Japanese market. This company also distributed Gibson and Korean made Epiphone guitars, and also produced a limited range of Epiphone semi-acoustic guitars in Japan in cooperation with Gibson. 

Pages From The
1988 Orville Catalog
Then in 1988 that Yamano Gakki decided to expand the Epiphone Japan model range to include solid body models as well as semi-acoustic models. Both Gibson and Yamano Gakki agreed they would not use the Epiphone brand name for this expanded model range and the Orville name was chosen instead.  In 1988  the "Orville by Gibson" series was launched. 

At the time Gibson was also selling American-made Gibson guitars, Japanese-made Epiphone guitars, and Korean-made Epiphone guitars in Japan and wanted Orville to stand out as a separate brand.

The Orville by Gibson series distributed by Yamano Gakki at a price point midway between the American-made Gibson guitars and the Korean-made Epiphone guitars. The Orville guitars were superior instruments and in every way and comparable to American made Gibsons, and as stated selling at a lower price than American made Gibson's, and above Japanese or Korean made Epiphones.

Production of Orville Guitars ceased in 1998 due to Gibson and Yamano Gakki deciding to export an expanded Epiphone Japan model range that included solid body, semi acoustic models, and even acoustic guitars. By late 2006 Gibson and Yamano Gakki ended their relationship.

Terada Guitar Factory (L)
Fuji-Gen Factory (R)
It was actually the Terada and Fuji-Gen guitar factories that made all of the Orville by Gibson and Orville guitars. These same factories were later hired by Gibson and Yamano Gakki to build the Epiphone Elite and Elitist series guitars.  Terada built mostly the semi-acoustic models, while Fuji-Gen concentrated on the solid body guitars.  

Eventually some Orville by Gibson guitars found their way into the United States. They are considered to be excellent instruments.

Click on the links below the pictures for sources. Click on the links in the text for further reading.
©UniqueGuitar Publications 2021 (text only)

This is a long video, but very informative.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Gibson Toilet Seat Guitar - Kalamazoo Electric Guitars


My Grandma lived on
 the top floor of this house

When I was a young kid  it was a treat to visit my Grandma. She lived in an old apartment above a residence with an amazing staircase that today would be considered antique. In fact the entire house was antique.

There is the staircase
with the circular window
At the first level there was a circular window, like one on a ship. Grandma had a sitting room with a small TV,  a small couch, and her favorite rocking chair. Her bedroom had this fascinating treadle sewing machine, her kitchen had an an old fashion wooden sink, and in a door behind he kitchen was what I perceived was an amazing bathroom. 

Mother of Pearl Toilet Seat

The huge bathtub had claw feet, the ceramic sink was on a pedestal, but the most fascinating thing to a child of that age was her toilet seat. It had pearl-like chips of back, gray, and white embedded in it. The one we had at home was just plain pink.

This same pearl-like design showed up later on some electric and electric steel guitars. Due to the popularity of its use on potty seats of the 1950’s it becamed  nicknamed  “mother of toilet seat” or MOTS.

I thought about Grandma and her wonderful toilet seat when I recently received a Facebook post from The Bemis Manufacturing Company; an old company from Sheboygan Wisconsin that is best known for manufacturing quality wooden and plastic toilet seats. 

Bema Seat from
The Amsterdam Synagogue
Often times I think it ironic when I go to a public restroom and notice that the phrase “Bemis Seat” embedded in blue letters on the ‘throne’ where I am about to place my keister.  Bemis Seat is a similar sounding name to the elevated platform and raised chair that was a place of judgement for Jews and Christians and known as The Bema Seat. I think that is so ironic. 

 But I digress. 

This Face Book post from the Bemis company was a reminder that at one time the Gibson Guitar Company had contracted with Bemis Manufacturing to produce guitar bodies. Yep, it is hard to believe, but it is true. Gibson actually made a TOILET SEAT guitar.

In 1965 the guitar market was flooded with Japanese imported  inexpensive electric guitars because every kid not just the United States, but I dare say much of the world, wanting to be a Beatle. At that time Gibson’s student guitar was of course The Melody Maker. This instrument was of a much higher quality than any of the imports. The Gibson Melody Maker was first launched in 1959 and in 1971 was discontinued. 

The Melody Maker guitar had a thin slab-style solid mahogany body and a one-piece set in mahogany neck. To keep assembly costs down all the electronics, from the small single-coil pickups to the cable jack and controls, were assembled on the pickguard and installed in a rout in the front of the body. The strings ran from a straight-sided simplification of the traditional Gibson headstock at one end to a wraparound bridge/tailpiece unit at the other. Some models came with a budget vibrato unit. 

From 1959 until 1961, the Melody Maker had a single cutaway slab body style similar to the early Les Paul Junior model but thinner. Then in 1961 the body style changed to a symmetrical double cutaway. 

By 1966 the body style was changed to a style similar to the SG guitar, with pointed "horns", a large white pickguard, and white pickup covers instead of black. 

In 1959 the original retail price for a Gibson Melody Maker was $99.50. By 1960 the price for a twin pickup model was $135.50. By 1966 the Melody Maker price was increased to $149.50 and had a $10 price increase each subsequent year.

But in 1965 many Japanese electric guitars were selling for around the $50 to $100 price range. Another competitor was Danelectro/Silvertone who offered electric guitars as cheap as $39.95. In 1965 the average United States income was $6900 a year. It would be very difficult for many families to afford an American made instrument for their beginning guitar student.

Vintage Bemis Toilet Seat
This competition from imports forced Gibson management to look into developing a low cost guitar. To do this they turned to Bemis Manufacturing to compression mold a guitar body. Yep, the same company that was best known for manufacturing toiled seats. 

The core of the guitars body was comprised of MDF or medium density fiberboard (Masonite) which was coated with molded thermoplastic material. 

Until this time all Gibson guitars were made of solid wood, though some electric models had solid veneer tops, Gibson had never made guitars of composite materials. So involving a company that specialized in Masonite just made practical business sense.

Gibson already had the Epiphone brand which it used to market it's more affordable guitars which in those days were built at their Kalamazoo facility.  Epiphone was about to become their mid-level brand, as Gibson desired something truly affordable. The company had retired the Kalamazoo brand name in 1942 due to the war. So in 1965 Gibson decided to revived the Kalamazoo brand for this line of budget electric guitars.

The Kalamazoo electric guitars all had bolt-on necks (something that Gibson, up until this point had never done), a rosewood fingerboard, and the bass guitar was short scale. A decal proclaimed  Kalamazoo "USA" on the headstock to set it apart from cheaper, imported guitars. 

These guitar had two subtly different headstock shapes, the first has a characteristic 'beak' shape, and is almost identical to that of the non-reverse Thunderbird. The body resembled of Fender Mustang. 

1967-69 Kalamazoo
 Electric Guitars
The second style, appearing on the SG-shaped bases is more like that of a Fender, though a little more rounded. The Kalamazoo logo is engraved on the headstock. The necks were actually pretty well made and are highly playable.

The first design, manufactured from 1965 to 1966, was pretty much a copy of the Fender Mustang.  The second design, made from 1967 to 1969, resembled Gibson's SG design. 

Kalamazoo pickguard assembly  
Expense was also saved on the pickguard which was a single sheet of unlaminated plastic and like the Melody Maker all the electronics were mounted in the pickguard and then placed on the body's routed area. The tuners were inexpensive open back types.

Models were the KG-1, with one single-coil pickup selling at $89.50. 

The KG-1A, with a single-coil pickup and tremolo arm retailing at $99.50. 

The KG-2 with dual single-coil pickups costing $104.50 . 

And KG-2A which came with dual single-coil pickups and a tremolo and retailed at $114.50. 

1966 KB -1

The Kalamazoo Bass was introduced in 1966 and like the guitar model had two body styles resembling the Mustang and next the SG. The earlier headstocks were, again, reminiscent of Fender models. Later headstocks bore a resemblance to that of the Gibson Thunderbird bass guitar. 

Several standard Gibson components were used in the KB, namely a typical EB series humbucker pickup that was used in many Epiphone basses. 

1966 and 1968 KB-1's

Sales were initially good, and during 1966-67 this was by far the best selling bass made at the Gibson plant. Production of the KB ceased in 1969. Gibson sales records show that 23,994 KG models were manufactured from 1965 through 1969 and 6287 KB basses sold from 1966 to 1969. The KB bass retailed at $119.50. 

1968-69 Kalamazoo Electrics

As stated in the 1967 the body design for the Kalamazoo line of guitars and basses changed to the SG shape. So the pickguards were cut differently to reflect the newer body design. The bridge on the KB-1 was slightly modified as an improvement.

For years I knew the Kalamazoo electric guitars bodies were made of compressed fiberboard, but until I recently read the Facebook post from last May I had no idea they were made by a toilet seat manufacturing firm. Most literature suggests that the bodies were made by a factory in Wisconsin that specialized in MDF.  The Bemis Manufacturing Company has it's headquarters in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  

By 1970 Gibson contracted with the Matsumoka factory in Japan, which had been building guitars under the Aria brand.  Gibson first used this company to build inexpensive copies under the Epiphone brand name.  So the Kalamazoo electrics were eliminated in 1969.

Click on the links under the pictures for sources. Click on the links in the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (Text Only)

Monday, June 7, 2021

Remembering Joe Long - Bass Guitar Player For Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons


Joseph L. LaBracio
 aka Joe Long

Joseph Louis LaBracio was better known to his family and fans as Joe Long. For over a decade he was the bass guitarist for the group Frankie Valli and The  Four Seasons. Mr. Long passed away on April 21st of this year, 2021 due to effects of the Covid virus. 

Sadly Mr. Long was the second member of the group to pass away as a result of this insidious disease. The Season's original guitarist, Tommy DeVito died on September 21st of last year from the Covid virus. 

I know that some of you may not have been around in 1962, but I certainly was and remember that year when The Four Seasons came out with a huge hit song called Sherry. There were certainly a lot of great songs that came out that year, but for me Sherry stands out as one of the best.  

I can recall those days when my friends and I were out on the school playground were belting out, "Sherry, Sherry Baby..." in our little squeaky voices.

The Four Seasons had developed a unique style of combining East Coast Doo-Wop harmony with 1960's Rock and Roll. They were at the top of charts during the early 1960's. Not too long after Sherry, The Four Seasons had another hit record with their song Big Girls Don’t Cry. And their hits kept on  coming.

Jersey Boys
You may have seen the musical Jersey Boys, or even watched the movie. If so then you are aware that The Four Seasons were far from being an over night sensation. This group of guys had been making music together more than 10 years by working in clubs, bars, and even playing music bowling alleys before they became an "overnight sensation."

Their success and constant touring brought about numerous personal and family problems and tensions.  This eventually caused their guitar player, Tommy DeVito, and bass player, Nick Massi to quit the band. 

Nick Masi

The first one to leave was Nick Massi in 1965. He was tired of touring.  Massi (Nicholas Macioci) in addition to playing bass, he been the original vocal arranger and bass singer for The Four Seasons.  After leaving The Seasons he went on to arrange vocal harmony for some other well known groups and worked as a recording studio engineer.

Tommy DeVito

Tommy DeVito, the original guitar player and baritone vocalist, stayed on through 1970 when financial and personal problems lead him to leave the band. This left only Bob Guadio, the guy that wrote most of the songs, and Frankie Valli to ride out the group's success. 

Though Valli was experiencing a lot of success as a solo artist, The Four Seasons still had contractual obligations to their record company and to their fan base. They needed a band.

The Four Season’s arranger for instrumental parts and vocal parts was Charles Calello. He stepped in briefly as their bass guitarist, but Calello was a very busy man who had his own career arranging music for other projects.  So it was Calello that hired Joe Long. 

Joe Long
Joe Long, aka Joseph LaBracio, was a genuine Jersey Boy from the town of Elizabeth.  He was a classically trained string bass player and pianist who studied with Alfonse Strazza, the principal bassist for the New York Philharmonic. 

However Long sustained a severe right hand injury with a machine during his day job at The Singer Sewing Machine Factory. This forced him to give up his dreams of playing symphonic classical bass viol. 

To keep up with his musical career, he switched to playing electric bass and he was able to make a modest living playing in clubs in New Jersey and New York area.

Joe Long with Frankie Valli
 and The Four Seasons
In a 2018 interview, Long spoke about joining the group: “At the time, I was aware of the Seasons, because they were having all those hits, and they were a Jersey group. I can’t say that I was a big fan, because I was not a big fan of rock ‘n’ roll music. I was playing with show groups in the area, which played rock ‘n’ roll, but mostly played rhythm and blues, which is more associated to jazz … you know, Fats Domino and that era, where the roots were right out of jazz music, jazz-blues.” 

In an earlier 2004 interview, Long said that when he first joined the band, “I was hired as Nicky’s replacement. "I had a booking agent at the time, a guy named Frankie Fame. He also booked the Four Seasons when they would play locally. When Nick Massi left the band, my agent told the group that he thought he had just the right guy for them, a guy that also played bass and had the same vocal range." 

"Frankie (Fame) took me to meet Tommy DeVito. We had a chat. He liked what I had to offer. Then they arranged a meeting with Frankie (Valli), Bobby (Guadio) and then another with Tommy a couple of days later. Bobby Gaudio laid out a few charts and said, 'Sing this, sing that.' They liked me. They hired me on the spot. That was early 1965."

Joe Long went on to say, "Before I did anything on stage (with the Four Seasons), "I got a call from Tommy. He said, 'Be at the airport. We're flying to California.'  So three or four days after I was hired, we did a string of TV shows. I had never done that. It was crazy." Long recalls that his first actual live show with the Four Seasons took place at West Virginia University in front of about 6,000 people." 

Prior to the show, Long was told he would rehearse with Calello, the Four Seasons' Newark-born arranger. "Charlie was supposed to rehearse me on singing parts and bass guitar parts," 

Long went on to reminisce, "I kept attempting to make appointments. He'd say, 'Be at the house tomorrow at 8 o'clock.' I'd show up, but he wouldn't be there. He had so much going on. Charlie was one of the most successful arrangers and producers at at that time. He worked on hundreds of hits. He really didn't have time to train me." 

Joe Long
"Gaudio, Valli and DeVito didn't know that I still hadn't had a single rehearsal. Finally, the night of  a West Virginia concert, I had to go on without a single rehearsal
. He went on to say, "That's when fear set in. I was well trained -- I studied music, I played a lot of shows -- but none of that helped when I had to go in front of 6,000 people without a rehearsal. I had to go on my gut feeling. I had to figure out what parts to sing, what to play on bass." 

 "I found myself going from obscurity to being in the No. 1 band in the world." 

He continued by saying that within a year he was MC’ing the bands shows, and was conducting the musicians whenever we used an augmented orchestra. He was going out doing promotions and actually doing more than what Nick had been doing.  

I personally was fortunate to see Frankie Valli and The Four Season four times during the 1970's when the group had undergone some personnel changes. Joe Long was the bass player at all those concerts and Lee Shapiro was the music director. Gerry Polci was playing drums, and Demetri Callas was playing guitar at the first concerts, then John Paiva was on guitar and vocals in 1975. 

All the shows were great, especially the last time I saw the group at a small venue in a supper club. And yes, Joe Long was introducing Frankie and some of the songs. It was one of the best and the loudest concerts that I ever attended.  

Joe always looked happy when he was performing. His demeanor put me in my of the guys in Louis Prima's band, Sam Butera and The Witnesses.  Those guys were always smiling and appeared to be having a great time when they were on. That's the image I have of Mr. Long when he was with the group.

Genuine Imitation Life Gazette
As time went on Joe Long said that he was not a fan of the new direction in which the group was headed. He said, “My biggest disappointment was Genuine Imitation Life Gazette because that should have been a hit if only because for no other reason that there was some great writing and some great performances,”  This album came out during a period when other groups had released concept albums such as Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Tommy and others. 

In a radio interview he stated his favorite remembrance of  being a member of The Four Seasons was traveling with and performing for Frank Sinatra. 

The original members of The Four Seasons had done a favor for Sinatra’s mother by putting on a free performance for a charity she supported. Frank Sinatra never forgot their generosity, and he was later very gracious to the group. 

In 1975, after being a member of the group for more than a decade he left. This event occurred shortly after the release of their song, "Who Loves You."

Joe Long

After leaving The Four Seasons in 1975, Joe put together a rock band called "LaBracio" and then a jazz group called " Jersey Bounce." He later became an insurance agent. He also did computer work for the financial firm, Dunn and Brandstreet.

In 2014, as a tribute the city council of Elizabeth New Jersey renamed a section of High Street to Joe Long Way as a way to honor their favorite son. He lived in a section called Petersburg.

Joe Long was recently remember in comments and tributes by his friends Frankie Valli, Gerry Polci, Lee Shapiro, and Robby Robinson as a wonderful and gracious man, who was a talented singer and bass player, a terrific musician, and a good friend.  

Joe Long with The Four Seasons
Joe Long was a left handed player
who had a very interesting style of playing bass that probably was a result of the years of playing the string bass as his primary instrument. I have to say he always looked like he was having a good time when he was on stage. 

I have read that once Paul McCartney met Joe Long and declared, "It's Joe Long, the second best left-handed bass player in Rock and Roll." Always quick with a comeback Joe replied, "What do you mean second best? Come on now!"

Long with Hagstrom F-400 bass 
Long seemed fond of the Fender Jazz Bass, but he also played a couple of other unique bass guitars.  In one appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show he played a white 1966 Hagstrom F-400 bass guitar. This was an instrument from a Swedish manufacturer. 

In other performances he used an Ampeg AEB-1. This instrument was more like a string bass than anything out there at the time, but it was played like a bass guitar. 

Ampeg AEB-1 bass (R) 
The instrument had a scroll head similar to that on a string bass, a pickup that consisted of two magnets and two large coils – nested in a block of epoxy which would translate the acoustic vibrations of the strings, bridge, and diaphragm into electrical impulses for amplification. It also had F-shaped cuts in the body, reminiscent of those on an upright bass. This bass also came in a fretless model.  The Ampeg Company headquarters was in Linden, New Jersey which just is a short drive from Elizabeth, New Jersey, Long's home town.

Joe's Jazz Bass

However Joe Long usually played his vintage 1960 white Fender Jazz Bass that had 'stacked knobs' which came on the first generation of J-Basses to control the twin pickups. The upper knobs were to control volume, while the lower knob controlled the tone and EQ. Joe generally left the metal hand rest and string cover on his Fender bass guitars. 

In later years Long played a sunburst 1970's Fender Jazz Bass with a bound neck and block pearloid inlays. This bass had the two volume, one tone control panel. 

In most images of Joe Long playing bass guitar in Four Season's concerts he can be seen using an Ampeg SVT bass amplifier. 

Joe Long was a terrific bass player, singer and musician. He was a gentleman and a class act, and he is forever etched in the history of one of the 20th Century's most iconic bands.

Click on the links under the pictures for sources. Click on the links in the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publications 2021 (text only)