Coppock, John Lee (1899-1959) and his Deluxe Electric Guitars

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 9/21/2009
  • Essay 9160
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As the Electric Guitar Era progressed from its infancy back in the 1930s and 1940s into the "Space Age" 1950s, many new ultra-modern models were being introduced into the marketplace. But of the numerous well-known companies that produced such instruments, very few can compete with the visual splendor of one particular, if wholly obscure, brand which was created by the hitherto unheralded Peshastin-based guitar-maker, John Lee Coppock.

Although a member of one of the pioneering families of Peshastin, Coppock was not the first local to make electric guitars -- Seattle's Paul Tutmarc (1896-1972) and Harvey Hansen (1898-1990) were both active with their respective Audiovox and Hanburt lines by the '30s, as was Bud Tutmarc (1924-2006) with Bud-Electro by the '40s. Coppock was, however, an early West Coast recording artist, an innovative luthier, and a popular music teacher who helped bring a lot of music-making to the small Washington communities of Peshastin, Dryden, Cashmere, Leavenworth, and Wenatchee over the decades.    

River's Edge Roots

John Coppock was the son of Jesse Coppock (1863-1951) -- a Quaker Minister from Ohio who married Luella Woolverton (1875-1953) at Red Wood Falls, Minnesota, back on December 7, 1898. Born in Minnesota on October 1, 1899, John and his family -- including brother Paul (1902-1957) -- eventually relocated to Kansas. In 1909 Jesse (probably responding to a call for a preacher from the Congregational Church) came out to Peshastin -- the tiny 1890s Great Northern Railway town in the Cascade Mountains -- and acquired some acreage comprising an apple orchard and a home-site on the edge of the Wenatchee River at a spot along the roadway (known then as the "Alternate U.S. Route 10" and renamed Highway 2 in 1946).

Jesse began building a house, in the fall of 1911, his young family joined him, and they settled into a life of apple growing. On Sundays he preached at the church while Luella "played the organ and led the singing" (Sinclair).

Coppock's Hawaiians

In 1916 Coppock happened to hear a Hawaiian record playing in a music shop in the larger town of Wenatchee. He was totally enchanted by the exotic sounds. Borrowing his aunt's Spanish guitar, and using a bicycle wrench as a tone-bar, he began teaching himself lap steel techniques. When Paul took up singing, they performed around the area as a duo (that occasionally played their musical saws).

Then in 1917, Coppock was further inspired when a traveling Chautauqua troupe -- that included a Hawaiian group (possibly the Royal Hawaiian Quartet) -- passed through and performed in the area. After much practice (and acquiring a new Gibson guitar) he and some pals formed the Coppock Quintet and played around the local area – including at the "Amphitheater."

In 1923 Coppock headed off to California where he ended up performing with Roscoe Karns' Bird of Paradise extravaganza, with Dick McIntire, and for Irene West's show. By 1925 -- in the midst of the expanding Hawaiian music craze -- Paul joined him in Hollywood, they formed Coppock's Hawaiians and they played lots of prominent gigs. "Johnny" Coppock began to achieve notoriety as a steeler, accepted opportunities to audition for the movies and a position with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and befriended many top musicians -- including the Sons of the Pioneers and two of the most famous Hawaiian steel guitarists of the era, Andy Iona and Sol Ho'opi'i.

Both Ho'opi'i's group and Coppock's Hawaiians made a bit of history that same year when they each cut recordings for the Hollywood and Sunset Records family of labels, which were one of the very first half-dozen active labels on the West Coast. For their part, Coppock's Hawaiians recorded "Tie Me To Your Apron Strings Again" and "The Prisoner's Song." [Note: the Sunset label mistakenly credits Mahuka as vocalist rather than Paul -- and in 2007 the United Kingdom's Grass Skirt Records marketed a CD which resurrected those tunes after eight decades of out-of-print status!] 

Homecoming and Home-making

In 1927 "Coppock's Famous Radio and Recording Trio" toured up the coast and even made a triumphant home-coming appearance at the Peshastin School Auditorium – as assisted by the "Peshastin Symphony Orchestra." A 1927 newspaper clipping (probably from the Leavenworth Echo) reported that a Sunday event by the "Coppock Hawaiian Orchestra" (this time billed as a "String Quartette") was held at the Community Congregational Church where they performed music that was "high class and entertaining."

On June 1, 1929, he married Verna Mae Palmer (1899-1966) in Bell, California, and before long he had opened an instructional studio in a rental house on Long Beach Boulevard in the little Southgate neighborhood of Los Angeles. It wasn't long before Coppock acquired one of the National String Co.'s metal-bodied ampliphonic resonator guitars -- by 1931 he and his newly-reconstituted band all were playing them. Meanwhile, Coppock took a great interest in the new electrified instruments being produced in Los Angeles by Adolph Rickenbacker.

Coppock Deluxe Guitars

In addition to taking on music students and performing live, on radio, and in recording sessions, the ever-resourceful Coppock also began experimenting with the manufacturing of electric Hawaiian guitars. The Coppocks' son, Donovan (b. 1933), recalls his father always proudly stating that he had completed the creation of a large three-neck console lap steel, just prior to his son's first birthday (in 1934). By that  time, Coppock had moved his home/studio to Huntington Park, California, and he began making additional instruments which he sold to his students -- including a couple single-neck guitars, a double-neck Deluxe guitar, and a couple mind-blowing triple-neck electric lap steel.

Interestingly, Coppock was -- according to his son -- always a very forward-thinking man who took an early interest in using nontraditional materials for his hand-made instruments. Coppock even went so far as to study at the nearby Plastics Institute, which helps explain his extensive usage of various plastics as coatings on his mahogany-based guitars. Of even greater historical significance is the fact that Coppock apparently built at least one solid-body electric Spanish guitar in the 1930s -- and that unit boasted a solid slab of clear plastic as its body -- making it not only among the world's very first solid-body guitars, but also one constructed of a quite radical material.

Home in Peshastin

When World War II broke out in 1941, Coppock could no longer get mahogany from the Philippines and had to substitute inferior Honduran mahogany for his guitars' bodies. Long-story-short: after working for a couple years at the Long Beach shipyards, in 1944 Coppock and his young family moved in with his aging parents up in Peshastin and they all worked the apple orchard.

Even though Coppock also eventually got a job with E. L. Sawyer's Peshastin Box & Lumber Company, he never gave up on music -- performing locally at the VFW hall and other venues and repairing other local musicians' instruments in his workshop/studio (which was initially based in one of three small rental cabins set at the south end of their property).

Coppock's Students

His first Peshastin pupil, Austin Riley (b. 1930), began taking lessons in 1944 and within months Coppock had built him a custom-made electric lap steel guitar -- with a body of alder wood salvaged from a friend's waterfront property on Puget Sound -- featuring an Art Deco-inspired black and white plastic-clad design motif and boasting futuristic clear Lucite control knobs. Soon teacher and pupil began playing together as a duo at various area events. They also performed on the "Hi-Ho Club" show (and recorded) at radio station KPQ in Wenatchee and also over in Seattle (probably at KOL) -- and when those recordings were entered in a talent contest, Riley was invited to travel to California for the finals, but his parents declined to let him go. After years of study, in 1949 Riley moved on to college in Seattle where he crossed paths with Seattle's premier steeler and instructor, Paul Tutmarc, and after jamming together Riley asked if he could study under Tutmarc but he was informed that "You already know more than I could teach you."

Meanwhile, by 1950 Coppock -- who was also commuting way over to Everett on Saturdays in order to offer lessons at the Modern Music Store (1904 Broadway) -- had begun planning the construction of a five-duplex facility which he hoped would, as the Rainbow Motel, provide a long-term managerial job. But Coppock's first step was to build a cinderblock workshop (located next to the motel site) and upon its completion he moved his Coppock's Hawaiian Studio into a portion of it, began teaching students there, and in 1951 the Wenatchee Daily World reported that he currently had 20 active students.

Terry Davis (b. 1947), was a kid from the nearby town of Dryden who began his lessons in 1955. Initially Coppock generously loaned him an "ugly old electric guitar. He was a real nice fella," said Davis. "Kinda gruff at times if you weren't doing things correct, but generally a real nice guy. And he was very talented -- a really good and versatile guitar player. I mean he had lots of different picking methods, and ways of doing things. He taught me some stuff that nobody -- around here anyway -- knew how to do. At that time he was giving lessons, primarily ukulele, standard guitar, and electric steel. He didn't advertise or do anything like that. But he had a number of other students." Around 1958 Davis was rewarded for his progress when his parents commissioned Coppock to build their son his very own brand-new lap steel.

Coppock's Concerts

Once his students had attained a certain skill level, Coppock began finding performance opportunities for them. "He had a number of us go out and perform here and there: at the grange hall, and at schools and stuff," said Davis. "It seems that there were probably six or eight that played. We'd each have a solo, and then play together. And he would play some too. We'd have a couple of performances like that each season. At least a couple times at the grange hall in Peshastin, and then one time in the grange in Cashmere, and then a couple of school performances at Dryden and Peshastin, and down in Wenatchee."

One 1950s photograph shows Coppock and his students performing on an orchard trailer at Wilfred and Geraldine Davy's rustic old Icicle River Ranch on the current site of Leavenworth's upscale Sleeping Lady Resort (7375 Icicle Road). Radio station KUEN microphones were apparently broadcasting the show.

The Coppock Legacy

On February 6, 1959 -- and after a brief illness -- John Coppock died at St. Helens Hospital in Chehalis, the town where his sister Ruth and her husband, Walter Fritz, lived. Interestingly, his dream of operating the Rainbow Motel for the tourist trade was never entirely realized. A few completed units were rented out full-time to local residents, but the others remained unfinished at the time it was sold off to B.T. and Patricia Shipley around 1960. The Shipleys completed the construction in time for Seattle's Century 21 World's Fair, and they ran it as the "21" Motel for many years.

At the time of Coppock's death, his artistic son Don -- who had already served in the U.S. Navy from 1951 through 1955 -- was back attending Central Washington College of Education in Ellensburg. From there he moved on to art studies (under George Tsutakawa and other prominent instructors) at the University of Washington. After exhibiting at the Northwest Institute of Sculpture Invitational (Seattle Art Museum, 1967), he relocated to Cincinnati where he lived and taught for three years. In time he returned home to the Northwest where he operated Don Coppock Graphic Design before retiring a dozen years ago.

Meanwhile the old "21" Motel -- updated and recast by its latest owners as the River's Edge Lodge (at 8401 U.S. Highway 2) -- remains a monument to John Lee Coppock's original dream. And still standing adjacent to the motel is the revamped building Coppock long ago built as his woodshop and music studio -- today a silent tribute to many unsung stories from long-gone days in Peshastin.

Over those decades the saga of Coppock's remarkable music career was overlooked in published histories and had nearly vanished into mists of time. Don recently confessed that he always thought that his father's achievements had been underappreciated -- certainly, my own search for clues via history books, libraries, and Internet sources provided nil. And thus, this recent uncovering of the story may be the first step in seeing John Coppock's legacy restored. 

Sources: Peter Blecha interviews with Donovan L. Coppock (April 30 & May 8, 2009), Austin Riley (May 12, 2009) recordings in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle; author conversations and/or emails with Terry Davis (April 8, 2009), Kathy Springer, member, Friends of Peshastin Cemetery (March 28, 2009), Jimmy White, manager, River's Edge Lodge (April 3, 2009), Lorene Ruymar (April 10, 2009), Ron Middlebrook (April 18, 2009), Bob Brozman (April 23, 2009), Mary (Shipley) Ross (April 28, 2009), Allan Dodge (April 28, 2009), Rich Mermer (May 3, 2009), Lynn Wheelwright (May 5, 2009), David Stewart (May 5, 2009), Shirley Terry (May 19, 2009) in possession of Peter Blecha; "Hawaiian Music Concert," poster, October 28, 1927, Peter Blecha Collection; "Peshastin's String Quartette," undated clipping, Wenatchee Daily World, 1927; Polk City Directories 1948-1957;  "Jesse Coppock," obituary, Wenatchee Daily World, March 12, 1951, p. 2; Jewel Sinclair, "Sleepy Hollow Notes" (column), Leavenworth Echo, March 16, 1951, p. 2; Jewel Sinclair, "Jesse Coppock Will Be Remembered in Peshastin," undated clipping, Leavenworth Echo; Genevieve Strand, "Curtain 'Going Up' For John Coppock -- Peshastin ... and 'Show Business,'" Wenatchee Daily World March 23, 1951, p. 1; "Luella Coppack" [sic] obituary, Wenatchee Daily World, September 2, 1952. p. 6; "John Lee Coppock" obituary and funeral notice, Wenatchee Daily World, February 9, 1959, p. 8; George Gruhn and Walter Carter, Electric Guitars & Basses: A Photographic History (San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1994), p. 18; Sol Hoopii In Hollywood: His First Recordings 1925, compact disc, Grass Skirt Records, (GSK 1002), 2007.

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