Charles Kramer went by many nicknames, “Duke”, “The Silver Fox”, even “Mr. Guitar Man.” You could also call him “The Thread.” Duke Kramer was the thread, the constant connection that bridged eight decades of Gretsch musical history. Sadly, the World’s Gretsch Goodwill Ambassador for 70 years passed away five years ago last month.
In 1935, Bill Gretsch was managing the company’s Chicago Distribution office when he met a 19-year-old sax player who played the local clubs. Bill saw something special in the teenager and offered him a job polishing horns for $11 a week. Duke accepted the job and really never left the company. His career and involvement with Gretsch spanned an amazing 70 years.
At Gretsch, Duke practically did it all and saw it all. His duties over the years included being a purchasing agent, salesman, bookkeeper, general manager, plant manager, inventor, mentor, and trusted advisor to four of the five Gretsch presidents. Duke was also involved in the birth of “The Great Gretsch Sound” after World War II when the company decided to focus only on manufacturing high quality guitars and drums under the Gretsch brand. Duke witnessed and participated in many historical milestone events. He worked with Jimmie Webster and Chet Atkins to forever change the look and sound of guitars. He was instrumental in getting Gretsch drums into the hands of the best musicians in jazz and popular music.
In the fast-changing world of the music industry, Duke was a survivor. He was one of a handful of faithful Gretsch employees who survived the Baldwin acquisition in the late 1960s. He ran the Cincinnati office of the Gretsch Division until his retirement in 1980. When Baldwin was in bankruptcy in the early 80s, Duke was again brought in to run the Gretsch business and was key to arranging the sale back to the Gretsch family. Negotiations were successful and current president Fred W. Gretsch returned the company back to his family in January 1985. But Duke’s involvement didn’t stop there. He played a critical role in bringing Gretsch guitars back into production. Fifty years after he was hired by Fred’s father, Bill Gretsch, Duke Kramer was again on the road talking to musicians and instrument dealers assuring them that the “Great Gretsch Sound” would soon return.
Current president, Fred W. Gretsch, remembers Duke Kramer fondly stating “When I transferred to Chicago in 1969 to work in the Gretsch’s Elmhurst Illinois office, Duke was my boss. He was a great teacher, very hands on, a wonderful mentor.” Duke was a lifetime member of the Guitars & Accessories Manufacturing Association (GAMA) and was also heavily involved in the Music Distributors Association. Duke and his beloved wife, Fritzi, who passed away in April of this year, were married an amazing 62 years and had three children.
The Gretsch family owes a huge debt of gratitude to this tireless, dedicated, loyal friend who contributed so much to the company–and to the music industry as a whole. Duke’s keen insight, deep love of music, warm smile, and zest for living are sorely missed.