Billy Gladstone: Legendary Percussionist, Innovative Inventor, and Gretsch Drum Ambassador.
Gretsch’s first endorsement superstar, Billy Gladstone, was a rare musical “triple threat.” Not only was Gladstone one of the most respected percussionists of his era (many say the best snare drum player who ever lived), he was also a creative inventor with over 20 U.S. patents to his name, as well as a respected instrument builder.
Born in Rumania on December 15, 1892 into a musical family, Gladstone’s English-born father supervised Rumania’s Government Band. At age seven, Gladstone joined his father’s band more for comedic purposes than for his musicianship. Although the little Gladstone drew laughs on stage struggling to play a big baritone horn, over time he learned to master the horn and other brass instruments as well.
When Gladstone was 12 his family emigrated from Rumania to the United States. Due to a clerical error at Ellis Island, his last name Goldstein (he was born William David Goldstein) was misspelled as Gladstone, and he adopted his new last name. As a teenager, Gladstone took a job at a large New York City department store because of their stellar drum and bugle corps. Although he joined as a bugler, the corps desperately needed drummers so Gladstone decided to try his hand at drumming. The quick learner soon mastered the drum and in no time became the teenage drumming star of the drum and bugle corps.
As a young adult, Gladstone made a name for himself in New York City as a professional orchestra musician on Broadway. Gladstone’s dream of playing symphonic music was granted when conductor Erno Rapee’ hired him as a percussionist in his Capital Theatre Orchestra on Broadway when the theatre opened in 1919.
In the early 1920s Gladstone first demonstrated his ingenuity and talent for improving drums and percussion instruments. Gladstone invented a double-action bass drum pedal enabling a player to strike both the bass drum and mounted cymbal. He was awarded his first of many U.S. Patents. In 1926 Gladstone designed and patented a collapsible snare drum stand. Gladstone’s first break came in 1927 when he was awarded a patent for a hand-held mechanical cymbal playing device named the Hand Sock Cymbal. His invention caught the attention of Leedy, a prominent drum manufacturer that marketed the cymbals in their 1928 catalog and signed Gladstone to his first endorsement deal.
1932 was an important year in Gladstone’s career. The legendary Radio City Music Hall opened in New York City and Gladstone’s friend, conductor Erno Rapee’, was hired as Musical Director. Rapee’ assembled 75 of the city’s finest musicians for his orchestra and hired Gladstone to perform on the most famous, elaborate, and best-equipped stage in the world.
Gladstone became a legend with the Radio City Music Hall Symphony Orchestra. A dapper, flamboyant performer who used high sticking and body movements to great effect, Gladstone was the only musician capable of drawing attention away from the famous Radio City Music Hall Rockettes performing on stage. Gladstone’s amazing snare drum technique, control, and speed earned him recognition by his peers and fellow musicians as the world’s best snare drum player.
Radio City Music Hall quickly became Gladstone’s life. He met and married a Rockette, Dorothy Frank, and their whole life evolved around performing at the Music Hall. With multiple shows including matinees, the Gladstone’s routinely put in ten-hour days at the Music Hall.
1937 was also a very important year for both Gladstone and the Gretsch Company. Recognizing his value as a musician, inventor, and highly visible performer, Gretsch approached Gladstone in 1937 with an endorsement and partnership offer for a new line of professional drums. Gladstone agreed and left his Leedy endorsement to join America’s oldest and most innovative drum factory. Gladstone liked Gretsch’s die cast hoops and their lightweight, stronger 3-ply drum shells. He especially liked the lack of reinforcement rings making for a completely smooth drum inside.
The revolutionary new Gretsch-Gladstone snare drum was introduced at the 1937 Music Trade Convention in New York City in September and caused quite a stir. Many of Gladstone’s patented inventions were featured on the new drum line including 3-way tension tuning, an ingenious device that made tuning faster and easier since both top and bottom drum heads could be tuned from the top lug. Gladstone’s throw-off snare control (activated by the tap of a drumstick) and fingertip tone regulator inventions were also standard equipment on these new drums.
One should not underestimate the impact the Gretsch-Gladstone partnership had across the music industry. Professional drummers quickly realized the Gretsch-Gladstone drum was the finest drum being manufactured in America. Despite a high cost of $100 (one month’s salary for most people in the late 1930s and two to three times as expensive as competitor drums), many of the best drummers of the day lined up to buy a new Gretsch-Gladstone drum.
In addition to Gladstone playing his new drum at Radio City Music Hall, other highly visible drummers playing Gretsch-Gladstone drums included Nick Fatool of Benny Goodman’s top-rated swing band, Papa Jo Jones of the Count Basie Band, and Shelly Manne of Stan Kenton’s Band. Perhaps the hippest, most famous Gretsch-Gladstone endorser of the late 1930s was big band legend Chick Webb, dubbed “The King of the Drums” by his peers.
Along with Gretsch advertising and publicity, Gladstone also received his own share of press coverage and publicity during this time. The dapper Gladstone was featured on the cover of The Metronome magazine in 1938 proudly playing his Gretsch-Gladstone snare while superimposed over the Radio City Music Hall stage and orchestra.
1937-1942 were the true golden years for both Gretsch and Billy Gladstone and their industry-leading line of drums. During the four years of World War II, production of Gretsch-Gladstone drums had to be ceased due to their high metal content. After the war, Gretsch-Gladstone production resumed but the drum line-and relationship-were never quite the same. Gretsch discontinued the 3-way tension tuning Gretsch-Gladstone drum and only offered the standard 2-way drum. Gretsch also began using 4-ply and 6-ply laminated drum shells over Gladstone’s preferred 3-ply shell.
Although Gretsch had abandoned the Gretsch-Gladstone 3-way tuning drum after World War II, Gladstone still believed there was a market for the drum. He also believed in Gretsch’s superior drum shells and die cast hoops. In 1949 Gladstone set up shop from his New York City apartment and began building his own line of custom snare drums with die cast hoops and 3-ply shells provided from Gretsch.
Gladstone’s custom drum business became his passion during the 1950s and focused attention away from several personal difficulties including the death of his beloved wife Dorothy and the ending of his long-standing job with the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra. Word quickly spread about the quality of Gladstone’s custom snare drums and many of the top drummers of the 1950s including Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Sticks McDonald, Louie Bellson, and Stanley Koor placed orders and played their Gladstone snare drums on stage and in recording studios.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Gladstone split his time between his custom drum business and being an orchestra percussionist for several Broadway musicals including My Fair Lady. Unfortunately cancer was discovered during a routine operation in August 1961 and Gladstone died several months later at the age of 68.
The legacy of Billy Gladstone continues to build today and Gretsch will fortunately be forever linked to this unique musical genius, master drummer, and inventor. The quality and innovation of Gretsch-Gladstone drums and Gladstone’s custom snare drums have stood the test of time for over 70 years and are among the most prized and collectable vintage drums in the world today.