Some Gene Leis Memories by Budd Rude

I first became aware of Gene Leis indirectly. I was interested in learning guitar and in 1967 I bought a steel-string guitar at the White Front discount store at Hawthorne and Torrance Boulevards in Torrance. The guitar items they sold all had the name Gene Leis on them; a whole line of guitars, picks, guitar cords, etc. That was the first time I heard the name.

One day, as I was walking down Sepulveda Blvd in Manhattan Beach, I chanced across a window display that featured this bright blue "Instruction Chord Book for Guitar". Curious, I entered the shop, which wasn't really much of a retail shop at all, but was more of a storehouse, with boxes of books all over the place.

There was a fellow there and I asked him about the book. We went to the back of the shop where there were stacks of boxes and he pulled one out of a box and just gave it to me ­ free, on the house. I was surprised, but I was even more surprised when I realized that he was the man on the cover; I was talking to Gene Leis! Then he asked for my opinion on something: he was thinking of having people teach guitar out of the shop and wanted to know if there was a real demand. I was really impressed that he wanted my opinion ­ wow!

I learned to play by taking my guitar to school every day with me. People would want to play it and I would take notes and then practice what I had seen them do later. I kept at it and, after graduating in 1969, I went to El Camino College. There were quite a few other people who played guitar going to the college at the time: Tami Smith, Brian Hartzler and others. We would congregate around this one tree near the Student Services building area during the lunch hour and the afternoons. Somehow I heard that Gene Leis Studio was looking for guitar teachers. Tami and Brian both taught there. Gene let me start teaching there in early 1970.

The studio was very casual. You entered the front door and walked up a little hall. Off to the left was the entrance to Gene's office and the entrance to the little room where Gene had some guitar accessories for sale. Gene's secretary, Elyse was always in the office doing something important.

Past this little area, in the middle of the shop, Gene had installed little booths along one wall, with chairs in them and not much else. Along the other wall was a display for the guitars he had for sale, with this sort of antique textured red wallpaper background. Here there were stacks of boxes of Gene's books and other merchandise.

We kept our teacher schedules on the wall next to the phone in the back of the shop. If someone interested in lessons called, Gene would match him or her with a student and call us to the phone. This was also the shipping area and bullpen, where people could drop in just to chat ­ and there was always someone there.

Gene had so many people he knew who were interested in music. The teachers and students and customers could congregate here ­ we'd talk amongst ourselves. Several times Gene would turn on the TV if someone like Chet Atkins or Sly and the Family Stone was on and we would all talk about what we'd seen. One time, Chet was playing something, and suddenly Gene said, "He's in trouble". He could tell; that little bit of tension in Chet was evident to him.

Even Roger, the regular UPS guy, was a jazz fan and would hang around talking with Gene about music. Gene had a LOT of work for Roger, shipping out books, records and guitars.

There was an upstairs just off of this area that was used just for storage, and was the place that Mama, Gene's cat, mostly stayed. Later, as the teaching staff expanded, Gene added more teaching studios up in this area.

Gene's recording studio was all the way in the back. He had a nice Garrard record player, Scully tape recorders and a mixing console ­ sometimes if the booths were all full, he'd let me use the studio to teach in ­ boy was I careful!

Gene was this personable, friendly guy who could relate to almost anyone, it seemed. Moms, teenagers, nuns, other jazz players, classical players, businesspeople, anybody. He had this great manner ­ charming, calm, reassuring, confident. And humorous ­ when selling something, he'd toss out a price and then say, "and I'm walkin' away". I was never sure what that meant, but it sure helped him sell a lot of guitars.

I remember Gene would get a lot of phone calls asking him to tune their guitar ­ and he'd do it right over the phone. He'd get out his little pitch pipe just to hear the low "E", and then listen to each string and tell them to tighten or loosen it until their entire guitar was in tune.

And he inspired lots of us to challenge ourselves more. Most of us teachers were in our early twenties, and mainly played contemporary popular music, and Gene was this real musician who could play jazz, with difficult chords and intricate solos. He'd encourage us to learn more, and to especially learn our chords. He'd say, "If you don't learn your chords, you'll never play enough guitar to be dangerous". And if you wanted to advance but didn't want to work at it, he'd say, "He wants to go to heaven without dyin'". I think a lot of us worked on that chord arrangement for "Embraceable You" until we thought our fingers would fall off!

Gene was an inspiring fellow ­ whether as a musician, a businessperson, or just a person, he was someone to look up to.