Dubbed "The test pilot of the Stratocaster," Western swing legend Bill Carson was the guitarist for whom Leo Fender first created the six-string that would later define the sound of rock & roll. Born July 8, 1926, in Meridian, OK, Carson grew up in his grandparents' Amarillo, TX, home. He first played the pump organ before acquiring an $11 guitar from the Sears and Roebuck catalog at age 11. In the years following World War II, Carson was a fixture of the local dancehall circuit, and circa 1948 he relocated to Los Angeles, playing in support of Western swing pioneers including Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, and Spade Cooley. In 1951 he visited Fender's Fullerton, CA, factory in search of a Telecaster electric guitar and amplifier. Fender not only obliged, but also convinced Carson to sign on as a part-time assembly worker and field tester. From that point forward Carson regularly played Fender prototypes during his gigs, suggesting a series of groundbreaking design elements and refinements. Famously telling Fender a guitar should fit the human body "like a well-tailored shirt," he was instrumental in determining the contours that in 1954 resulted in the classic "cutaway" shape of the original Stratocaster. Carson's official endorsement of the Strat was also vital in legitimizing the new instrument. In one famous advertisement, he stands in full cowboy regalia with the guitar slung over his shoulder, with an inset reading "Billy Carson Uses Fender Fine Electric Instruments Exclusively." The likes of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, and Eric Clapton were among the myriad Stratocaster disciples to follow in his wake. Carson joined the Fender staff full-time in 1957, working as guitar supervisor and plant manager. A decade later, he was appointed to head the company's Nashville office, and later spearheaded sales and marketing initiatives as well. In 1990, Carson achieved a different kind of notoriety when he cultivated a record-setting watermelon weighing in at 262 pounds, a Guinness Book of World Records mark that stood for 16 years. He also published a memoir, Bill Carson: My Life and Times with Fender Musical Instruments, and in 2006 his own 1959 Fiesta Red Stratocaster sold for a staggering $66,000 at auction. Carson died February 15, 2007, at the age of 80.
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