Phil Grant: Gretsch’s Greatest Percussion Innovator, Drum Salesman, and Ambassador.
Phil Grant was the “complete package” during his 26-year career with Gretsch that spanned from 1946 to 1972. A superb percussionist, Phil is considered by many as the Gretsch Company’s finest drum salesman, inventor, innovator, drum ambassador, and company friend to countless musicians. Grant literally redefined the Artist Relations role within the music industry and led Gretsch drums through a “Golden Era” in the late 1940’s through the 1960’s.
Master Percussionist and Brilliant Drummer Born Philip Osborne Grant in 1914 to naturally gifted musical parents, Phil attended Penn State and graduated in 1935 with a degree in music education. Upon hearing him play, the Juilliard Conservatory offered Phil a postgraduate scholarship to study the timpani. Grant was a master percussionist and could play any part on any percussion instrument (including the mechanical wind machine he played during performances of “The Flying Dutchman Overture.”) Phil played for the Pittsburgh Symphony during the winter season and for the Goldman Band in New York during the summer. He was such an accomplished musician that he made it a personal policy to never audition for a job.
After serving in the Navy in World War II, Phil and his wife Tony contributed to the Baby Boomer generation by having twin boys. This new responsibility also led Phil to the realization that he needed a more permanent job with a steadier income. Bill Gretsch, who guided the Gretsch Company from 1942 until his untimely death in 1948, hired the 32-year-old musician and aspiring executive to head the promotions and sales of the drum department.
Drum Innovator and Artist Relations Pioneer Throughout his career, Phil introduced a number of good ideas and innovative products including the all height (shell mount) cymbal holder, the snap-in drum key, and his most famous idea, the disappearing bass drum spur. Plus, he had the reputation for bringing artist’s dreams to reality when other drum companies weren’t interested. In 1947, Phil brought to life Louie Bellson’s idea of the first double bass drum set with multiple tom toms, and helped Davey Tough build a downsized 20-inch bass drum when other manufacturers said it was impossible. He also helped Max Roach develop his narrower signature model Broadkaster snare drum that only measured 4 inches deep.
Without a doubt, Phil Grant’s greatest gift and contribution was in the role of artist relations. Phil put Gretsch on the map as the hip and innovative drum of choice for a generation of jazz, swing, bebop, and rock drummers. With a natural ability to spot talent, he impressed and influenced many of the era’s top drummers-Max Roach, Art Blakey, Mel Lewis, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Jimmy Cobb just to name a few-and successfully lured them away from other brands to play Gretsch drums. At one time, eight of the top ten drummers in the country endorsed Gretsch drums, thanks in large part to Phil Grant.
Gretsch Drum Nights at Birdland Phil had the musical credibility plus the down-to-earth, likeable personality to create a unique, close-knit “family” feel with Gretsch artists. Many considered Phil one of their best friends and the Grant family welcomed these great musicians into their Long Island home on many occasions. Like a good friend, Phil made the effort to know where his Gretsch drummers were playing in the New York area so he could go and hear them play. In fact, he often commuted into the Gretsch Brooklyn office from Long Island by bus on Fridays so he could check out the New York jazz clubs on Friday nights.
From the late 1950’s through early 1960’s, Phil was instrumental in aligning Gretsch with the famed Birdland Club, the hottest and hippest jazz spot in New York City. Phil suggested having a “drum night” and the event proved to be a major success. In fact, the second “Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland” was recorded and released by Roulette Records. This album is considered a jazz classic and featured legendary Gretsch drummers Art Blakey, Charli Persip, Elvin Jones, and Philly Joe Jones.
After the 1967 merger with Baldwin, Phil stayed with Gretsch for five years then retired from the music business altogether. He moved to Vermont and opened a general store, Grant’s Village Store, in Middleton Springs. Phil passed away on July 19, 2002 at the age of 87. Recently his sons, James and R. Webster, established the Philip Osborne Grant Scholarship for percussion students at the Juilliard Conservatory.
In retrospect, Phil Grant was the right man in the right place at the right time for Gretsch drums and the jazz, swing, and bebop music scene of the late 1940’s through the 1960’s. His talent, creativity, eye for spotting young talent, and ability to lure the brightest and best drummers over to Gretsch for over twenty years were impressive accomplishments. Along with Duke Kramer, Phil played a critical role in the success of spreading “That Great Gretsch Sound” to generations of musicians around the world.