Posts Tagged ‘Fred Gretsch’

The Gretsch Building

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

The Birthplace of Silver Jets, White Falcons, Round Badges, and “That Great Gretsch Sound” Turns 100

By Fred Gretsch

The Gretsch Building circa 1916.

From the outside, the renovated Gretsch Building, now the home of luxury condos in the chic, trendy Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, looks like it could be a factory, an office building, or even a hospital.

The renovated Gretsch Building; home to 120 luxury condominiums.

And considering how today’s generation of Gretsch guitars and drums (played by young artists like guitarist Russell Marsden of Band of Skulls and drummer Ashton Irwin of 5 Seconds of Summer) can trace their origins and DNA to the seventh floor of this big, gray building, the hospital comparison isn’t too far off.

Today’s Williamsburg has been called the “new” Brooklyn and is one of the most popular, hippest places to live and work. It’s no surprise Brooklyn was recently named the #1 city in the nation for Millennials. The revived neighborhood is bustling with creative energy much like it was 100 years ago when factories, foundries, and the nearby waterfront energized Williamsburg and made it one of the largest and busiest industrial areas in the nation.

1916 Gretsch catalog cover featuring the new factory.

In 1916 my grandfather, Fred Gretsch, Sr., was 36 years old and had a bold vision of growing Gretsch into the largest music manufacturing company in America. (Remember, he was only 15 when he took over the family business after his father died unexpectedly in 1895.) Along with his mother Rosa and brother Walter, he took a leap of faith and oversaw the construction of a large 10-story factory that, at the time, was the biggest building in Williamsburg. You couldn’t miss it when you crossed the Williamsburg Bridge.

The factory was a source of pride for my grandfather and I believe the tall building with his family’s name on top motivated him to achieve his dream. Within a few years, Gretsch was recognized as the largest musical instrument manufacturing company in the nation. Catalogs from the 1920s and 1930s boast of “Nearly 3,000 Articles To Choose From,” and an image of the Gretsch Building adorned catalog covers and advertising for years.

1928 Gretsch Dealer Catalog promoting over 3,000 band and orchestra instruments.

While skilled Gretsch craftsmen built a wide range of drums and stringed instruments like banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, and guitars, other instruments were purchased and distributed from major instrument manufacturers. And, since the factory was only a few blocks from the East River waterfront, Gretsch imported many top-quality violins, accordions, brass instruments, harmonicas, and other instruments and accessories from Europe.

Even though it was 10-stories high, Gretsch didn’t occupy the entire building. The 20,000 square-foot seventh floor housed the main factory and administrative offices, while the machine shop and plating department took up half of the ninth floor. The basement was used primarily for storing drum hoops, parts and accessories. And while today’s condo residents relax, tan, and enjoy the skyline views from the rooftop terrace, Gretsch used the roof for business purposes: tanning hides for drumheads!

A student sheet music holder from the 1940s. Image courtesy of Ed Ball.

My grandfather was an entrepreneur and recognized the importance of real estate in building a solid business enterprise. Like the smaller factory on Fourth Street the Gretsch Building replaced, my grandfather rented valuable office space in the building to a wide range of businesses – from bookbinders and publishers to vacuum cleaner makers. One of the largest tenants was Robert Hall, a national retailer of men’s clothes.

After 57 successful years as president, my grandfather retired in 1942. My uncle, Fred Gretsch, Jr., became president but soon left the company to serve as a commander in the Navy during World War II. My father, Bill, then became president and guided Gretsch through the scaled-down production war years. Unfortunately, my father’s tenure was cut short due to illness and he passed away in 1948. When Fred Jr. resumed the leadership role, he led the company’s new focus on building professional drums and guitars and into Gretsch’s “Golden Era.”

The 50s and 60s were decades of explosive growth and success for Gretsch. The best jazz artists playing the New York clubs chose Gretsch Round Badge drums, and with advances in guitar electronics and amplification, Gretsch electric guitars were getting noticed.  The 50s saw the introduction of the Duo Jet, Silver Jet, White Falcon, White Penguin, Anniversary, Country Club, and many other models still offered today.  And, thanks to our landmark endorsement with Chet Atkins in 1954, the rollout of the classic line of Chet Atkins 6120, Country Gentleman, and Tennessean guitars.

I sometimes wonder if the people currently living on what used to be the seventh floor of the Gretsch Building are aware of all the musical history that happened there (and all of the stars and legends that walked those floors when they visited the factory). By far the biggest innovation and game changer for the music industry was my grandfather’s invention of the multi-ply drum lamination process that he patented in the 1920s. This revolutionary new method not only made construction faster, but also made drum shells and hoops lighter, stronger, and more perfectly round. It soon became the drum industry standard for manufacturing drums and – 90 years later – is still the method used today.

Several books have been written about the iconic and historic guitars and drums built within the walls of the Brooklyn factory. Some of the most important drums in my opinion are the groundbreaking Gretsch-Gladstone and Gretsch-American drums, the first double-bass drum set built for big-band star Louie Bellson, and the kits we made for drumming legends like Chick Webb, Charlie Watts, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Mel Lewis, Philly Joe Jones, and Chico Hamilton.

On the guitar side, Chet Atkins’ ’59 Country Gentleman he used on all of his records and George Harrison’s Duo Jet, Country Gentleman, and Tennessean guitars are probably the most famous Gretsch guitars built at the factory. But, you can’t overlook the Chet Atkins 6120 models made famous by Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, and Brian Setzer; the White Falcons played by Stephen Stills and Neil Young, or Billy’s Zoom’s trademark Silver Jet. By far, the most unusual guitar was the rectangular-shaped guitar Gretsch custom built for Bo Diddley in 1958.

I had the fortune of literally growing up in the Gretsch factory during its heyday of the 50s and 60s, and I started there full-time in the Industrial Engineering Department in 1965. But, things changed after my uncle sold Gretsch to the Baldwin Company in 1967. Within a few years, guitar and drum production moved from the Brooklyn factory to Arkansas. The sales office stayed in the building for several years, but by 1972, all Gretsch connections to the historic Brooklyn factory were gone.

The building remained mostly empty for several decades as the Williamsburg area experienced a cycle of decline, but by the 1990s, the area bounced back with a new infusion of galleries, clubs, music, art, and young people. Although our family still owned the Gretsch Building, we decided the time was right to sell it in 1999. Several years later, the old factory was the first condo conversion in the area, and more have followed in Williamsburg’s transformation and rebirth from an industrial area to a popular, desirable residential area.

Interior of a multi-million dollar loft apartment in the Gretsch Building. Photo courtesy of Corcoran Group Real Estate.

One hundred years later, I think my grandfather would be amazed at how the neighborhood has changed, and would be proud that the factory he and his family built in 1916 has survived and is still a vital part of the Williamsburg community. He would also be proud that we’re still making guitars and drums using the original recipes invented at his factory so many decades ago. It’s ironic that the building that made beautiful guitars and drums that looked like a million bucks, now has condos that sell for well over a million bucks. That’s left the Gretsch Building with a brand new pedigree for the next 100 years or more.

.

.

Guitar Legend Duane Eddy

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

How a simple introduction by a Beatle 25 years ago led to two Gretsch signature models, and a long friendship with “The King of Twang.”

By Fred W. Gretsch

Back in 1991, my wife Dinah and I attended a music trade show in London with friends from the Hohner Company, Gretsch’s distribution partner in the UK at the time. Hohner had created an impressive display to showcase the new line of Gretsch guitars we had just introduced. They even commissioned an artist to paint a 40-foot mural featuring several Gretsch guitar players and the Traveling Wilburys band.

When we arrived in London, we reached out to George Harrison and suggested getting together, and he responded that he would like to see us while we were in town. We had gotten to know George several years earlier after Dinah sent him a thank-you note for featuring his vintage ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet on the cover of his Cloud Nine album. That led to a call from George thanking Dinah for the note, chatting about guitars, and inviting us to a recording session to see the vintage Gretsch guitars being used for the upcoming Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 album. George was also involved in helping design the Gretsch Traveling Wilburys electric guitar.

London Mural 1991

Fred Gretsch, London 1991

You can imagine how surprised we were when a member of the trade show’s management team came to the Gretsch booth to say George was at the front door of the exhibition hall asking to see us. Dinah and I literally ran to the front door and happily arranged credentials for George and two friends he had brought along: Jeff Lynne and Duane Eddy.

It was the first time I had met Duane, who, like George, was a fan of the sound and looks of Gretsch guitars. He shared the story of the Chet Atkins 6120 model guitar he had bought at Ziggie’s Music in Phoenix back in 1957. It was the guitar he used on all of his “twangy” instrumental hits like “Rebel Rouser,” “Forty Miles of Bad Road,” and “Peter Gunn”, and he still performed and recorded with it 34 years later.

After meeting in London, I corresponded and stayed in touch with Duane for several years and shared my interest in offering a Gretsch Duane Eddy signature model. He was intrigued, met with me and our team at our Ridgeland, SC facility, and brought his original ’57 Gretsch along so we could measure and document the details of his iconic guitar.

In 1997, 40 years after purchasing his ’57 Chet Atkins 6120 guitar, Gretsch proudly introduced the G6120-DE Duane Eddy signature model. It was a reproduction of Duane’s famous ’57 6120 and was available in both a Western Orange finish and a cool-looking Ebony Burst finish that Duane suggested.

Duane and Ted McCarty, 1997

We kicked off the release of the new Duane Eddy 6120 at the 1997 Summer NAMM Show in Nashville. Gretsch sponsored a gala dinner that paid tribute to both Duane and guitar industry veteran and family friend, Ted McCarty. With Mr. McCarty getting the recognition he so rightfully deserved, and Duane and his band of Nashville session pros playing a rollicking hour-long set, it was a memorable night and one of the highlights of my 51-year career in the music business.

Today, Gretsch offers a second generation Duane Eddy signature model that is even closer to the sound and feel of the 6120 Duane purchased as a teenager nearly 60 years ago. So close, in fact, that Duane finally retired his ’57 6120 because he said his new signature model has the same sound and punch of his ’57 Gretsch, along with the slim-profiled neck he always liked on his original guitar. Duane worked very closely with Gretsch Custom Shop Master Builder Stephen Stern and his team to both faithfully reproduce Duane’s legendary ’57 6120, and add some modern improvements like trestle bracing and a new Tru-Arc rocking bar bridge for more “twang” and sustain. In Duane’s words, the current Duane Eddy model is the best of the old world and the new world.

Duane Eddy Performing at Fred Gretsch's 50th Anniversary Event in Brooklyn

Over the years, Duane and his wife, Deed, have become very dear friends to Dinah and me. We visit with them often and have seen him perform many times. He even performed at my Fiftieth Anniversary Bash in Brooklyn last year and appeared with me recently at a special event that kicked off the opening of the Bachman-Gretsch Collection Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

It’s always special to see Duane and enjoy his dry sense of humor, colorful stories, and, of course, his music. He is a true living legend and an original. Duane’s twangy guitar instrumentals sold millions of records, influenced thousands of young guitarists (like George Harrison) – and helped sell a lot of Gretsch guitars. It’s hard to put a price tag on all of that. It’s even harder to put a price tag on a friendship that has lasted more than 25 years. Thank you again, George, for introducing me to Duane Eddy “all those years ago.”

The Eddys and the Gretsches at the Bachman-Gretsch Collection Exhibit Opening, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, January 2016

To read an exclusive interview with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy where he shares stories about Gretsch guitars, his friendships with George Harrison and the Gretsch family, and his nearly 60-year music career, please visit http://www.gretsch.com/an-interview-with-duane-eddy

.

.

Seventy-five Vintage Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection Sparkle and Shine at Nashville Museum Exhibit

Monday, January 18th, 2016

A historical collection of vintage, rare, and one-of-a-kind Gretsch guitars is now on display at The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. The new exhibit, American Sound and Beauty: Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection, features 75 of the more than 300 Gretsch guitars amassed by Canadian musician Randy Bachman of The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive fame. It is the largest collection of guitars ever displayed at the Museum and marks the first time the public has seen a part of Bachman’s extensive Gretsch collection, considered the largest in the world. The Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, purchased the collection in 2008.

Several rare and one-of-a-kind vintage Gretsch guitars from the 1960s on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Photo by Ron Denny/The Gretsch Company.

Fred Gretsch, fourth generation Gretsch Company president, and wife Dinah, CFO and executive vice president, were joined by family, friends, and legendary musicians at a special preview and reception hosted by the Museum on Thursday night, January 14.

Gretsch President Fred Gretsch sharing remarks about the Bachman-Gretsch Collection. Ben Hall, Major Gifts Manager at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, holds the Gretsch Company’s 130th Anniversary history poster. Photo by Ron Denny/The Gretsch Company.

Gretsch shared that he never imagined a phone call made to Randy Bachman more than 30 years ago asking for his help would lead to this special exhibit. After buying back the family business from the Baldwin Company in 1984, Gretsch needed vintage Gretsch guitars to use as prototypes. “Randy was kind enough to share several of his guitars from his collection,” said Gretsch. “We are forever grateful for his assistance in helping launch that first generation of new Gretsch guitars.”

Gretsch also thinks “American Sound and Beauty” is an appropriate name for the exhibit. “The guitars on display are as American as it gets,” said Gretsch. “Most were built in Brooklyn, New York at The Gretsch Building, a building my grandfather Fred Gretsch Sr. constructed and opened 100 years ago in 1916.”

“These guitars also contributed their unique sound to the evolution of popular American music, including jazz, country, and of course, rock ‘n’ roll,” continued Gretsch, “Plus, Gretsch ushered in a new era of colorful and sparkly guitar finishes in the 1950s. The guitars on display are just beautiful and look like true works of art in the Museum.”

Gretsch closed his remarks at the reception by honoring Chet Atkins, the most important endorser of Gretsch electric guitars, and the musician that influenced a long list of artists including Duane Eddy, Paul Yandell, George Harrison, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Brian Setzer, Steve Wariner, Joe Robinson, Tommy Emmanuel, and Randy Bachman. (Fred Gretsch’s remarks in their entirety can be seen below.)

Steve Wariner Performs at Exhibit Opening Reception.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy followed Gretsch on the program and shared the important role Gretsch guitars had in developing his legendary “twangy” sound. Eddy bought his first Gretsch Chet Atkins Model 6120 in 1957, and Gretsch offers a current Duane Eddy Signature Model almost 60 years later. Country Music singer, songwriter, and guitarist Steve Wariner closed the program with a tasteful instrument tribute to his late friend and mentor, Chet Atkins.

During the exhibit’s opening weekend on Friday, January 15, and Saturday, January 16, Gretsch guitar expert and author Edward Ball conducted Gallery Talkback sessions entitled “The Gretsch Legacy” in the Museum’s Taylor Swift Education Center.  A variety of special programs will be scheduled throughout the length of the exhibit.

American Sound and Beauty: Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection will be on display through July 10, 2016. For more information about the exhibit, visit countrymusichalloffame.org. To learn more about Gretsch guitars, visit gretschguitars.com.

Fred Gretsch’s Reception Remarks:

On behalf of five generations of the Gretsch Family, it is my honor to welcome you as we celebrate the opening of the Exhibition titled:  American Sound and Beauty, Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection.  Thank you for joining us this evening.

We never imagined a phone call made to Randy Bachman 30 years ago asking for his help would lead to this special exhibit. After buying back the family business from Baldwin in the mid-80s, we had to literally start from scratch in developing the new line of Gretsch guitars. We had heard of Randy’s vast collection and asked him if we could borrow several of his vintage Gretsch’s so we could measure them, spec them, and use them to build prototypes as close to the original formula as possible. Randy was kind enough to say “Yes” and we are forever grateful for his assistance in helping launch that first generation of new Gretsch guitars.

We think “American Sound and Beauty” is an appropriate name for this exhibit. The guitars displayed here are as AMERICAN as it gets.  They were built in Brooklyn, New York, on the seventh floor of The Gretsch Building. A building my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr., constructed & opened 100 years ago in 1916 and it still stands today. (But instead of making guitars and drums that look like a million bucks, The Gretsch Building now is condos you can buy for a million bucks…)

And SOUND. These vintage guitars on display – as well as new Gretsch guitars that were shipped out today – have a special SOUND that is “Uniquely Gretsch”. It’s part of the recipe we want to preserve so “That Great Gretsch Sound” will continue for future generations to discover and enjoy.

And BEAUTY. Gretsch guitars have a long reputation for their cool, colorful looks. We were pioneers in the 1950s that added new palettes of colors and two-tones and sparkle to the guitar world that had long been dominated by natural and sunburst finishes. One of my memories of working at The Gretsch Building were seeing all the racks of finished, gleaming, and beautiful Gretsch guitars. They were handsome indeed.

It’s also ironic that 75 Gretsch guitars out of a collection of more than 300 instruments were selected to be on display for this exhibit. When I joined the Gretsch Company full-time in 1965, it was at the height of the guitar boom (thanks to Chet Atkins, George Harrison, and The Beatles), and we were scrambling to build and ship out our new goal of 75 guitars a day.

We are here tonight because of exceptional people – giants in my mind – that were and are exceptional influencers. My great-grandfather, Friedrich Gretsch, my grandfather, Fred Gretsch, Sr., my father, Bill Gretsch, my uncle, Fred Gretsch, Jr., Jimmie Webster, Duke Kramer, Phil Grant, and Dinah Gretsch; exceptional leaders all on behalf of the Gretsch business just to name a few.

Equally as tall are our artist partnerships that started with Billy Gladstone back in the 1930s. We think you will agree the most important partnership – and the one that put Gretsch guitars on the map – was our endorsement with Chet Atkins. A partnership that endures 60+ years later.

The 130 year Gretsch history poster I have here lets me use pictures to say a thousand words. The left half of the poster from your perspective is popular music from the 1880s until Rock and Roll was born. Think even before radio when the player piano and the phonograph were the high tech products of their day.  The Gretsch business in that era was primarily all about supplying instruments for music education, marching bands, and making banjos and parlor guitars.

Chet Atkins stands out right in the middle of this poster. He ushers in a new era of popular music at the forefront of Rock and Roll when the electric guitar was now becoming the star, both in the recording studio and on stage. His partnership with the Gretsch family was to influence a long list of artists including Duane Eddy, Paul Yandell, George Harrison, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Brian Setzer, Steve Wariner, Joe Robinson, a six-year-old boy in Australia named Tommy Emmanuel, a teenager in Canada named Randy Bachman, and thousands more.

In closing, it all comes full circle now in our celebration here this evening.  We are reminded how important it is for us to welcome and encourage new generations of musicians & their music to keep the circle unbroken.  How important it is to be a positive influence to others, and how important it is to support music education – something that is very near and dear to Dinah and me, and is the primary mission of the Gretsch Foundation, who incidentally has owned the Bachman-Gretsch Collection since 2008.

And speaking of music education, I would be remiss by not recognizing Andy Mooney, the new CEO of Fender Musical Instruments who is here with us this evening.  He is our partner in the worldwide marketing and distribution of Gretsch guitars. Andy not only leads the number one guitar company in the world, but has initiated a new digital products division dedicated to making it easier and more fun to play the guitar, to help players connect with other players, and to help beginners who pick up a guitar get through the crucial first 12 months of the learning cycle to make a lifelong commitment to enjoying the guitar. Thank you, Andy.

On behalf of Dinah and me, we would like to congratulate our partners, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, for their world-class presentation of this historic exhibit.  Special thanks also go out to Carolyn Tate, Kyle Young, Steve Turner, Mick Buck, and John Reed.  And just as important, we salute their work on behalf of musicians of all ages showcased in their distance learning programs and in the work of the Taylor Swift Educational Center.

Thanks again for joining us this evening.

.

.

Remembering the 50th Anniversary of Ted McCarty Buying Bigsby Accessories

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

…and Leaving the Gibson Company

The Gretsch-McCarty-Bigsby family legacy still going strong today.

By Fred W. Gretsch

I was thinking recently about how three well-timed telephone calls forever linked three families and changed the history of Gibson Guitars, Bigsby Accessories, and the Gretsch Company.

Bill Gretsch

The first call was placed in 1948 from my father, Bill Gretsch, to Maurice Berlin, the Chairman of the Board of Chicago Musical Instruments, the company that purchased Gibson Guitars in 1944. My father called Mr. Berlin because his good friend, Ted McCarty, who was visiting in my father’s office, had shared that he was resigning from the Wurlitzer Company, getting out of the music business, and waiting on a job offer from the Brach Candy Company.

Ted McCarty

My father told Ted he was too well known and respected, and that the music business couldn’t afford to lose him. Before Ted could leave my father’s office, my father called Mr. Berlin and arranged a meeting between Ted and Mr. Berlin. As you know, that meeting lead to Ted being offered the position of President at Gibson Guitars. His leadership and keen business and engineering skills turned Gibson around and guided them through their golden years of innovation and production in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Paul Bigsby

The second call was placed a little over 50 years ago in 1965 (the year I started to work at the Gretsch Company) by Paul Bigsby from his small factory in Downey, California to his good friend, Ted McCarty, who was in his 17th year as President of Gibson Guitars. Paul had been manufacturing his innovative guitar vibratos since 1952, but he was 65, having health issues, and looking to retire and sell his business.

Ted had helped Bigsby grow in the 1950s by being the first company to put Bigsby vibratos on Gibson’s factory-built guitars. Ted even used his engineering skills to design the swing away handle to replace Bigsby’s original fixed-handle design. When Paul Bigsby called that day, he was calling to offer his business to Ted, not to the Gibson Company. Bigsby felt his business would be in better hands with his friend Ted McCarty and wasn’t interested in selling it to a company.

In 1965, Ted was 57 and very unhappy with recent management changes at Gibson’s parent company. He also probably sensed more changes coming to the guitar industry. Fender had been purchased by CBS Corporation for $13 million in January and Ted knew the guitar boom years couldn’t continue forever.

So, in November 1965, Ted flew out to California, met with Paul Bigsby and bought his company the same day. On New Year’s Day 1966, a truck loaded everything from Bigsby’s shop and drove back to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Ted resigned from Gibson in March and became owner of Bigsby Accessories for more than 30 years.

I was more than happy to contact Ted in 1989 (he was a longtime friend of the family and even attended my baptism) after I bought the family business back from Baldwin and was ready to roll out the new lineup of Gretsch guitars. Even at 80 years old, Ted had a razor-sharp memory and was the world’s leading authority on Bigsby vibratos.

Fred Gretsch with Ted McCarty, NAMM 1995

I always felt Ted McCarty didn’t get the proper recognition for all the contributions he made to the guitar industry. With the Gretsch-Bigsby relationship reestablished, Dinah and I were pleased to host a gala dinner to honor Ted (as well as our friend, Duane Eddy) at the 1997 Summer NAMM Show in Nashville. Hundreds of Gretsch retailers, distributors, and guests attended this special tribute to an unsung giant of the guitar business. It was a night all who attended will never forget.

Ted McCarty and Fred Gretsch, 1999

The third call is special to me because it continued the McCarty-Gretsch family friendship started by my father more than 70 years ago in Chicago. In 1999, I was delighted to get Ted’s phone call offering to sell Bigsby Accessories to me. It was a great opportunity since Gretsch guitars and Bigsby vibratos had been inseparable since the 1950s. We were more than happy to purchase Ted’s company on May 10, 1999, and in October 1999, Ted retired at the age of 89 after a long, successful 63-year career in the music industry.

There have only been three keepers of the Bigsby brand the past 60 years and Dinah and I are proud to be the current keepers. Hopefully both Paul Bigsby and Ted McCarty are looking down and smiling at how the Gretsch family has grown the business and preserved the Bigsby heritage. We’re continuing to follow the successful formula established more than 60 years ago, using the same hand-made processes and as many of the original machines and suppliers as possible. There is no better way I can think of to honor friends of the family and keep their legacy alive. I think the previous three generations of Gretsch Company Presidents – my father, uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather – would agree.

.

.

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.

.

.

Oh What A Night…With Doyle Dykes!

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Saturday night, August 1, was a musically magical night in of all places, Bloomingdale, Georgia, a quiet southern community just west of historic Savannah. Randy Wood’s Pickin’ Parlor hosted a special evening featuring the stylings of Doyle Dykes, “one of the finest fingerpicking guitarists around” as described by the late Chet Atkins. The sold out show was attended by area music lovers–several never having seen Doyle perform before–and none of whom left the event disappointed.

Doyle Dykes. Photo courtesy of Don Aliffi.

For most of the evening, Doyle performed masterfully with his new Gretsch White Falcon guitar to which he had added an LR Baggs acoustic pickup.  He also used a recently-acquired Gretsch 12-string electric. Doyle graciously shared some nice comments about his Gretsch instruments with the audience and also called area resident Fred Gretsch up on stage to talk about Fred’s 50 years in the music business (which is being celebrated throughout 2015).

Also joining Doyle during Saturday night’s show were Keith Miller and his son Nathan from Summerville, South Carolina. Quite a skillful ukulele player, Nathan delighted the audience with a song he composed while visiting a little German village and inspired by their daily church bells. Watch his performance.

Doyle with Dinah & Fred Gretsch along with Keith and son Nathan Miller

What a night and what a terrific time with one of the best cross-genre
fingerstylists today! If you don’t yet know Doyle, you need to visit his website and Facebook page to learn more.  And watch Doyle’s tribute to Chet Atkins from the Pickin’ Parlor.

While out in the Savannah area, add some great music to your evening.  Check Randy’s Pickin’ Parlor’s schedule for upcoming events.

.

Special thanks to Chris and Missy and to Jim Wethington for posting videos from the show!

.

A Brooklyn Bash!

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Celebrating Fred Gretsch’s Fifty Years In The Music Business

This past May 30 saw a very special event in Brooklyn, New York: a celebration of Fred W. Gretsch’s fiftieth anniversary in the music industry. Representing the fourth generation of the Gretsch family business, Fred’s career began on March 2, 1965. Today he remains at the helm of the Gretsch Company—and as such is one of the very few individuals in the musical-instrument industry still actively involved with the brand that bears his name.

It’s entirely appropriate that the celebration of Fred’s anniversary was held in Brooklyn, because that’s where the Gretsch Company was located from its inception in 1883 until 1969. In those years the company manufactured great drums, guitars, banjos, and other instruments under the watchful eyes of Fred Gretsch’s great-grandfather (Friedrich Gretsch), grandfather (Fred Gretsch Sr.), father (William “Bill” Gretsch), and uncle (Fred Gretsch Jr.). The iconic Gretsch Building that housed the factory still stands today at 60 Broadway, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge.

And so it was that Gretsch fans, artists, and music-industry colleagues from across the country came to Brooklyn to help Fred and his family celebrate this auspicious occasion. And it all started with…

Gretsch Day At Street Sounds

Brooklyn’s Street Sounds.

Street Sounds is located on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn. Touting itself as “the world’s largest Gretsch dealer” (for guitars, amps, and related accessories), Street Sounds staged an all-day event that showcased Gretsch products and Gretsch artists alike.

This beautiful guitar was created by Stephen and the Gretsch Custom Shop.

Store owner Rocky Schiano decorated the shop for the occasion with an impressive array of Gretsch guitars. This included several stunning creations by the Gretsch Custom Shop operation. Rocky greeted the crowd, and then introduced Gretsch Guitar product manager Joe Carducci, who served as emcee for the day’s festivities.

Emcee Mr. Joe Carducci.

Following a video presentation highlighting Gretsch history, Joe introduced Fred and Dinah Gretsch, who greeted the crowd on behalf of the Gretsch Family and the Gretsch Company. Fred then spoke about the importance of family, commenting on how he and Dinah shared a multi-generational involvement in business with daughter Lena, and pointing out that there were fifth- and sixth-generation Gretsch family members in attendance at the event. Dinah Gretsch offered her thanks to the audience for their attendance, then went on to express her deep personal conviction that music enriches the lives of those who pursue it.

Fred Gretsch had a moment to chat with Ben Fraser (left) and Justin Keenan of The Go Set after their performance.

Fred enjoyed a chat with Ben Fraser (left) and Justin Keenan of The Go Set.

Entertainment for the day began with a performance by Justin Keenan and Ben Fraser—two members of an Australian quintet called The Go Set. Switching between acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin, the talented duo impressed the crowd with their melodic stylings. Their closing number, “Liberty Bell,” was offered as a tribute to the spirit of America.

Stephen Stern presented Fred with a congratulatory banner.

Senior master builder Stephen Stern was on hand to represent the Gretsch Custom Shop.  He presented Fred with a specially-created banner featuring the Custom Shop logo and the signatures of all of the talented artists and builders at the shop itself.

You couldn’t get more “local Brooklyn” than the next band on the bill. Called Off The Roof, this young trio featured Rocky Schiano’s daughter Kristina on drums. (Gretsch drums, naturally.) Their energetic set of punk-infused R&B included numbers by Jimmy Eat World and Alicia Keys, as well as a unique arrangement of the classic Jackson 5 tune “I Want You Back.” Pretty impressive, considering that it was their self-described “first time playing out.”

Brooklyn-based Off The Roof featured Rocky Schiano’s daughter Kristina on drums.

Mark Nelson (center) and Mike Nieman of Gretsch Drums presented Fred with a limited-edition snare drum.

Mark Nelson and Mike Nieman, representing the Gretsch drum-making operation, made the next presentation to Fred Gretsch. Appropriately enough, it was the prototype of a limited-edition snare drum model called the FredKaster ’65 FG. Only fifty of these unique 7×14 commemorative drums will be offered for sale in the US. Fred’s drum came with its head signed by everyone involved in the manufacturing and sale of Gretsch drums.

The Nashville Attitude may be from Staten Island, New York, but they have an authentic honky-tonk sound.

State Island's The Nashville Attitude have an authentic honky-tonk sound.

You might not think of New York City as a hotbed of country music, but Staten Islands’ The Nashville Attitude would prove you wrong. Fronted by the vocals, guitar, and banjo of Marc Vincent Sica (with Elvin Cartegena on guitar and Ian Underwood on bass) the group stormed through a set of foot-stompin’, knee-slappin’ tunes, including an ever-accelerating version of Johnny Cash’s classic “Rock Island Line” that challenged the stamina of drummer Dave Strickland.

The legendary Duane Eddy was a surprise guest.

The next scheduled act was Jet Weston and his Atomic Ranch Hands. But before they began, Joe Carducci introduced a surprise artist: the legendary “father of twang,” Duane Eddy. After modestly acknowledging the crowd’s enthusiastic applause, the Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer sat in with Jet and the band, adding his special touch to several tunes . . . including his 1960s hit, “Rebel Rouser.”

Jet Weston and his Atomic Ranch Hands are a throwback to the great western swing bands—and a real crowd-pleaser.

Then Jet and his boys returned to play an entertaining set of their trademark western swing and standards. Following a crowd-pleasing sing-along rendition of “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” Jet offered musical tributes—first to Dinah Gretsch by singing the classic “Dinah…Is There Anyone Finer?” and then to Fred Gretsch in the form of special lyrics added to Roy Hamilton’s 1958 hit “Don’t Let Go.”

New York state senator Marty Golden (at right) offered a proclamation from the senate honoring Fred Gretsch and the Gretsch Family connection to Brooklyn.

NY senator Marty Golden offered a proclamation honoring Fred Gretsch and the Gretsch Family.

Rocky Schiano returned to the stage to introduce New York state senator Marty Golden, and to bring Fred and Dinah back up as well. Golden then read a senate proclamation that highlighted the history of the Gretsch Company and its connection to Brooklyn, and went on to salute Fred Gretsch on his fiftieth anniversary.

Todd Taylor and bassist Mike Moody.

Joe Carducci could barely contain his enthusiasm when introducing the next artist, citing him as “the Guinness World Record Holder as the fastest banjo player on the planet!” This was Todd Taylor, who—accompanied by the talented Mike Moody on bass—proceeded to demonstrate why he holds that title. The soft-spoken southern gentleman more than lived up to his reputation.

A stunned Kentucky Parkis—an elementary schoolteacher who also teaches bass in the Little Kids Rock music-education program—took home the day’s final raffle prize: a beautiful Gretsch 5420 guitar, presented to her by Dinah Gretsch.

Kentucky Parkis took home the day’s final raffle prize: a beautiful Gretsch 5420 guitar.

Throughout the day Joe Carducci presided over the giveaway of valuable door prizes. These included Gretsch T-shirts and tote bags, as well as several Gretsch guitars. The day’s big winner was Kentucky Parkis, an elementary schoolteacher who also teaches bass guitar in the Little Kids Rock music-education program. Literally in tears of surprise and happiness at her good fortune, Kentucky took home a classic orange-finish Gretsch 5420 guitar worth over $1,200.

The performances closed with an appearance by The Empty Hearts, an all-star band featuring Wally Palmar (the Romantics) on lead vocals, rhythm guitar, and harmonica; Elliot Easton (the Cars) on lead guitar and vocals; Andy Babiuk (the Chesterfield Kings) on bass and vocals; and Clem Burke (Blondie) on drums and vocals. Clem played on a totally appropriate Gretsch Brooklyn Series kit for the occasion.

The Empty Hearts closed the show with a bang!

Offering what they themselves describe as “simple, straightforward, soulful rock ’n’ roll informed by ’60s garage rock and British Invasion sounds,” the group’s set combined original tunes from their new self-titled album with hit songs from each of their bands—including a joyous closing rendition of the Romantics’ “What I Like About You” that left the crowd screaming for more.

Joe Carducci concluded the celebration by thanking Rocky Schiano and Street Sounds for staging the event, thanking everyone in the audience for attending, and offering one more round of congratulations to Fred Gretsch on his fiftieth Anniversary. A good time was had by all.

Stay tuned for videos from the event to be posted soon!

A Very Special Party

This specially decorated cake greeted guests at the Gretsch dinner party.

The day-long public celebration at Street Sounds was followed by a private party under a sparkling white tent at the nearby Dyker Beach golf course. The guest list included four generations of the Gretsch Family, along with Gretsch artists, industry colleagues, and other people near and dear to the hearts of Fred and Dinah Gretsch.

Dinah Gretsch served both as hostess and emcee for the evening’s festivities.

The party was presided over by Dinah, who opened the festivities by saying “We’re here to celebrate my greatest hero: Fred Gretsch.” Dinah then introduced a video program containing congratulatory messages from family, friends, and artists all over the world, as well as from the Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum, Elmhurst College, Berklee College of Music, the Little Kids Rock program, and Modern Drummer magazine.

A particularly moving moment in the evening came when Dinah read a paper composed by grandson Logan Thomas. Written for a school assignment called “My Definition Of A Hero,” it eloquently described how and why Logan’s grandfather, Fred Gretsch, met that definition.

David Wish of Little Kids Rock presented Fred with a framed concert photo.

Later in the evening a succession of guests offered personal anecdotes and appreciative words in tribute to Fred. These included David Wish, founder of the Little Kids Rock program, who saluted Fred as a mentor and supporter of LKR’s goal “to bring music to every single child in this country.” Dave then presented Fred with a framed photo of an LKR concert, emblazoned with a congratulatory message from the 195,000 children in the LKR program.

A special 50th anniversary “trophy” was commissioned by Dinah to honor the man she called “My hero: Fred Gretsch.”

Terry Dennis, who has worked with Fred and Dinah Gretsch in a design capacity for more than twenty years, created a one-of-a-kind commemorative “trophy” to be presented to Fred from Dinah. The award’s design was based on imagery from historic Gretsch catalogs.

Duane Eddy described how he was first introduced to Fred and Dinah in 1991—by George Harrison. Andy Babiuk cited Fred’s “persistence,” including how Fred relentlessly pursued him about writing a book on Paul Bigsby. Tony Oroszlany, president of Loyola High School in New York (Fred’s alma mater) saluted Fred for his ongoing support of the school. Street Sounds owner Rocky Schiano recalled “getting a history lesson about Brooklyn from Fred” during a stroll through the Williamsburg section. Bill Acton, of Fender’s Gretsch Specialty Team, stated how it was an honor to partner with Fred in marketing Gretsch guitars world-wide, describing him as “the nicest man in the business to work with.” Dave Waters, also of the Fender/Gretsch team, noted that of all major American guitar companies, only Gretsch has someone with the brand’s name running the company. And guitarist Elliot Easton related how he and Fred met and bonded over a bit of guitar minutiae: the fact that in the early 1990s, out of all left-handed guitar models only Gretsch’s featured control knobs that also worked “lefty.” Elliott—a left-handed player—particularly appreciated this attention to detail. This led to a friendship that ultimately generated a signature guitar model that he and Fred designed together.

Finally, Dinah brought Fred himself up to the podium—where he received a lengthy standing ovation from all in attendance. Discarding the written comments that he had prepared, Fred said instead, “I’m overwhelmed. I can’t add any more in words…but please know how much is in my heart. I thank you all.”

Then, with a twinkle in his eye and excitement in his voice, Fred added, “Now let’s have cake!”

.

.

Fred and Dinah Gretsch Presented With Henry H. Arnold Award

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Fred and Dinah Gretsch Presented With Henry H. Arnold Award and Sponsor First Annual John Calabro Night of the Arts Celebration at the United States Military Academy, West Point.

Fred and Dinah Gretsch are presented the Henry H. (Hap) Arnold Award to recognize their support of the John A. Calabro Music and Arts Program at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. From left to right: Brigadier General Timothy Trainor, Dean of the Academic Board; Colonel (Retired) Robert L. McClure, President and CEO, West Point Association of Graduates; Dinah Gretsch, and Fred Gretsch. Photo by Kristin Sorenson, VP of Development, WPAOG.

———————————————-

Fred and Dinah Gretsch were presented the General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold Award for helping sponsor the First Annual John Calabro Night of the Arts celebration and awards ceremony at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. The April 10 event, coordinated through the Department of English and Philosophy and the Cadet Fine Arts Forum, showcased cadet creativity and talent in music, photography, film, poetry, prose, and fine art.

This year’s event began a new tradition of honoring the late retired Colonel John A. Calabro, Jr., a 1968 USMA graduate and former Academy Professor of English, and Senior Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of the West Point Association of Graduates. Calabro, a revered Soldier and scholar, was also an accomplished musician, creative writer, and fine artist, and a strong advocate for the important role the arts played in the overall development of officers. He was a longtime friend of Fred Gretsch, President of the Gretsch Foundation.

“John Calabro was a true Renaissance man, a lifelong learner, and an ideal blend of ‘Athens and Sparta’ here at West Point,” said Gretsch. “We’re very proud that the Gretsch Foundation can support the Music and Arts Program named in John’s honor, and be associated with the United States Military Academy, one of the most respected and historic brands in America for over 200 years.”

Mr. and Mrs. Gretsch were invited to attend the inaugural event at West Point and spent the day touring the museum and many historic buildings at the nation’s oldest continually occupied military post. They enjoyed having lunch with over 4,400 cadets at the Academy’s famous mess hall on the first floor of Washington Hall.

“It was a wonderful experience. How can you not be impressed with the history and tradition of America’s most esteemed military academy,” said Dinah Gretsch. “And the talent and creativity we saw in the cadets, both women and men, at the celebration and awards ceremony was outstanding. The Gretsch Foundation is happy to honor John Calabro’s legacy with this sponsorship.”

The sponsorship not only makes the John Calabro Night of the Arts celebration and awards ceremony an annual event, but also includes an outreach program that will connect members of the Cadet Jazz Forum, the USMA Band’s Jazz Knights, and students from local middle and high schools through music appreciation and performances. This year’s ceremony included a performance by the Jazz Ensemble, a band comprised of USMA cadets and students from West Point Middle School and James I. O’Neill High School.

About the Gretsch Foundation:

The Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, has a mission of enriching lives through participation in music, and has long been involved in music education through its sponsorship of concerts, festivals, clinics, workshops and direct assistance to schools.

In addition to providing music scholarships at Berklee College of Music, Elmhurst College, Georgia Southern University, and the University of West Georgia, the Foundation’s unique GuitarArt program donates guitars to schools for students and major artists to paint, decorate and auction off for fundraising efforts. Please visit www.guitarart.org for more information.

.

.