Glendale Heights-based Morley marks 50 years of rocking the music industry
It was 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent their summer on an out-of-this-world adventure. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were jamming with a bunch of friends on an upstate New York farm.
And in Southern California, brothers Marv and Ray Lebow finally got serious about turning their TV-radio repair business into a manufacturer of compact speakers and guitar effect devices.
Ray was fascinated by the unique sound of the Leslie speaker system used on instruments like the Hammond B3 organ. He created a compact Leslie simulator which, the story goes, sparked the company's new name, "Morley" -- a play on the words less is more (think "Leslie/Morley").
Fast forward 50 years, and Morley's guitar pedals and effects devices continue to make the company a big player in the music industry. The company is now in Glendale Heights, where a small but dedicated staff still hand-build products from guitar wah and volume pedals to switch and distortion boxes. The company's list of customers includes music legends like Al Di Meola, Bootsy Collins, Adam Levine and Brian Setzer.
Morley pedals are renowned because they are "built like a tank and last forever," said Sales/Marketing Manager Bill Wenzloff, who has been with the Morley brand since 1989.
Wenzloff said he often hears stories of the pedal's durability from professional musicians, highlighting a recent encounter with Twisted Sister's Eddie Ojedia at a recent conference.
"He said, 'I got this Morley thing, and it just won't break. I've broken a bunch of others, but I've had this for 35 years,'" Wenzloff said. "We hear those stories all the time and that is not unusual."
A long, strange trip
You could say the company's history mirrors its products -- innovative and indestructible.
Morley's journey from California to the suburbs involves a number of acquisitions and opportunities. The Lebow brothers ran Morley from its inception until 1989, when it sold the brand to Sound Enhancement Products -- itself an offshoot of the Hammond Organ Co., according to Morley's website.
In 1990, the company moved its Morley and Reverb divisions from Hollywood, California, to Cary, and a year later the divisions became one entity, Sound Enhancements, Inc. Sound Enhancements was acquired by the Stainless Industrial Co. in 1999, and six years later it became an independent company under the name Sound Enhancement Products.
In January 2014, Sound Enhancement Products was acquired by Niles-based Geo T. Schmidt Corp., and two years later Schmidt sold it to M-Wave International of Glendale Heights. M-Wave renamed the company Sound Enhancement, which includes the Morley and Ebtech brands.
Morley's current owner and Managing Partner Scott Fietsam points out M-Wave's acquisition in 2016 was a critical juncture for the brand, as the previous owners had no sales or development devoted to the product. While the brand was still well-known, sales were flat, he said.
"You've got this famous, legacy product line that was owned by a company that really wasn't paying attention to them," Fietsam said. "When you're not reinvesting in the company and not doing all the things you need to do for sales, you lose momentum and numbers are ticking down."
He said the company immediately focused on rebuilding its sales and distribution channels, connecting with sales partners and expanding its presence at trade shows. The results paid off, as sales have increased 30% year over year, according to Fietsam.
"What we're doing is what everyone is telling us we need to do," he said. "We'd take our ideas out to our main sellers -- people who are a lot smarter than us and are selling to the public."
Listen to the music
Morley's philosophy is focused on meeting the needs of musicians, and many of its innovations come through feedback from guitar players who use the company's products in the field.
"All of our pedals -- and this goes back to the original brothers -- have features in them that solve problems that our competition haven't solved yet," Wenzloff said.
One of the pedal's unique features is the electric-optical circuitry that replaces mechanical switches. The optics don't wear over time, Wenzloff said, which is one of the reason for the products' longevity.
Ironically, one of Morley's best innovations came close to an early death. Wenzloff said the company developed a switchless pedal in 1992, which replaced switches with optical technology entirely controlled by the pedal plate. When it was first released, "the reviews were generally negative," he said.
They were about to drop the product when Steve Vai, a guitarist who played with Frank Zappa's band and recorded with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, became a big fan of the device.
"Once he got on board as an endorser, all of the sudden it was the thing," Wenzloff said. "Now 100% of our pedals are switchless. It evaded us for a second that we would have never made another one of these models."
It also helps that the company's management team is comprised of musicians.
"We're all players," Wenzloff said. "This company is owned and run by guitar and bass players. We're all in the business and we know."
While Morley's reputation has maintained its loyalty among customers, it continues to redefine itself. This year, the company launched its 20/20 line of wah and volume pedals. Fietsam said the new line reduces the number of available products from 65 to 24 and focuses on innovations based on customer feedback.
"We distilled our line down to the best of the best," Fietsam said.
Wenzloff added, "the challenge has been trying to be a legacy company but trying to reinvent yourself and not rest on your history." To that end, Morley continues to support and work with a wide array of musicians to get feedback as well as promote its brand.
"Our product goes across all the genres of music and all levels of players, from guys who are playing on YouTube all the way up to guys who are playing stadiums," said Sales and Marketing Associate Pete Fenech. "The guitar is so ingrained in American culture that it's not going away."
Fietsam noted the key to the company's recent success lies in listening to what the customers and suppliers are saying and making innovations based on those suggestions. It's a mantra that gets to the mission of the company.
"Our slogan is, 'Guaranteed to make you sound better and feel better,'" Fietsam said. "It's one thing to have a product that sounds good and lasts a long time, but if I can take away worries that a musician has on stage about things you would otherwise be concerned about ... you're going to feel better on stage and get your best stage performance.
"Life is short, so you've got to have fun."