Posts Tagged ‘Duke Kramer’

Remembering Bill and Sylvia Gretsch

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

A Tribute To A Remarkable Couple

By Fred W. Gretsch

September is an especially significant month in my family’s history. September 10 is the date on which my father, William “Bill” Gretsch passed away in 1948. And September 14th is the anniversary of my mother Sylvia’s birth in 1917. Both of these remarkable individuals played a major role not only in my life, but also in the legacy of the Gretsch Company.

Gretsch has always been a family business. My great-grandfather, Friedrich Gretsch, founded the company in 1883. Upon his sudden passing in 1885 his son, Fred Gretsch Sr., took over–at the age of fifteen along with his mother, Rosa. Fred Sr. brought his sons Fred Jr. and William into the business when they each turned ten years of age—around 1915 and 1916, respectively. (A third brother, Dick Gretsch, did not join the business and lived until the age of 102 and influenced the business as the best Gretsch cheerleader of all time.) Fred Jr. and Bill started at the bottom, of course, packing phonograph needles in boxes on the weekends, 100 years ago now.

By 1933 my father was a young man looking to make his mark in the music business that his grandfather had started and his father was now running. Thinking that that the company’s office in Chicago offered more room for his younger son’s energies than did the staid headquarters in Brooklyn, Fred Sr. transferred Bill to Chicago. Two years later, he met Maxine Lois Elsner.

My mother was a bright and ambitious person in her own right. In 1935 she filled out a questionnaire upon entering Northwestern University, outlining her plans for the future: “When ten years old, I started taking lessons in dramatics. From then until now I have studied speech with the idea of making it my career. I chose Northwestern University because of its superior speech division and its radio courses. When I finish college I plan to do both writing and speaking for radio.”

Perhaps it was Maxine’s insistence about pursuing her career that attracted Bill. When they first met he was not himself interested in getting married. So the couple dated for two years—largely by telegram correspondence, since Maxine was at Northwestern and Bill was in Chicago. During this period Bill gave Maxine the pet name of “Sylvia”—a name by which she became known to friends and family thereafter.

Bill and Sylvia on July 12, 1940

My mother graduated from Northwestern University on June 10, 1939, with a Bachelor of Science degree in speech. After a brief tenure as a high school speech teacher in Webb City, Missouri, in June of 1941 she became a copy writer at radio station KWFT in Wichita Falls, Texas. By October of that year she had taken a job as editor of Western Hotel and Restaurant Reporter, the west’s oldest hotel magazine.

But by this time my father had had enough of job-related separation from Sylvia. So around the time of his birthday in 1942 he called her on the phone, telling her, “You know what I want for my birthday? I want you.” The two were married in California, Missouri, on December 14, 1942—the day after my father’s birthday.

In that same year my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr., retired from the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company. My uncle, Fred Jr., became president in New York, while my father ran the company’s office in Chicago. But America had just entered World War II, and shortly thereafter my uncle left to serve in the navy. So my father moved his family to New York, where he took over as president of Gretsch.

My father brought the Gretsch Company into the war effort with enthusiasm. Under his supervision Gretsch made thousands of “entertainment kits” for the Red Cross to ship to servicemen overseas. Those kits included harmonicas, ukuleles, and ocarinas. The factory also manufactured non-musical war-related products, including wooden parts for gas masks.

According to Duke Kramer, who served as a Gretsch executive for almost seventy years, “Bill was a man with a subtle talent for inspiring people to do their best . . . and [he had] a genius for constructive counsel. His sense of humor was irresistible. When he passed away in 1948, a legion of individuals felt they had lost their best friend.”

Bill Gretsch and his family, the Christmas before his passing. (I'm the smiling youngster in the center.)

Of course, when my father passed away my mother lost more than her best friend. She lost her husband and the father of her four small children (my sisters—Katherine, Charlotte, and Gretchen—and me). In February of 1950 my mother started working for the Gretsch Company on various projects. The first was an editorial for a music publication, which she wrote on behalf of Fred Gretsch Jr. She also worked on a guitar booklet and a manual for retailers.

A Gretsch Family Portrait. From left Dick, Bill, Bill's wife Sylvia, Fred Sr., and Fred Jr.

With the support of the extended Gretsch family—including my grandfather, my uncle, and their respective families—this extraordinary woman provided a loving and nurturing environment that allowed my sisters and me to pursue our dreams through childhood and into our adult years.

One of my personal dreams was to bring the Gretsch Company back into family ownership after it was sold to the Baldwin Company in 1967. In 1984 I was able to realize that dream—largely through the inspiration I received from the examples of my father and my mother. That, in turn, led me to consider how I might best honor their memories.

Fred Gretsch with University of Michigan Tribute Marching Drum

Throughout the decades in which my father worked at Gretsch—the 1920s, 30s, and 40s—jazz and big band music were the popular styles of the day. But there were also marching bands, concert bands, and other musical organizations, many of which were connected to schools and other educational institutions. My father was a strong believer in the value of music education. In 1946 he personally established a scholarship for a talented clarinet player at the University of Michigan. (In the mid-1950s a complete set of marching drums, finished in the school’s colors, was donated to the Michigan band by the Gretsch Company in honor of my father.)

Since a focus on music education was a large part of my father’s business philosophy, it seemed to me only fitting to memorialize him and my mother in a way that would support that philosophy. With that in mind, several years ago my wife Dinah and I established the Sylvia and William Gretsch Memorial Foundation. Its mission is to provide financial support for projects that promote music education in a variety of ways.

One of those projects was the construction of the Sylvia and William Gretsch memorial recording studio at Elmhurst College (my own alma mater) near Chicago. This studio is a central element of the extensive music-education program offered at Elmhurst.

More recently, the foundation provided a grant for a five-year program at Georgia Southern University, partnering with the Boys & Girls Club of Bullock County (Georgia). In this program, GSU students studying to become music teachers actually serve as teachers for children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to receive music lessons.

I think of my father and mother every day. Their lives revolved around music, as does mine. It’s simply a Gretsch family tradition, and it’s one that I’m proud to be a part of.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.



The Gretsch Duo Jet: Still Rockin’ at 60

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

By Fred Gretsch

In January 1951, Gretsch let the music world know it was a serious contender in the quickly evolving electric guitar business when it introduced the Electromatic and Electro II models at a three-day promotional show at New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel.

Meanwhile, on the west coast in Fullerton, California, the Fender Company was manufacturing a groundbreaking concept: a solid body electric guitar with a bolt-on neck. A year later in 1952, my uncle and Gretsch president Fred Gretsch Jr., was more than surprised when rival Gibson introduced the Les Paul “Gold Top” solid body electric guitar.

Seeing the sales success of these new, untraditional guitars, my uncle realized solid body guitars were more than a passing fad. He assembled his guitar brain trust of Jimmie Webster, Duke Kramer, and Phil Grant and the team worked diligently to develop the Gretsch Duo Jet, one of the most desired guitars of the 1950s that’s still going strong 60 years later.

Introduced in 1953, the Duo Jet had a cool name (“Duo” for its two Dynasonic pickups and “Jet” which reflected the most advanced aircraft technology of the day) to go along with its cool, elegant looks and great sound.

The single-cutaway Duo Jet featured a gleaming black arched top — some made from Nitron plastic drum material — with mahogany sides, back and neck. Other Gretsch firsts included truss rod adjustments through the headstock (concealed with a bullet-shaped cover), a master volume control knob on the cutaway, and a pickup selection switch. With two DeArmond Dynasonic pickups, a Melita Synchro-Sonic bridge, chrome hardware, white and black binding, and hump block inlays, the Duo Jet’s upscale black and chrome look was simply stunning.

It also lived up to its “Great Gretsch Sound” reputation thanks to the Duo Jet’s unique construction. Although it looked like a solid body, the inside was actually chambered to allow for wiring and components and to make the Duo Jet lighter and more comfortable to play. This “semi-solid” approach also gave the Duo Jet a unique sound that ranged from jangly and twangy to smooth and mellow. A perfect guitar for playing country and western, pop, and jazz music in 1953, as well as rock ‘n’ roll which was about to explode onto the music scene.

Some of the most influential guitarists who played early Duo Jets were Hank Garland, rockabilly great Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, and the Beatles’ George Harrison. George’s ’57 Duo Jet was his sentimental favorite and he described it as his first “good guitar” when he bought it used in 1960. It’s unique tone shaped the sound and energy of the Beatles’ early recordings. We honored George’s famous ’57 Duo Jet in 2011 with a limited edition Custom Shop Tribute Duo Jet.

The popularity of the Duo Jet continues to ascend to new heights. From legends like Jeff Beck and David Gilmour, to some of today’s hottest players like Nick 13 and Alex Trimble, there’s no slowing down the Duo Jet Express. In fact, we offer more than 20 models including the George Harrison and Malcolm Young Signature models, Jet Firebirds, Silver Jets and Sparkle Jets.

In retrospect, it’s been 60 years since my uncle and his talented team wrote an important chapter in the Gretsch Company’s guitar history book: creating and marketing a successful solid body electric guitar. One only has to look at the longevity and success of the Duo Jet — which has changed very little over 60 years — to know they found the right recipe within the walls of the Gretsch Factory at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn way back in 1953.



Gretsch at Carnegie Hall: Capturing a Moment In Time

Friday, August 30th, 2013

By Fred Gretsch

It’s said that every picture tells a story. Well, there are a multitude of stories connected with the historic picture that accompanies this article. The occasion, the setting, and many of the individuals depicted in the photo all have fascinating histories associated with them.

Let’s start with the occasion. The photo was taken December 29, 1945—just a few months after the end of the Second World War. The management team of the Fred Gretsch Musical Instrument Company had gathered in Brooklyn to set a course for the second half of the 20th century. Their decision: Go full speed ahead with professional instruments.

To commemorate their decision the team traveled across the East River to Manhattan. There they planned to join with some of the leading drummers and percussionists of the day for a photo to be taken with a selection of Gretsch drums.

Of course, such a historic photo called for an equally historic location, which brings us to the setting. The sheer number of people to be included in the photo called for a sizeable area. The fact that notable musicians were to be involved called for a musical venue. So it made sense to hold the photo session on the stage of a concert hall. And what New York City concert hall could be more famous—or more respected—than Carnegie Hall?

Aside from its own legendary musical history, Carnegie Hall had a special attraction for the Gretsch team. Directly across the street was Steinway Hall, which was the headquarters of another venerable family-owned music business—and the two companies had much in common. In 1853 German immigrant Henry Engelhard Steinway founded Steinway & Sons in Manhattan. In 1883 German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch founded the Gretsch Company in Brooklyn. (Both companies are celebrating major anniversaries this year.)

That brings us to the people in the photo. Regrettably, the names of the gentlemen at the far left and far right have been lost to history. The others, starting from the second on the left, are: Saul Goodman, James Crawford, Mary McClanahan, Frank Kutak, Gus Helmecke, Art Neu, Viola Smith, Bernie Benson, Fred Gretsch Jr., Duke Kramer, Phil Grant, Richard Dickson, William Walter Gretsch, and Al Moffatt Sr.

Carnegie Hall Group Photo 1945

Following is just a bit of information about this fascinating group.


Saul Goodman was a legendary timpanist, teacher, and inventor. His career with the New York Philharmonic began on that very Carnegie Hall stage in 1926 and ended with his retirement some forty-six years later. In addition, Saul taught at the Julliard School of Music for over forty years, and his students went on to populate the percussion sections of the great orchestras of the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is also responsible for revolutionizing the design and construction of timpani, employing lighter metals that greatly reduced their weight. He also devised a chain tuning mechanism that made it easier to keep their harmonics in balance. Saul retired in 1972 and died in 1996 at the age of eighty-nine.


James “Jimmy” Crawford was the drummer of the popular Jimmie Lunceford big band for from 1928 to 1942. He was known for playing in a shuffle style based on keeping the beat in two, which became a key factor in establishing the unique Lunceford sound. In the 1950s Jimmie worked as a pit drummer on Broadway, and he also had an extensive recording career with such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Frankie Lane, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra.


Mary McClanahan was one of the first, if not the first, successful female drummers of the 1930s and 40s. She was certainly the first female drummer to be featured in an advertisement for Gretsch drums. The November 1939 edition of Metronome magazine carried a full-age ad that depicted Mary and read, “‘Charmed with the tone and beauty of my new Gretsch-Gladstone ensemble,’ says charming Mary McClanahan of Phil Spitalny’s ‘Hour of Charm’ All-Girl Orchestra.”

The Hour of Charm was a nationwide radio show. And while an all-girl orchestra was admittedly a novelty, the quality of the band was genuine, requiring equally genuine talent of its members. Mary McClanahan had to have chops in order to fill that chair. The Gretsch Company thought she did, because they not only featured her in magazine ads, they also included her on the cover of their 1941 catalog—alongside established stars “Papa” Jo Jones, Nick Fatool, Bernie Mattinson, and Alberto Calderon.


Frank Kutak was a noted New York City percussionist who played regularly in the orchestras for Broadway shows. Ironically, his most notable credit was for a show that was not, technically, a musical. It was the 1951 production of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, which featured a band of five musicians playing what was termed “incidental music.”


John Phillip Sousa’s famous band employed only three percussion players at any time during its entire existence: a snare drummer, a timpanist who also played bells and triangle, and a drummer who played bass drum and cymbals simultaneously. This was accomplished by attaching a cymbal to the top of the drum and playing on it with a hand-held cymbal. August “Gus” Helmecke, Jr. was Sousa’s favorite bass drummer, and he was highly regarded for the sounds he produced on bass drum and cymbals. He played with Sousa from 1915 to 1931, and was the highest-paid member of the band!


As part of the Gretsch team, Art was a salesman covering the Midwest region.


Viola Smith was another pioneering female drummer. Eighth in a line of ten children—she and all her siblings were encouraged to be musical by her father, who put together an orchestra consisting of the eight sisters. They played to acclaim in a restaurant/dance hall owned by her family in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin. By the time Viola was twelve the Smith Sisters were touring, and they quickly became a favorite on the RKO circuit.

From 1938 to 1941 Viola drummed in an all-female band called The Coquettes, appearing on the cover of Billboard magazine in 1940. In 1942 she joined (you guessed it) Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm Orchestra, where she remained until 1954. She became known as the “Female Gene Krupa” for the way she would hurl her drumstick onto her drum, then jump up in the air and catch it as it bounced. In the ensuing years Viola appeared in feature films, played percussion with the National Symphony Orchestra, and performed her own “Drum Concertos.” In the 1960s she moved to Broadway, where she was a member of the Kit Kat Club’s on-stage all-girl band in Cabaret.

On November 29, 2012 Viola celebrated her 100th birthday, and as of this writing she’s alive and well and happy to talk about drums with anyone who’s interested. Several clips of her are currently on YouTube.


Another member of the Gretsch team, Bernie handled sales in the New York City area.


Fred Gretsch Jr. became president of the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company when his father Fred Sr. retired in 1942. But shortly thereafter he turned the reins over to his younger brother, William Walter “Bill” Gretsch, and left to serve as an officer in the US Navy during the war. He accomplished that task with distinction, and he had only been home a short time when this photo was taken.

Following the untimely death of Bill Gretsch in 1948, Fred Jr. reassumed leadership of the company. He continued to oversee its expansion, guiding it through the golden era of jazz in the 1950s and into the rock explosion of the early 1960s.


Duke Kramer was the only person not actually named “Gretsch” who was nonetheless indelibly identified with the brand within the music industry. He joined the company as an instrument repairman in the Chicago office in 1935. He was shortly promoted to purchasing agent and later to traveling sales rep. After serving in the army during World War II, Duke returned to Gretsch as vice president in charge of Chicago operations. All in all, he was an integral part of Gretsch business operations for nearly seventy years.


In 1945 Bill Gretsch hired drum endorser Phil Grant to head the promotions and sales of the drum department, and to handle artist relations. From that time until he left the company in 1972 Phil’s contributions to Gretsch were varied and extensive. As a talented drummer himself he was sympathetic to the needs of Gretsch artists, and he traveled extensively as a clinician and product demonstrator. He was also an inventor, responsible for such Gretsch innovations as “Disappearing Drum Spurs,” the famous “Snap-In Drum Key,” and the “All Height [shell mount] Cymbal Holder.”


Richard was a drum builder employed at the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. (Special thanks go to his family for providing this photo.)


The younger son of Fred Gretsch Sr., “Bill” Gretsch held key positions in the family business from a young age. When his father retired in 1942 Bill was running the company’s sizeable and important Chicago office. He left that position and moved to Brooklyn to take over as president of the company when Fred Gretsch Jr. entered military service. Bill retained the title of president upon his brother’s return. The two brothers jointly guided the business until Bill’s untimely death in 1948 at the age of forty-four.

Duke Kramer said of Bill Gretsch: “Bill was a man with a subtle talent for inspiring people to do their best and a genius for constructive counsel. And his sense of humor was irresistible.”


Al was yet another member of the Gretsch sales team, covering the New England region.

Gretsch Then and Now

The unique photograph presented here—and all the back-story that goes with it—depicts just a single moment within the 130-year history of the company that bears my family name. Along with my wife Dinah I’m proud to represent the fourth generation of that family. (I’m the son of “Bill” Gretsch and the nephew of Fred Gretsch Jr.) Our daughter Lena, who represents the fifth generation, has been an essential part of the business for almost twenty years. And I’m pleased to report that many sixth-generation family members are pursuing educational tracks that will help them continue the family legacy for years to come.

For those interested in the complete history of the Gretsch Company and the Gretsch Family, be sure to check out Rob Cook’s forthcoming book on the subject. Rob’s reputation as a writer and researcher—as well as the promoter of America’s oldest and largest vintage and custom drum show—has established him as a key figure in the field of drum history. With the able assistance of John Sheridan, Rob has produced a comprehensive work that is sure to appeal to Gretsch fans everywhere.