A Rock & Roll Pioneer On Gretsch Drums
By Fred Gretsch
On a recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee, my wife Dinah and I had the opportunity to visit the Johnny Cash museum (an experience we heartily recommend). In addition to all the fascinating information and memorabilia on display about the legendary “Man In Black,” we discovered a particular exhibit that immediately captured our attention: a classic 1950s-era Gretsch drumkit. This was the kit played during Johnny Cash’s early touring years by W. S. “Fluke” Holland, who was Johnny’s one and only drummer throughout the singer’s storied career.
As a member of Carl Perkins’ band in the mid-’50s Fluke recorded many of Carl’s hits at Memphis’ Sun Recording Studio. These included such classics as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Matchbox,” and “Honey Don’t.” Fluke toured with other rock pioneers—including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison—and was the first musician to play a full set of drums on the stage of the world-famous Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Holland went on to perform on the “Million Dollar Quartet” session that featured Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. This brought him to Johnny’s attention, and in 1960 the singer asked Fluke to join his band for what was to be a two-week tour. But instead of two weeks, Fluke stayed with “The Man In Black” until the singer’s retirement in 1997. Along the way Fluke played in all of Johnny’s backing bands, including The Tennessee Three, The Great Eighties Eight, and The Johnny Cash Show Band.
Fluke is also heard on many of Johnny’s famous recordings, including “Ring of Fire.” The sound that became famous on virtually all of Johnny’s hit records (known as the “Tennessee Three sound”) was largely developed by Fluke’s “train-like” rhythms and driving beat.
The Gretsch drumkit that caught our eyes in the Johnny Cash museum is the one that Fluke played first with the Carl Perkins band and later for many years on the road with Johnny. It’s also the kit that was the first to grace the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. In addition to its “Great Gretsch Sound,” the kit has a unique feature. Its bass drum has a front head made of Naugahyde, with a zipper that opens to provide access to the inside of the drum. When Fluke toured in the early days with Johnny, they traveled in a car, with very little room for instruments and luggage. So, in true “road warrior” style, Fluke opened the zipper on the bass drum and packed his clothes inside!
For more information on W. S. “Fluke” Holland, visit his website. You can also check him out on YouTube. Suggested clips include an interview with Fluke, a live performance of “I Walk The Line,” and a 1963 performance of “Ring Of Fire.” (Note Fluke’s “backwards setup,” with his hi-hat on his right. He says he set the drums up this way on his first recording session with Carl Perkins because he’d never played a drumset before!)
Fluke Holland’s contribution to rock & roll and the signature sound of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three has earned him recognition the world over as a true American music pioneer. Dinah and I are proud that—as has happened so many times—a Gretsch drumset helped to make such an important contribution to music history.