The name Buz Watson has garnered attention in the last few years due to a re-surged interest in vintage Fender Rhodes pianos. Not Rhodes pianos, Fender Rhodes pianos and not just any Fender Rhodes pianos, 1972 Fender Rhodes Stage pianos.
On stage pianos produced in the first 25 weeks of 1972 (January through early May), you may find a small "Buz Watson" stamped in red ink upon the upper right-hand side of the harp. To collectors, this marking is supreme. It's the lure of perfection, the "Holy grail", the vanguard of electric pianos..... or so they think. The first thought that may come to mind is that Buz was the final stop in QC at Fender. After all, his stamp is right there on a location for all to see. If Buz stamped the piano, then everyone did their job and did it right, right? For 40 years Buz and his stamp went secretively unrecognized except for a few a minor foot notes in Fender Rhodes history.
For years as a repair tech I made a mental note every time a 72' Buz piano came through my shop. In the early days it was purely speculation and fantasy about who this Buz person was. The more pianos I restored with the Buz stamp on them the more my imagination soared. After some years went by I realized that one commonality among all the Buz pianos I had worked on was that once fully restored, they were amazing.
The fascination starting building and I began to speak publicly about the magic of these Buz Watson pianos. Was it because it was a “Buz Watson” stamped piano and his expertise and high standards elevated them above the crop? Or was it just a really special time when Fender hit their stride in production?
Did Fender supply Buz the resources and authority he needed to make every piano a masterpiece or was Buz’s perfectionism an unrealistic idea, a wrench in the machine that ultimately lead him to leave the factory?
These questions intrigued me for years and in order to quench my thirst for information, I tracked down and met with people who knew him, and they shared their memories of Buz with me. There have been plenty of theories and myths about the man but very little facts other than that he did work at the Fender Rhodes factory and did do QC work.
A number of Buz’s repair customers told me he was a character, the type that did things his way. He was an ornery guy who would let you know what's what and what was wrong with your piano without hesitation!! It is assumed that Buz worked at the Fender Rhodes factory until sometime in mid 1972, when his stamp stopped appearing on harps. I've been told that Buz was a consultant to Harold Rhodes and that he was in on certain piano designs or implimentations. Buz’s leaving is supposed to have been tumultuous due to disagreement with the brass over how things should be done. Corporate agenda vs. artisan vision; with this dichotomy, the artistry will never come out on top.
He is remembered by most for performing repairs out of his apartment near Fullerton CA. A number of customers have told me he would raise his voice at you if he did not like your ideas or if he did not agree with how your piano was set up. It seems he had a very high standard of work and for his idea of how things should be done. He was very articulate and had a designer’s sense of how things operated. From his experience at the factory, he knew the ins and outs and even the ups and downs of a Fender Rhodes, he knew how and why everything operated and troubleshooting was second nature to him. He knew what to do and what not to do and was only interested in doing things correctly.
His apartment supposedly smelled heavily of glue and was not only set up for Fender Rhodes repairs, but filled with model planes as well. Buz was a model airplane enthusiast and approached his hobby with the same detail oriented mindset and keen eye that he used to perfect Fender Rhodes repairs. It no doubt made him proud to improve upon pianos that the Fender factory allowed to go shy of his criteria.
He was known to rag on Fender for having poor quality control and accused them of just throwing pianos together with any parts off the shelf. In his mind, pianos should have been assembled with only choice parts hand picked by someone like himself. Again, this was his artistry and did not jive with the assembly line production model. He liked hammer tips to be firmer for clarity and definition of each note, much like that of Vintage Vibe. He felt that softer tips led to a muddy tone, I would agree with Buz on that. I feel in my mind Buz would have loved to be a part of the Vintage Vibe Piano Company. A place where custom pianos are hand built one at a time. But I digress, the legend of Buz Watson is something all electric piano enthusiasts can hold as a wax poetic daydream. A man we can all relate to, a man with standards and integrity. A long lost pioneer who paved the way for future standards.
Earlier on I poised questions surrounding who was Buz and what did his stamp mean in regard to quality and consistency. Many years of studying Buz Watson pianos have led me to believe that it was in fact the magical era of Fender Rhodes and not the man who stamped the pianos that made the Buz pianos so sought after. Although he certainly contributed to the greatness of this era at the factory, in the end it comes down to Fender hitting their optimal stride in 1972. Not to take anything away from this man and what he tried to achieve, but it is obvious that Buz left Fender because of his lack of ability to affect the change he felt was necessary to produce only perfect pianos. I feel Buz did his best, but only had so much pull when it came to what he allowed to pass. Accounting for all of the dozens of Buz Watson pianos I have seen, there have been some serious Monday morning Buz pianos. Allowing certain mistakes to pass with his name on them must still haunt Buz in his grave to this day.
In the end Buz, perhaps rightfully so, has become a character of legend, truly larger than life. And the allure of the mythical figure mixed with the rarity has lead to desirability, and isn't that what all collectors long for?
Note: There was also another QC stamp in 71-72 with the name B. Kehoe. These pianos are just as fabulous!
By Chris Carroll