Deke Dickerson's blog--a glimpse into the unique life of America's Roots Music Renaissance Man. Articles on road experiences, rare guitars, music, and life.
What's a Muleskinner, anyway?
My name is Deke Dickerson. I'm a full-time musician, with lots of interests. One of those interests is writing. I write for guitar magazines such as Guitar Player, Fretboard Journal, and Vintage Guitar. I also write music articles, liner notes, and books that accompany box sets.
Once, a long time ago, I thought it was weird to have your own web site. Then, I thought that myspace and Facebook were immature (turns out I was right about that one, but I'm on them anyway). When I heard the word "blog," I decried I would never have one. And yet, here I am. Enjoy...
Monday, November 29, 2010
LETRITIA KANDLE--FEMALE ELECTRIC GUITAR PIONEER from Vintage Guitar Magazine
THE STORY OF LETRITIA KANDLE—FEMALE ELECTRIC GUITAR PIONEER—AND THE MAGNIFICENT ‘GRAND LETAR’
When you run down the list of early electric guitar innovators, an all-male group comes to mind. Les Paul, Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian, Merle Travis, and the like—there isn’t a female on the list. This is the story of a woman named Letritia Kandle who, although virtually unknown until now, deserves to be on that short list of those who pioneered the electrified instrument back in the 1930’s.
The list of innovations contained within Letritia’s 1937 ‘Grand Letar’ console steel guitar is impressive—the first guitar amplifier with two speakers, the first console steel guitar (first steel guitar that was not a “lap” steel), the first steel guitar with more than two necks, a series of tuning advancements that predated the modern pedal steel guitar, and perhaps most incredibly, a built-in moving light show with lighted front, sides and fretboards. You read it right, a built-in light show—in 1937!
This story is really about two people. Firstly, Letritia Kandle, the musician and steel guitar pioneer who is the subject of this article, and secondly, Paul Warnik, the tireless researcher and steel guitar historian who recently uncovered Letritia’s amazing story.
Paul Warnik is a Chicago-area steel guitar collector who has seen just about everything over the years. However, one image always haunted him—a photo from the National guitar chapter in Tom Wheeler’s book ‘American Guitars.’ The photo caption in Wheeler’s book merely said “Teacher Letritia Kandle poses with National’s Grand Letar Console Steel.” A photo shows a pretty young woman from decades past posing in front of a large multi-neck steel guitar. The steel guitar was highly unusual, certainly no standard National instrument, and with no other information given, Paul filed the image away in his mind.
Information on Letritia Kandle was nonexistent, and years went by with no clues. When Paul purchased a National lap steel at a vintage guitar show in the early 1990’s, it had a signed receipt from Letritia Kandle’s guitar studio with a Chicago address, which told him that she was from the Chicago area, but Paul assumed that she must have passed away. More years went by, and finally in 2007 Paul met one of Letritia’s former students at a steel guitar convention in Illinois, who informed Paul that Mrs. Kandle was still alive and living in the Chicago suburbs! This person was able to put Paul in touch with Letritia, who had been quietly living her life under her married name since she gave up music in the 1950’s.
When Paul finally got in touch with Letritia at her home, the real story began to unfold. Letritia’s story had been unfairly relegated to the dustbins of history. However, thanks to her incredible memory, and the amazing photos and press clippings of the era that survive, her story can now be told.
Letritia Kandle was born in Chicago in November 7, 1915, the only child of Charles and Alma Kandle. In her early years, Letritia was a very typical young lady of the era. She took piano lessons, but when she was thirteen years old, she saw Warner Baxter play the Spanish guitar in the film ‘The Cisco Kid.’ This film made such an impression that immediately Letritia wanted to play the guitar instead of the piano. Her instructor advised her that the Hawaiian (also known as “steel”) guitar was becoming popular, and helped Letritia get started on the acoustic Hawaiian guitar.
Letritia’s father was always supportive of his daughter’s efforts, and after demonstrating she was serious about the Hawaiian guitar, she had top-of-the-line instruments for her musical endeavors. Her early acoustic instruments included a Weissenborn Koa guitar, and a National Style 2 (and later, a top of the line Style 4) Resophonic Hawaiian guitar. When Letritia saw an old turn-of-the-century double-neck harp guitar (possibly made the by Chicago maker Almcrantz) hanging in a second-hand shop, she asked her father to buy it for her and help her convert it from a harp guitar to a Hawaiian raised-nut instrument with a standard neck and a 12-string neck capable of different tunings.
At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, Hawaiian music and culture was all the rage. There, Letritia met George Kealoha Gilman, who mentored her in Hawaiian lore—speaking the Hawaiian language, Hula dancing, and making leis and grass skirts. The following year, in 1934, Letritia formed an all-girl ensemble known as ‘The Kohala Girls.’ The Kohala Girls specialized in Hawaiian music, and had matching National Resophonic guitars.
Unlike many young musicians, Letritia was continually thinking of ways to not only improve her own musicianship, but ways to improve the steel guitar itself. After a few years of playing with the Kohala Girls, during which time electric lap steels and double-neck lap steels began to come on the scene, Letritia had a vision for a brand new revolutionary instrument.
Letritia wrote the story herself of how the National ‘Grand Letar’ console steel guitar came to be, for a series of articles in ‘Music Studio News.’ Here, directly from the source, is how this incredible instrument came into being:
“Have you ever indulged in dreaming? If you have, you know that there are primarily two different kinds—one where the dreamer tries to escape from the reality of living, and one where the dreamer sets a mental goal for himself, and then tries by hard, honest endeavor to reach it in reality. The second type of dreamer is responsible for many of the advancements of our Modern way of life.
“And so while waiting for an appointment on one of the upper floors of a tall office building in Chicago, the idea for a 26 string guitar was born. It was summer and through the large window facing the West from where I was sitting, the sun, like a huge ball of fire, surrounded by a myriad of colors, sky blue, pink, yellow, purple, and green was dropping by the horizon, there appeared an instrument seemingly blown of glass. I kept looking at the sky, when the crisp friendly voice of the receptionist called my mind back to this world. In those few moments of daydreaming, I knew what I wanted.
“A guitar that would enable me to stand while playing it, one that would sound full, like an organ, and yet produce tones like a vibraharp—one with not less than 26 strings, for complete harmony, and one that would change colors as the different tones were produced. When I arrived home, later that evening, I told my father of the dream. Although my dad is an engineer and not a musician, he offered to help build the ‘dream instrument’ for me, if I would help.
“The problems we encountered were many, each one had to be dealt with separately—a metal had to be chosen for the casting, that would not expand or contract when in contact with heat—sizes of strings, electronics, etc. until finally after many days, weeks, and months of labor, emerged a finished instrument.
“Now that the instrument was finished a name for it had to be selected, so, from my first name, Letritia, we took the first three letters, and from the word guitar we chose the last two letters. With this combination, the ‘dream instrument’ became the ‘GRAND LETAR!!!’”
During the first part of 1937, after Letritia had this vision of her dream instrument, her father worked on constructing the Grand Letar to his daughter’s specifications. The instrument was a large console, with the top part of the steel guitar made of a poured aluminum casting. The sides and “console” were made of wood and covered with a chrome-plated steel wrap. This was the first time that a steel guitar was not held in the lap, so it was a radical construction for the time. Additionally, no steel guitar had ever had more than two necks on it before this one. Letritia’s Grand Letar appeared to have four necks on it, three six-string necks and one eight string neck, but in reality it had three six-string necks and two four-string necks on it (more on that later).
Letritia’s father built the console of the steel guitar, then went to see Louis Dopyera at National Guitars. Letritia had been playing National Resophonics with The Kohala Girls, and already knew the Dopyera family at National. Mr. Kandle brought the basic body of the Grand Letar to National, where they installed pickups and an internal 20-watt National amplifier with two 12-inch Lansing (JBL) field coil speakers. This built-in amplifier happens to hold the distinction of being the first guitar amplifier to use two speakers—a full ten years before Leo Fender made the Dual Professional, and twenty-odd years before Leo began offering the Twin with JBL speakers as an option! Letritia’s Grand Letar with the dual speaker setup was a veritable Marshall stack in its day.
The coup de grace of the Grand Letar was the built in light show, which is so complex that it’s difficult to describe. Letritia and her father worked on an idea that utilized Mr. Kandle’s engineering know-how to realize Letritia’s vision. The fretboards, sides, and front of the steel guitar were etched glass that displayed lights that shone from within the guitar. The front panel of the Grand Letar was originally a rising sun motif, which came from Letritia’s initial vision of the instrument. Unfortunately, due to World War Two and the Japanese Invasion of Pearl Harbor, Letritia was eventually forced to change the rising sun motif to an art deco motif with musical notes.
Inside the steel guitar was a 1930’s vision of the future—an extensive network of 120 bulbs in four colors that flashed and changed colors as a large motor in the base of the Grand Letar engaged electrical contacts on a large flywheel. On the rear panel of the Grand Letar, a control panel with four rheostats and twelve toggle switches was used to control the brightness and other aspects of the internal “light show.”
When the Grand Letar was finished, National built a road case to transport the instrument. Because of all the etched glass, the instrument could not be transported unless it was secured in the custom-built road case. Unbelievably, the Grand Letar was 265 pounds by itself, and 400 pounds in the road case!
Below: The Grand Letar's 1930's road case--built like a tank!
Letritia was playing with the well-known Big Band leader Paul Whiteman during this time, and it was actually Paul Whiteman who came up with the name “Grand Letar.” Letritia played the Grand Letar with Whiteman during a residency at the Drake Hotel in Chicago during 1937.
After the instrument was completed, National was eager to have Letritia demonstrate the Grand Letar at the 1937 National Music Trade Convention in New York City, the NAMM show of that era. All the major musical instrument manufacturers displayed their products at the convention, and many of the great names in music performed as demonstrators for the various companies. National signed an endorsement deal with Letritia in July, and agreed to transport the instrument to New York and provide her room and board in exchange for Letritia demonstrating the instrument at the National booth.
While demonstrating the Grand Letar at the New York trade convention, a very interesting thing happened. Letritia looked up while performing at the trade show to see none other than her idol, Alvino Rey, watching her demonstrate the remarkable new instrument. Letritia idolized Alvino Rey, who was one of the country’s greatest steel guitar players and bandleaders. Before the song was over, Alvino had quickly left the room, and Letritia never did meet him in person. Letritia was crushed, but more than likely the reality was that Alvino’s mind was blown at what he saw.
Whatever Alvino thought when he saw Letritia performing on the Grand Letar, the fact was she had predated him on a major evolutionary step of the steel guitar. While Gibson guitars had built many experimental steel guitars based on Alvino’s ideas, the Grand Letar was a huge step beyond anything that Gibson had ever conceived of up to then.
What is interesting about this happenstance is that within two years, Alvino Rey and Gibson guitars came out with the Console Grande steel guitar, which was Gibson’s first multi-neck console steel guitar. Alvino’s exquisite Console Grande steel influenced many later players and instrument makers, but the evidence points to Alvino getting the idea after seeing Letritia demonstrating the Grand Letar at this 1937 trade convention.
The dates of Letritia’s innovations can be verified through national press articles about her new instrument. ‘The Music Trades’ ran an article about Letritia and the Grand Letar in their September 1937 issue. ‘Down Beat,’ the highly regarded jazz magazine, also ran an article in October 1937. The dates are important because during the mad rush of stringed instrument innovation during the 1930’s, it is often difficult to prove who “got there first.” The articles written in 1937 prove that Letritia was indeed there first with her impressive list of innovations.
One of the ideas that Letritia had for the multi-neck arrangement of the Grand Letar was the tuning of the necks. Until the Grand Letar, lap steels and double-neck lap steels were usually tuned with one or two standard tunings, such as the low bass A tuning for Hawaiian playing or the C6 tuning for jazz. Letritia envisioned being able to cover all harmonic and chordal bases using a playing style that necessitated switching back and forth between the necks many times during each song. The basic ideas that Letritia came up for chord inversions were later utilized by pedal steel players, with their pedals achieving the same result as Letritia’s idea of switching between necks.
The first neck on the Grand Letar was tuned to an A-major (high bass) tuning, A-C#-E-A-C#-E. The second neck was tuned to an E7 with the standard old-school E7 tuning, B-E-D-G#-B-E. The third neck was an A minor tuning which could also make C6th inversions. Lastly, the fourth neck, which was an 8-string, was arranged in two small clusters, with four strings for each. One was tuned to an augmented chord, F-A-C#-F, and one was tuned to a diminished chord, F#-A-C-E.
The Grand Letar proved to be very unwieldy to transport, so it was mostly used for big engagements and residencies. In 1939 Letritia and her father came up with a more portable instrument, which was essentially like the Grand Letar without the built in amplifier and light show. This new instrument was called the “Small Letar.” Most notably, Letritia added a 7th string to each of the standard necks, with one interesting variation on the E7 neck—she added a high F# string on the top of the E7 neck, which when played turned it into an E9 chord, predating the now-standard Nashville E9 tuning by twenty years!
Below: Letritia and the "Small Letar."
There were several inquiries to National in regards to manufacturing and selling Grand Letar consoles, but the excessive cost and weight prevented another from being made. National promoted Letritia’s involvement with the company by picturing her in the 1940 catalog holding a National Princess lap steel.
In 1941, Letritia became the featured soloist of the 50-piece ‘Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra,’ which featured Letritia playing classical numbers such as “Blue Danube Waltz” as well as other pop and Hawaiian numbers. When her mentor, conductor Jack Lundin, passed away in 1943, Letritia took over as conductor of the Orchestra.
The decade of the 1940’s found Letritia teaching hundreds of students at her guitar studio in downtown Chicago. She was featured in the ‘Who’s Who Of Music,’ and also acted as a judge in many talent competitions (shades of ‘American Idol’). Letritia made the cover of the prestigious ‘B.M.G.’ magazine, and wrote articles for ‘Music Studio News’ and others.
Letritia continued her interest in advancing the steel guitar. In the late 1940’s, she endorsed the new Harlin Brothers Kalina Multi-Kord steel guitar, one of the early attempts at a pedal steel guitar.
In 1955 Letritia married Walter Lay, the former string bassist for the Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra. After that, both Walter and Letritia went to work for Letritia’s father, who had begun a business that manufactured earth-boring equipment. Letritia essentially retired from music at this point, choosing to concentrate on raising a family.
Letritia’s story and her early innovations could easily have been forgotten and relegated to obscurity. Since she never made any recordings (beyond a few radio transcriptions which just recently surfaced), or pursued fame beyond her own musical endeavors, she never entered the public consciousness the way that Les Paul or Alvino Rey did.
Luckily, Letritia and her husband Walter retained all of their old magazines and publicity photos documenting Letritia’s music career. Best of all, the magnificent Grand Letar lay in its road case, completely untouched, underneath the basement stairwell, for nearly 55 years.
When collector Paul Warnik finally tracked down Letritia in 2007, he was not only blown away by the fact that Letritia was still alive and well (with great memory for detail), but that Letritia and her husband Walter had kept all her instruments and documentation of her music career.
After forging a friendship with Letritia and Walter, and making inquiries about the Grand Letar under the stairwell, Letritia surprised Paul by making arrangements for him to become the caretaker for all of her instruments (sadly, Walter, Letritia’s husband of over 53 years, passed away on December 15, 2008).
The Grand Letar had to be brought up the stairs in its road case, with a crew of piano movers hired to remove it from its half-century cold storage. When Paul began to restore the Grand Letar, it was essentially in good shape, but needed restoration of the amplifier and the light show. Jeff Mikols, Southside Chicago’s amp wizard, rebuilt the amplifier section. The electrical wiring for the light show and field coil speakers was restored by Sue Haslam, a technician at Peterson Strobe Tuners in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, Illinois.
Below: The interior of the Grand Letar showing the controls for the light show at the top, and the tube amplifier chassis on the bottom of the cabinet. The sealed box on the left side of the bottom cabinet contained the motorized relays that controlled the "light show."
When the Grand Letar’s restoration was finished in September 2008, the instrument was transported to St. Louis. There it was featured at the Peterson Strobe Tuner booth at the International Steel Guitar Convention, where the Grand Letar was demonstrated in public for the first time in 55 years.
Below: Paul Warnik playing the Grand Letar.
Now that Letritia Kandle’s story is coming out, and the Grand Letar is back in action, the 94-year old electric guitar innovator remains nonplussed. In her words, “All I ever tried to do was elevate the steel guitar into a more versatile instrument that was capable of playing other styles of music, like modern and classical…not just Hawaiian music.”
Below: Letritia Kandle at her Chicago home, September 2009.
Letritia’s modest statement belies the fact that her accomplishments deserve a great deal of recognition. This article serves to set the record straight—70 years too late, but better late than never. We all owe a debt of thanks to the early electric guitar innovators—people like Les Paul, Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian—and Letritia Kandle.
POSTSCRIPT: Letritia Kandle became ill during the writing of this story and was hospitalized. When the issue of Vintage Guitar magazine finally came off the presses, T.C. Furlong rushed a copy to her hospital room so she could see it. Letritia saw the article, and died three days later, on June 9th, 2010. She was 94 years old. All who were involved with the story feel like she hung on just long enough to see her life story in print. Rest in Peace, Letritia.
Special thanks to Letritia Kandle, Paul Warnik, T.C. Furlong, Sue Haslam, John Norris, Jeff Mikols, and Kay Koster.