The Ivor Arbiter Story (Part 2)
Part 2: The Group Boom
From scratching a living as a basement sax repairer to a director of a public company is a big leap. Ivor Arbiter managed it in just a few years. Skilful handling of the giant group boom in the early sixties helped, and provided him with a foundation that was to take him to Managing Director's chair of CBS/Arbiter. Here we continue our interview with the man who has done so much to shape Britain's musical instrument industry.
How did you get into the group equipment business?
I was in Germany and I wanted some drums to sell. We'd started to build up this wholesale business in guitars as a distribution business. I saw a Trixon kit and it was a nice, clean product and we had a couple of drum outfits in. In those days they did some vibes and people like Bill Le Sage, Tubby Hayes and Phil Seamen used to come in and, I would say, in a couple of years we had every good player in the country — percussionists, that is — playing Trixon drums.
This was around '61 or '62. That went on for a few years. It was fine and I found that I had something in common with drummers. All this time I was getting a bit disenchanted with the band instrument business. I was finding it a bit finicky. I couldn't see it growing and I found myself being drawn into the guitar and percussion business.
I managed on a U.S. trip to talk Ludwig more or less into giving me the agency.
By this time we'd opened Drum City. I knew Brian Epstein and one day I had a phone call. Brian Epstein had a new band called the Beatles that were starting to get away in Germany. He said "The drummer wants some new drums". So I phoned up Drum City and asked if they'd heard of a group called the Beatles.
They said that they had heard they were doing alright in Germany but not too well in this country. Anyway Brian was very persuasive and he had this funny guy with him and eventually I said 'Right, we'll let you have some drums at the right price. Now what do you want?'
We were still running Trixon down at that stage so I said "Now what do you want, Trixon or Ludwig?" and he chose Ludwig.
Well, you know the rest, they grew from strength to strength. Then they went to America, and they had a national television hookup the first trip they did. There was a 14 second introduction to the Beatles show of just that bass drum head.
So there you were with an agency which was growing unbelievably successful. How did you arrive at your other lines?
I went to the Frankfurt Fair and saw this funny little stand — Paiste — which nobody had ever heard of in those days and I got to know Robert and Thomas Paiste and today we're like brothers. It was always my ambition to really put them on the map. It's a fantastic product and that's why you can't stop a really good thing from selling. When I saw them first they'd only just started. Their father was an old gunmaker and since then we've worked away. We've been through our tough times.
Then of course the big thing must have been when you started Fender.
I tried to get Fender in those early days but Vox got it and then it went to Selmer. I think it was round about '63 or '64 that we eventually got Fender.
How did you manage that?
I didn't have to hustle because Selmer had fallen out of favour. They weren't selling any amps, the solid guitars had gone out of fashion and basically there was no business being done. I knew Don Randall and he decided to give me a go. From that time we've never looked back.
How did you make a go of it when Selmer couldn't?
Well I was always personally involved in those days and we felt an obligation. I knew it was a good product and also I think it was just about the time of course we handled Gretsch and Tennessee. We were involved with George Harrison and the Beatles at that time with Gretsch but they were unreliable suppliers. The solids started to creep back again, the Telecasters started it.
Then Hendrix came along and we began to promote the amps. A lot of other companies have just really copied them. About this time we opened at Gerrard Street, at the back, and at the same time we opened Sound City in Rupert Street.
Things must have started to get a little bit easier by then.
Whilst I was very ambitious, had some foresight and loved the business, I was probably quite weak in terms of balance sheets and control in running a business in a very happy-go-lucky type of business where you can really get a lot of knockers.
Was your Dad still in the business?
No my father passed away in 1962.
I suppose that was ironically when the business really started to turn.
That's right and he never really saw it — it was just starting to go well.
Then we formed Arbiter & Weston — I got together with my old mates and that's where the Ceaser's Palace thing comes in, and the bingo halls.