Lloyd Loar - The man inside the name
Over the more than four decades that I have been researching, presenting, and writing about Lloyd Loar, the focus has always been on his work and on his contribution to the world of music. I studied the what, when, where, and why, and focused much less on the who. The first four attributes could be gleaned from hard data; the who is another matter all together. In my work, I made some assumptions about Loar’s character and personal attributes but never felt that I had enough information to sum up the true character traits of the man. Over the years, the background information I had gathered kept taking shape, and I recently began re-reading many of his documents, this time to learn about the person behind the words as opposed to learning about the documents' contents. I also reviewed notes I had from others who knew him or knew of him with some certainty.
While I never had the privilege of personally meeting Lloyd Loar (he died when I was three), I did have the honor of engaging with two people who knew him well; his second wife Bertha with whom I was very close during the last two decades of her life, and Ted McCarty, a past president of Gibson. I was also fortunate to have Louis Good share a letter with me that was part of his research on Lloyd Loar regarding an interview he had with Traugott Rohner, a student of Loar’s at Northwestern University in 1931 and 1932. I also had the opportunity to communicate with Mary Moss, a librarian and archivist who worked at Northwestern University when Loar was teaching there. And, I met a few other folks along the way who had a somewhat more distant relationship with Loar and fewer clear memories.
The complete story of Bertha Snyder Loar, Lloyd’s widow, is told elsewhere in this web site. Bertha was a dear friend, and I communicated with her almost daily for the last 22 years of her life. Bertha was Lloyd Loar’s second wife. Bertha married Lloyd in 1938 and had little direct knowledge about his work at Gibson. And, aside from accompanying him to various music trades shows, she remembered little about the specifics of his work. Her memories about him, his persistent goals, and his obsession with music, however, were clear. She loved him dearly and they were very close, but the center of Loar’s life was his music. Bertha commented that Lloyd was soft and pensive, somewhat shy, and very courteous and considerate of others. But she also saw the contrasting side, in which he was very persistent, very focused, and worked hard to get what he wanted. She was infatuated by his wit, creativity, and his quiet but persistent manner, and she often commented to me that some of my traits and my focus on music reminded her of Lloyd. These comments helped me to get a better sense and understanding of who Lloyd was as a person.
Ted McCarty joined Gibson in 1948, became president in 1949, and was with the company until 1966 when he resigned from Gibson and bought Bigsby, an electronics and effects-pedal company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He grew Bigsby during the following 30 years and sold it to Gretsch in 1999. While consulting at Gibson, I’d frequently drop by to chat with Ted. Loar left Gibson 23 years before Ted worked there, so Ted had no first-hand knowledge of what Loar did for Gibson. But before joining Gibson, Ted worked at the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company from 1936 to 1948, and it was during this time that Ted had some interaction with Loar. Loar and Lewis Williams were attempting to get Acousti-Lectic company on its feet in the years following the Great Depression. During the 1930s, Loar had filed for, and was awarded more than a dozen U.S. Patents for keyboard actions and keyboard pickup systems. According to Ted, Loar was very persistent, persuasive, and aggressive in trying to license some of his ideas to Wurlitzer.
I also had the pleasure of spending a good deal of time with Julius Bellson and heard many tales about Julius, his brother Albert, and the Gibson Company of yesteryear. Julius talked about Loar as if he knew him, but the two never met, and the stories he shared were second hand. Julius joined Gibson in 1935 – ten years after Loar left – and was to become Gibson’s self-appointed historian in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Julius officially retired from Gibson around 1970, he’d go to the plant several times a week (he lived on Crown Street, just a few miles from the plant) and would often be called in to talk to journalists and others who came to the plant to learn about Gibson and its history. Julius’ primary memory of Loar was that he wanted to produce electric instruments and was very frustrated that management at Gibson did not support his ideas. (Although it was Gibson executive Lewis Williams who left Gibson to make electric instruments with Loar.)
Mary Moss began working in the library at Northwestern University in the early 1940s, and later became assistant archivist. She retired in the early 1970s after 30 years at Northwestern, and I had both the good fortune and privilege of communicating with her about Lloyd while she was still there. Mary remembered Loar for two main reasons: he was a frequent visitor to the library and was always engrossed in research, and, more vividly, he married a Northwestern student (Bertha) whose 18 year age difference – and the fact that she was a student – created a bit of a stir at the University. I don’t have notes on Mary’s exact description of Lloyd, but I do recall that Mary remembered Loar as being pensive and focused. Mary was very instrumental in helping me find Bertha, and for that I am forever grateful.
To further expand my understanding of Loar’s character, I have read more than a hundred documents written by and to him, and one thing that recently re-kindled my interest in writing about Loar, the man, was a June 15, 1929 letter he wrote to Karl Gerhkens, the head of Oberlin’s music department, the author of The Fundamentals of Music (1924), and someone Loar looked up to. In this multi-page letter, Loar writes about his interest in creating a research lab at Oberlin, and in reading this document, it is very easy to appreciate Ted’s and Bertha’s comments about Loar being very persuasive and persistent.
It has been more than 30 years since I spoke to Mary and Ted about Loar, and more than 12 years since Bertha and I spoke, so I am unable to remember and share their exact comments. What I do have, though, is a strong sense of the pieces of the puzzle of who Lloyd Loar was. As you read on, I ask that you accept my views as a reasonably accurate assessment of Loar’s character as developed through conversations and documents.
Lloyd Loar - The man
As a young man, Lloyd Loar was a highly-accomplished and highly-motivated musician who diligently pursued his music career. He was shy and somewhat reserved, yet very proactive and assertive in areas of importance to him. He had the conviction of someone who clearly knew what he wanted and pushed hard until he got it. Ted McCarty remembered him as being persistent, but polite, and someone who always had excellent arguments for the points he wanted to drive home. Ted commented that he respected Loar but really didn’t enjoy working with him because of his continual and constant reasoning.
Loar was what some would think to be a quiet “Type A” individual and always had more than two or three projects going at once. When one considers what he did in his short 57 years, it would appear that his accomplishments and involvements were enough for three people. He was an author, composer, music arranger, acoustical engineer, inventor, contractor/consultant, designer, performing musician, publisher, columnist, music teacher, and college professor. He composed hundreds of pieces of music, arranged dozens of music scores, authored 13 books, and was awarded 14 U.S. Patents.
Speaking of his compositions, I had the great fortune of hearing many of Loar’s pieces played by Bertha, an accomplished pianist. John Monteleone also had the pleasure of hearing Bertha play some of Loar’s music when I brought him to meet her. Sadly, Loar’s filing cabinet full of music was disposed of by an irresponsible conservator in Bertha’s final years and are now gone forever.
In a letter from Louis Good to Scott Hambly (archivist at The John Edwards Memorial Foundation, Inc.) dated February 18, 1971, Good shared information about Loar that he gleaned from an interview with Traugott Rohner, a student of Loar’s in 1931 and 1932. Rohner shared with Good that he had “high regards for Mr. Loar as a person and his advanced thinking as an individual, in the area of physics and acoustics of sound.” Rohner said that “Mr. Loar was a very kind and a very quiet man and dedicated to the physics of music. He was an original thinker and attempted to prove his theories by experimentation and to support them with academic reasoning.” He went on to say that “Mr. Loar was an introvert by nature and had very little social contact with the teaching staff of Northwestern. He was, for the most part, a loner and purposely kept to himself and his deep interest in the physics of music and the study of acoustics.”
Loar felt that the pinnacle of musical instrument design was the violin. In his Physics of Music class at Northwestern University, Loar spoke highly of the developments brought forth by Stradivari and taught that “the tone of the violin is one of the most efficient acoustically.” In that class he spoke of the individual features of the violin, and it is obvious by studying the features of the F5 mandolin that Loar attempted to emulate the innovations of Stradivari and bring those features into the 20th Century through his work at both Gibson and Acousti-Lectric. As a result, most of the key features that Loar specified for the F5, H5, and L5 Master Model instruments stem from the violin.
Supporting his feelings about the virtues of the violin, Gibson’s 1923 catalog features a persuasive section on “Scientific Principles” authored by Loar. Page 22 has a chart that compares the qualities of Gibson’s mandolins to “the perfect standard” – the violin. This article reveals the nature of a very focused, very persuasive, and exceedingly bright individual.
In a letter to Karl Gehrkens (June 15, 1929), on the very threshold of the Great Depression, Loar described his appreciation for pure research and a distaste for the business environment. Talking about the developmental work he was trying to achieve at Gulbransen with new piano systems, Loar wrote “A purely commercial institution is not an ideal place for this sort of research, there is too much necessity for turning knowledge into immediate cash; and if the said knowledge doesn’t turn thus quickly, no matter how important it is, forget it, and acquire some that is negotiable.” Innovation in music was a key focus for Loar, and in that same letter, regarding the struggle of working for profit-motivated companies, Loar went on to say “But I don’t care a lot of it, and would prefer that the rest of my years be free from it.” In the letter, he outlined his objectives for teaching at Oberlin and requested of Gehrkens that he be able to develop a music research department there, and he provided rationale for establishing such a lab. Unfortunately, his idea never came to fruition. Instead, Loar only taught as a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Although Loar was a professor from 1930 until the time of his death in 1943, he was never freed of the business environment he so disliked, and he was plagued with the problems of supporting the ViviTone keyboard systems he developed with Lewis Williams. During these final years, while teaching, he had to travel extensively to fix mechanical and electrical systems that were failing.
Rohner also stated in his interview with Good that “Mr. Loar was a frail man and looked like a man that was not well nourished. He was not a very strong man physically. His body frame was small.” Contrary to Mr. Rohner’s opinion that Loar was “frail,” he had been a member of the quarter-mile track team while at Oberlin, was high-spirited, and very competitive. According to Bertha, though, Loar always liked a good cigar and may have smoked more than he should have. One clearly envisions a man who drove himself hard, took himself very seriously, was always on the cutting edge, all of which may have played a role in ending his life at a very young 57 years of age. On the morning of September 13, 1943, at 4:00, Lloyd Loar passed away in his home on Fargo Street in Chicago. The cause of death on his death certificate is listed as hypertension.
While Loar came from a Presbyterian family, he and Bertha followed the beliefs of Theosophy, the idea that all religions are part of a master plan or spiritual hierarchy that helps humanity develop to greater perfection. As such, Theosophy suggests that each religion is part of the greater truth. Bertha mentioned several times that Loar went on to do better work. I have no way of knowing if he was successful in attaining his ultimate spiritual goal, but clearly his work attests to the excellence of his Earthly endeavors.