Fond memories of February 1964 and how The Beatles forever changed the Gretsch Company
By Fred Gretsch
**SPECIAL UPDATE** Fred Gretsch’s recent interview with Lindsay Lowe of Parade Magazine now posted!!
I remember February 9, 1964, vividly. I was a teenager living in the New York City area and for weeks, all the great AM rock ‘n’ roll radio stations like WABC with Cousin Brucie and WINS with Murry the K had been shouting “The Beatles Are Coming!” and saturating the airwaves with Beatles music. Their single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” had just reached #1.
Yes, The Beatles were making their American debut in New York–still the center of the music world–and would be performing live on America’s top show for showcasing new talent: The Ed Sullivan Show. I couldn’t wait. Local media were in a frenzy and the city was abuzz in anticipation of seeing and hearing these four lads from Liverpool.
Like millions of teenagers, I watched The Beatles with my family (my three sisters, in fact) on the black and white TV set in the living room of our Forest Hills, NY home. The home my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr., had built in 1916. The Beatles opened and closed the show and performed five songs live. Seventy-three million viewers also tuned in to see what the excitement was all about. The Beatles didn’t disappoint. In fact, they knocked it out of the park.
Even on a small black and white TV screen, The Beatles didn’t look or sound like any other rock ‘n’ roll group. They were cool in so many ways, but the coolest part for me was that George, the one in the middle, played a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar. I was really proud of that.
As you know, the world of music literally changed overnight as did the fortunes of the Gretsch Company. The day following The Beatles’ performance on the Sullivan show, the guitar boom of the 1960s officially started. We were flooded with orders, letters, and catalog requests – even people wanting to tour our relatively small factory. Like other musical instrument makers, we were not prepared for the British Invasion.
When I joined the Gretsch Company full time in 1965, I saw the impact Beatlemania was still having firsthand. We could barely keep up with the demand for guitars and drums and at one time there was a six-month waiting period. Six months! The two guitars George Harrison played at the time – the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman and Tennessean models – were especially popular. We even moved drum production out of the Gretsch factory to a building a Gretsch cousin owned several blocks away in order to expand guitar production. Without a doubt, the mid-60s were busy and exciting times at Gretsch.
George Harrison was a lifelong fan of Gretsch guitars. Chet Atkins was a huge influence on him and was the reason George purchased a Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar in 1963. George had been playing a ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet up to that time. He bought his black Duo Jet used in 1960 from a Liverpool sailor who had purchased it at New York’s legendary Manny’s Guitar Shop. Since my summer job was helping deliver Gretsch guitars to area music stores, I probably delivered George’s Duo Jet to Manny’s. According to George, it was his sentimental favorite guitar because it was his first American guitar and his first good guitar.
Dinah and I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know George in the late 80s. Dinah wrote George a thank you letter for showing his ’57 Duo Jet on his Cloud Nine album. Two weeks later he called her to thank her for the letter, told her how much he loved Gretsch guitars, and talked about the Traveling Wilburys project he was working on with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. George even invited us to a recording session at Dave Stewart’s home studio and showed us the 20 vintage Gretsch guitars they were using on the album. He also wanted to share an idea for a special Traveling Wilburys guitar. We liked George’s idea and introduced the special-edition Traveling Wilburys TW-500 guitar a year later.
Looking back, I have fond memories of February 1964, The Beatles, and George Harrison. Next to Chet Atkins, George was the other guitar superstar that helped put Gretsch on the map and changed our company forever. The Beatles’ debut led to the formation of countless new rock n’ roll groups. Fortunately for us, and thanks to George Harrison, these new groups also wanted instruments like The Beatles played. I’m grateful George was a Gretsch guy.
Fifty years later, improved versions of George’s favorite classic Gretsch guitar models are available and remain as popular as ever. In 2064, I’m sure we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival to the U.S. I’m also sure a sixth generation family member will be running the business my great-grandfather started in 1883 and offering even better versions of Gretsch Country Gentleman, Tennessean, and Duo Jet guitars. Long live The Beatles. And long live rock ‘n’ roll!