PHOTO: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images
The surprising origin of the obscure favorite named for an early pioneering female guitarist.
By Alex Baker
Of all the rare, sought after custom model guitars introduced by Fender over the decades, few have inspired the kind of cult following that the "Mary Kaye" Stratocaster has. The translucent white, mid-'50s Strat, with its maple neck and distinctive gold hardware takes its name from legendary guitarist and Las Vegas performer, Mary Kaye.
A "Mary Kaye" Stratocaster from 1958.
Known as the “First Lady of Rock and Roll” for her guitar-driven, calypso-tinged, swing music, Kaye was a musical innovator who helped pioneer Vegas lounge music. Although, one of the most surprising aspects of the story of the "Mary Kaye" Strat, is that Kaye never really owned, and rarely played, the guitar that informally bears her name.
So just why is the distinctive ash blonde Strat with the gold hardware known as the "Mary Kaye" Stratocaster?
The answer lies in a 1956 Fender promotional photo of Kaye and her Mary Kaye Trio bandmates, Frank Ross and Norman Kaye. In the photo, which was shot between sets at the band’s Vegas lounge residency, Kaye can be seen brandishing the distinct white Strat that she would become forever associated with. But the guitar didn’t belong to her. At the time, she actually favored custom D’Angelicos.
The Mary Kaye Trio featured in a Fender ad from 1957.
The unique white guitar Kaye is seen with in the photo was actually the first custom Fender Stratocaster ever produced – a sort of forerunner to today’s Custom Shop models. Assembled in 1956, the guitar was the first model Fender issued in this particular color scheme.
Although Kaye continued to wield D’Angelicos in her Vegas act, the image of her with the guitar was syndicated worldwide via ads in musicians’ magazines. And while Kaye never actually owned the guitar, the photo wasn’t the only time she was seen using it.
Fender president Don Randall loaned Kaye the guitar again for the Mary Kaye Trio’s appearance in the film Cha Cha Cha Boom! Images of Kaye with the guitar were circulated in movie posters and lobby cards promoting the 1956 musical, in which Kaye appears as herself.
So although Kaye only used the translucent white Strat twice during her heyday with the Mary Kaye Trio, the images of her with the guitar somehow struck a chord with guitarists that persists to this day.
One fan of the "Mary Kaye" Strat is up-and-coming singer/songwriter Brynn Elliott.
Singer/songwriter Brynn Elliott pictured with her Mary Kaye Stratocaster.
Elliott – who learned on her father’s old attic acoustic – made the move to electric in a big way when a beautiful Gretsch White Falcon called to her from a Portland shop window. “I was so compelled by that white and gold,” she says. It turned out to be her graduation gift.
Over time she found that the Falcon was too heavy for regular touring. “You can’t move or have fun,” she says.
She started looking for a replacement. A journey that lasted six months. “I wasn’t drawn to anything, and then, one day, we were doing some research and the guitarist I play with said, ‘Oh, my gosh, Brynn, this is so you!’”
“I read all about [Mary Kaye] and watched video of her being interviewed and I was so drawn to it because it has the white and gold that I was drawn to in the Gretsch, but it has this amazing body. The first time I put it on I felt, ‘I’m so connected to this guitar.’”
You'll find another fan in Joe Bonamassa. The blues rock guitarist owns a ’58 Mary Kay and could be seen opening shows with it on recent tour appearances.
Although it took nearly 50 years, in 2005 Fender issued an officially listed Mary Kaye model; the Limited Signature Mary Kaye Tribute Stratocaster. When Kaye passed away two years later, at the age of 83, Fender posthumously issued a special reissue 1957 Mary Kaye Commemorative Stratocaster, made to original ’57 specs.
While Fender doesn't currently offer a "Mary Kaye" Stratocaster, the Fender Mod Shop offers gold hardware and a new transluscent white blonde paint option that recreates the same allure as the original.