Ivor Arbiter was the man who designed the Beatles' famous "drop-T" logo and did much to shape Britain's musical instrument industry. Initially a saxophone repairer and part-time swing drummer, he made his name in drums, the design, manufacture and sale of which he was involved with for over 40 years. In the 1980s he was responsible for bringing karaoke to Britain.
Born in Balham, south London, in 1929, he grew up in the bustle of the city's West End. He was one of the first instrument retailers to open a specialist shop. Drum City, on Shaftesbury Avenue, became a hang-out for jazz drummers in the late 1950s. "Drum City was quite original in England then," he recalled. "It more or less copied the American idea of a shop devoted to drums." Other projects included Sound City, a guitar and amplification outlet where the Beatles bought much of their gear and, later, the Fender Soundhouse. The following decades saw him work with drummers such as Buddy Rich, Kenny Clare and Phil Seamen, at the same time introducing brands like Gretsch, Remo, Slingerland, Rogers and Pearl to the UK. In the 1960s he won the UK franchise for Fender guitars. "I tried to get Fender in the early days," he recalled:
I think it was around 1963 or 1964 that we eventually got Fender. I knew Don Randall [of Fender] and he decided to give me a go. From that time we've never looked back.
It was also in 1963 that Arbiter unwittingly became the designer of the Beatles' "drop-T" logo. Accompanied by the group's manager Brian Epstein, Ringo Starr visited Drum City in search of a replacement for his battered Premier kit:
I had a phone call from the shop to say that someone called Brian Epstein was there with a drummer. Here was this drummer, Ringo, Schmingo, whatever his name was. At that time I certainly hadn't heard of the Beatles. Every band was going to be big in those days!
In response to Epstein's request that the band's name appear on the bass drum, Arbiter hastily sketched the "drop-T" logo on a scrap of paper. The artwork, for which Drum City was paid £5, was executed by a local sign-writer, Eddie Stokes, who painted bass-drum heads for the store during his lunch hour.
Among their other customers were the Shadows' drummer Brian Bennett, and later, the guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.
In 1966 Arbiter helped establish the instrument company Arbiter-Western. One of the company's directors was the television host Eamonn Andrews, who often invited Arbiter and his wife Adrienne to Andrews's shows, where they met stars such as Bing Crosby. When Arbiter-Western ran into financial problems in 1969, Arbiter and its music division were sold to their rival Dallas. After just one year, Arbiter was made deputy chairman:
They made £34 in 1966, £55 in 1967 - that was their profit record. I joined and, after the first year, £72,000, then £75,000, then £375,000. They soon changed the name to Dallas-Arbiter!
By the end of the decade, the company had bought Carlton Drums, repackaging the line under the "Hayman" name. Arbiter, ahead of his time in the advertising stakes, "borrowed" the name from a former Carlton employee, George Haymon, re-spelling it in the belief that it lent the brand an American image. The mysterious Mr Hayman was subsequently used in promotional material.
Fearing that he would eventually lose UK distribution of Fender, Arbiter invited the guitar maker Jim Burns and an ex-Vox employee, Bob Pearson, to help him develop a new range of guitars that were launched under the Hayman banner in 1970.
After five years with Dallas-Arbiter, Arbiter left following "a clash of personalities". "Having been locked into shares all my life, I felt it would be a good idea for me at 43, after all this struggling and climbing up the ladder, to try and realise in actual money what the paper value was," Arbiter explained. "I just took a decision and sold my shares one morning."
In the early 1970s, Arbiter was aware that the US entertainment corporation CBS (which bought Fender for $13m in 1965) was keen to get a foothold in Europe. Though Fender already had a distributor in Dallas-Arbiter, CBS wanted a greater degree of control. Arbiter suggested a joint operation with CBS, gaining a 49 per cent stake in the new company, CBS Arbiter, and becoming its managing director.
Outside the music industry, Arbiter lent his considerable business expertise to his local football team, Hendon FC. Following his decision to sponsor Hendon in the early 1990s, the players sported the Fender guitar logo on their shirts. In 1994 he became chairman when, after the club fell on hard times, his company eventually bought it.
He found the time to get involved with still other interests - though not always with such success. He put in many hours as a counsellor for the marriage guidance service Relate, but, remembers his wife, was not very good at the job. "Instead of allowing people to come to their own conclusions, he kept telling them what to do." It was tactfully suggested that his services could be best used in other ways and he turned his attentions to fund-raising. Responsible for organising charity dinners, Arbiter invited Diana, Princess of Wales, to attend one, with the result that she became a patron of the charity.
In the late 1980s, with his daughter Joanne, Arbiter introduced karaoke to Britain. He was taken with the idea after visiting a Japanese trade show and started importing karaoke machines, later manufacturing his own. He also supplied the tapes, and later CDs, that accompanied them. His son John, who died two years ago, founded the musical technology retailer Turnkey.
In 2001 Ivor Arbiter received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Music Industries Association. Despite retiring in 2003, he continued designing drum kits from a small warehouse he purchased.
Privately, Arbiter was a dedicated "shipwright" (as he styled himself), filling his house with beautiful model ships, crafted in wood. He had enormous hands and astonished his wife with the delicacy of his work.
Paul Alcantara and Sally J. Hall
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