A Conversation with Avery Fisher

America's original baron of high fidelity sounds off

A view of the main plaza at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City. The buildings are (left to right) the David H Koch Theater, the Metropolitan Opera House and Avery Fisher Hall. Ca. 1975 Credit: Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty

The Apartment building has the air of a Manhattan San Simeon. From the corner of 92nd Street and Park Avenue, on the northern edge of the city's silkstocking district, it seems no more imposing than any other 20-story, block-long building, particularly in a city of such structures. But once you've been guided through the driveway in the center of the block, you're confronted with a courtyard that's large enough to swallow many another of New York's prestige residences. This building is not among the town's most chic, but that makes it all the more baronial — the people here may not be famous, but they are wealthy and powerful. It's written all over the sooty, Gothic gray walls. By the time you've found the proper entrance, it's impossible to repress a certain reverence.

This is a fitting home for Avery Fisher, America's original baron of high-fidelity sound. Fisher is an American classic (he started out in much less comfortable circumstances) and a genuine pioneer. Tall and white-haired, he looks only middle-aged though he's nearly 70. His bearing is elegant and without ostentation, like his home. And since his $8 million endowment to Lincoln Center (and the renaming of Philharmonic Hall in his honor), he is surely the most famous figure in the sound business.

At home, he spends most of his time in a white-walled living room that seems altogether cozy although it's spacious enough to hold several chairs and a couch, some music stands, a wall of books and records and a grand piano without crowding.

It's a musical room. Over in the corner, Fisher says, is one of the nation's finest libraries of chamber music. The music stands are set up, semipermanently, for the weekly string quartet recitals of Fisher and his friends. Like everything else, the Fisher stereo components are modest in stature, large in power. And hidden behind a screen, nestled in the fireplace, is a mammoth, three-foot-square Western Electric speaker — the sort Fisher used in his first radio/phonograph console back in 1937.

It is music, after all, rather than hardware, that fascinates Fisher. "I was born into a musical family," he says. "Every one of my parents' children was given an opportunity to learn an instrument. Papa would go down the line: violin, piano, violin, piano, violin." Papa was also something of a record collector, and that is how Avery Fisher got involved.

In the mid-Thirties Fisher worked as a book designer for Dodd, Mead, the publishing house. But after work, he'd visit a friend who had a job playing piano in a movie house. "After the show, he'd come out on the stage and play Bach while the maids cleaned up the place, picked up the diamond rings that had fallen under the seats," Fisher remembers. He became interested in the electrical amplification equipment then in use, and when sound-on-film came into play, he picked up parts, cheaply, from movie houses that no longer needed them. Among those parts were the RCA Photophone amplifier and the Western Electric loudspeaker. That's how Philharmonic Radio was born in 1937.

"This was my hobby," Fisher explains. "I started putting these things together for friends and before I knew it, it looked like it could be a supplemental income. I still didn't dream it would become a full-time occupation and, in fact, I stayed on at Dodd, Mead until 1943.

"But while I was still at Dodd, Mead I established Philharmonic Radio Company. I worked from 5:15 until two o'clock in the morning, because I couldn't give up the job — it was my income, you see." Fisher produced consoles exclusively at this time (although the components were available separately); they were limited in quantity, high quality and quite expensive for the day (they cost $200). In 1939, the company enjoyed an upsurge in sales, based upon an extremely favorable review in Consumer Reports. But World War II nearly put Philharmonic out of business.

During the war, consumer-electronics manufacture was out of the question: materials were in short supply and everyone's energies were supposed to be devoted to the war effort. Philharmonic was given several electronics subcontracting jobs by larger military manufacturers. The largest was to develop an instrument landing system for La Guardia Airport in New York.

"We found out very quickly that we didn't have enough capital to swing this stuff, so the company was sold to American Typefounders. I stayed on as president until 1945 but when the war was over I resigned and, taking certain key people with me, started Fisher Radio." Philharmonic, Fisher says with something of a sneer, was then turned into a table-radio manufacturer "and of course, I had no interest in that."

Truly a musical and high-fidelity purist, Fisher explains the success that would follow in the Fifties and Sixties completely in terms of his devotion to quality. "Back in the Fifties, seeing the burgeoning of our quality instrument business, RCA came out with a line called the Berkshire, with prices ranging from $2500 to $4000. Bell and Howell also came out with high-quality radio/phonographs. Ampex came out with high-quality radio/phonographs. And they all failed.

"I knew most of these people on an industry basis and they wanted to know why we prevailed and why they failed. I told them, very frankly, 'You went out for the bottom line and we went out for top quality. And the bottom line somehow took care of itself."'

But there was no high-fidelity boom until the early Fifties, although Fisher maintains that the industry's fate was sealed by the return of thousands of GIs who had received some electronic training overseas. But after forming Fisher Radio in 1945, he moved into a store on the ground floor of the Hotel Marguerite, on East 42nd Street near Grand Central Station. There, he had only cramped manufacturing space, although he expanded within two years as the result of favorable articles in Fortune and Time.

"We didn't become enormous," he says, "but we did become known outside of a very tight circle of hi-fi buffs. But we weren't making any 5000 pieces even in those days; a 1000 run was a lot for us." For the next half-dozen years, Fisher moved about frequently, from one loft in Greenwich Village to another on West 63rd Street (on the future site of Lincoln Center), then to Long Island City, just across the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan, and finally occupying a large plant in Lewiston, Pennsylvania.

This expansion was helped along by several factors, not the least of which was the introduction of the LP, whose inventor, Peter Goldmark, was an oldtime friend of Fisher's. "They were all very anxious to have us introduce these devices — we became the bird dog, as it were," Fisher says. "Goldmark always asked me to come over to give a reaction as a manufacturer of high-quality equipment and as a music lover myself." The introduction of the 12-inch, 33-1/3 rpm record was the key to most of the next decade's hi-fi developments.

But Fisher stayed on top for other reasons. Its proprietor had a fascination with European technology — he was one of the first Americans to drive a Volkswagen — and when he found that foreign sports car accessories were hard to come by in the early Fifties, turned that into a very profitable sideline. More importantly, he began to import European technicians, particularly German ones. Additionally, he inaugurated the famous advertising series, Fisher Firsts, which detailed the company's more significant innovations. Among them: first company to import Dual turntables and Sony tape recorders, first to develop a transistorized component, the preamplifier.

Fisher maintained his personal touch through all of this. One former employee remembers that he once decided that all quotation marks went inside periods, even when they didn't belong there. The reason, Fisher explains, was that "they look lonely out there" in the standard format. He stayed in touch in other ways, too, becoming famous for keepingan open line to customer complaints and requests.

"If a customer had a complaint and was calling me and asking for me, I knew he must have been frustrated already by unthinking middle-management, service, retail people. That's the usual thing, and he was desperate. He needed me and I knew that I needed him to make a living. So I did everything I could. I always answered my phone. And if on occasion my secretary was out of the office, I got on the phone immediately. They would say, 'Is Mr. Fisher in?' I'd say, 'This is Mr. Fisher.' And they wouldn't believe it.

"In the earlier days of our business, when it was still possible — when we had the store on 42nd Street — two weeks after a set was delivered, I personally called the customer and asked him if he had any questions, whether it was operating all right and if it was not operating all right, he was delighted that I hadn't written him off just because he had paid for it. That was the way we proceeded." Fisher consoles, while they remained expensive, became a middle-class status symbol by the end of the Fifties. In fact, during the Kennedy administration, a Fisher system was installed in the presidential living quarters of the White House.

"Very interestingly," Fisher recalls, "we had a receiver at the time with wireless remote control, for changing stations, turning on, off, volume. We were forbidden to put that in. They didn't want any remote signal in the White House other than what was pertinent to communications with the president."

In the mid-Sixties, however, the nature of the audio business changed. The most interesting albums were made by rock groups, and their younger listeners needed economical equipment as much as quality. Fisher was neither interested in providing that nor, being an Americanbased company, was it able to. The Japanese (whose high-quality electronics were first introduced in Fisher systems, remember) quickly stepped in with high-quality, low-priced systems. In the mid-Sixties, Fisher had had an utterly dominant hold on the American receiver market — for example, a 55 to 60% share of all such components sold. Today, Pioneer, which did not enter the American market until 1967, has a 55% share of consumer receiver business, while Fisher has dropped to less than one percent.

Considering what the rock explosion cost his company and his own status as a high culture buff, Fisher might be expected to view rock & roll with disdain. Instead, he is surprisingly supportive of it, although he still feels classical music is the superior form.

"The explosion has taken place in this apartment. I have a 20-year-old son who has his own set in his room, so I know exactly what kids are listening to. And I am very pleased to see that happen, because the children who are listening to Jethro Tull and somebody else this year will be listening to Beethoven next year. They are developing musical taste and that taste will mature — it has to — as they get older. When they're 35 or 40 they're not going to be listening to Jethro Tull anymore; they'll be listening to something a little more . . . durable, shall we say.

"But I will say that fine equipment will reproduce whatever you put on it. It doesn't know whether it's pop or classical. It's a device for discerning a signal from a record groove or tape or the air and building it up in volume sufficiently to excite the cone of a loudspeaker. And that's really the whole story."

As if to prove the point, he bounds up and disappears from the living room into his son's adjoining quarters. He returns in seconds, carrying — quite proudly — a copy of Little Feat's The Last Record Album. Placing it on the turntable, switching a toggle or two, he moves over to the fireplace, removes the screen to reveal the Western Electric speaker from his first Philharmonic system. The sound is perfect for rock & roll — flat but with powerful bass response —and Little Feat never sounded better. Though it isn't clear whether this is a further condescension to an immature musical taste, Fisher certainly seems exuberant.

Yet, in the rock era, Fisher has never been able to successfully compete. The company retains a stodgy image, it ceased consumer advertising several years ago, and dealers are now said to be extremely wary of the line. Some say that Fisher caused this by losing interest, but whatever the reason, it is true that by 1969 he was ready to sell out. Which he did, to Emerson Electric of St. Louis, for more than $20 million.

"The alternative was to stay with the company until my demise. At which point, Mrs. Fisher, who knows nothing about the business, would have called in an accountant and a lawyer and between the two of them, they would have said, 'Sell the business.' And we would have been vulnerable as to the purchaser, since it would have been a distress sale." This is somewhat ingenuous — Fisher hardly seems reluctantly retired — and others suggest that the death of certain key business personnel left him stranded.

The terms of sale gave Fisher a three-year contract to run the company; he stayed on an additional two as a consultant, and remains a consultant in an unofficial capacity today. Since his retirement from day-to-day affairs, Fisher has developed a connection with the Japanese company Sanyo, which now manufactures Fisher electronics in that country. (The speakers are still made at the Lewiston, Pennsylvania, factory.) But Fisher says that he remains well satisfied with the quality of the product. "Otherwise, why would I continue to advise them?" And the new Fisher line, according to trade reports, will once again be marketed aggressively.

Ironically, it was not until he sold his company that Avery Fisher became a well-known public figure. Upon his retirement in 1974, he decided to endow Lincoln Center, and specifically Philharmonic Hall, with what he calls a "sizable part" of his fortune. An endowment of $8 million was given to the Center, of which 80% was allotted for the maintenance and rebuilding of the Center's showpiece and decade-long acoustic lemon, Philharmonic Hall. The remaining 20% went Fisher for the Philharmonic Artist Award and the Avery Fisher Prize. Those awards, which are granted in alternate years, are designed to help struggling young professional musicians (classical, of course) appear with prestigious orchestras. The money is a less significant factor, Fisher thinks, than the exposure the awards confer.

An endowment of $8 million is not an everyday occurrence in the high-culture field — although it's about equal to what Elton John will make with his five-year recording contract with MCA Records — but it would hardly have landed Fisher on the front page of the New York Times. There was a curious quid pro quo involved in the Fisher agreement which landed him that dubious publicity.

In return for the rebuilding of the Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center renamed the auditorium Avery Fisher Hall. This gave rise to many cynical jokes — most prominently, certain telephoned inquiries about the price of renaming the Metropolitan Opera House. Although both the Center and Fisher have always maintained that the renaming of the hall was not the price of the endowment, it's hard to say whether anyone is gullible enough to believe this. But of course, no one minds Carnegie Hall being named for the chief robber baron of the steel industry.

Philharmonic Hall was in serious need of a complete renovation. From its opening night in 1964, there had been bitter charges from the serious music community that the hall had dreadful sight lines, many acoiustically dead spots and, in general, was a design disaster. Jerry-built remedies did no good. So the Fisher grant provided for tearing the hall down to its shell and starting from scratch.

Fisher is so personally involved in the redesign of the hall that he spends a day or two each week in the architect's office. "Not that I'm telling them what to do," he says, "but they have found that there are things I know that have been of help to them. And furthermore, I consider myself a qualified expert in what a hall should sound like. You know, there's a point at which science, which can do almost anything with a hall so far as the reverberation is concerned, has to stop and musical judgment has to enter."

The original Philharmonic design was pie shaped, so that all seats could face forward."First of all," Fisher explains, "this did not help the acoustics. There was a tremendous echo there to start with, which they tried to rectify. And to get rid of that they had to put absorbent material in there.

"From the visual point of view of the audience, it was the best hall in the world. But they paid a terrible price for it. And there are other things wrong with that place that the public wasn't aware of. The fresh-air intake was right above the 65th Street bus stop with all the diesel fumes. The aisle arrangement — if you wanted to go out during the intermission, by the time you got to the back door, the bell was ringing to your seat. We're gonna have four aisles, not three." As for all seats facing forward, that's out, too. "There's no problem being in a concert hall with your body facing one way and watching what's going on there. That's why God gave us a jointed neck."

The hall is supposed to be completed on schedule, next month. At present, Fisher is spending lots of time visiting the site — one of his prized possessions is a hard hat which bears the name of the project: Avery Fisher. It fits him like a glove, of course.

But he insists that the artists' awards are much closer to his heart. The money from the Avery Fisher Artist Program, he explains, goes to "talented young artists who are ready for a major career but haven't had the exposure. [They] are given an opportunity through these awards to launch their careers. They get $5000 apiece and they get appearances all over New York and with a half-dozen orchestras in the rest of the United States. Appearances with the Chamber Music Society. A solo appearance in Fisher Hall."

Fisher said he made the endowment in recognition "that that money came from somewhere and that somewhere was the music universe, and nobody else. People who love music and bought my equipment and helped me economically in the grand manner in which they did it. I owed them something.

"I also owed something to the source. When you had a phonograph record, at some point you had to have real live musicians playing what was on that record. I owed something to that segment of the civilization, as it were. And so I decided to take a substantial portion of what I had gotten for my company and give it back, as it were."

If this begins to seem like guilt money, it is also very close to what Fisher regards as the main consideration of Fisher his life's work: the maintenance of high standards of quality. It is the reason why he is so adamant when asked about mass production. "We never went to mass production. Never. Not all the time that I was there. The nearest thing to mass production was the use of solder baths and printed circuit boards. We went to that not merely for efficiency — it was efficient — but because of the quality.

"But we always had 100% inspection of our equipment. We never sampled as the mass producers did, taking one out of every five or one out of every 100. Every one was tested totally.

"The quality was absolutely a religion with us, always. I still run into people who tell me, 'I have one of your sets that I bought in 1940 and it's still working. I put in a new record changer because of LPs, but I have it in my den and it sounds great.'

"I say quality. I really mean integrity. If some fellow wrote in and needed a knob for his set, we didn't send him a knob and a bill, we just sent him another knob. To this day, we have parts for sets that we made in the last 30 years. Now that's quite an investment on our part, but it's all tied in with being faithful to the people who bought our equipment."

This is a little hard to take. Certainly, such statements in our time come only from press agents and outmoded old men. And, in fact, Fisher is far enough from the center of the electronics world today to spend a good deal of time inquiring about portable cassette recorders. He says that's because his son needs to buy one, but it's clear that he's also fascinated by the elegance of a tiny Sony, its capacity for reproducing sound which is as good or better in quality than anything available before Fisher began seeking to improve it and helping to spawn a major American industry.

One's cynicism recedes further after the tape is finally snapped off a couple of hours later. Fisher offers the reporte a ride down-town and they head out into the rainy Manhattan street. In the street, he begins to seem his age at last — he walks with no great assurance, and he complains bitterly of the tiny cabs that have been introduced in the past decade. But there're still some final bits of reminiscence in him this morning as he turns and gives the writer a sharp look.

"You know," he says, "I've been awfully lucky. My whole life has been devoted to giving people pleasure."