Posts Tagged ‘Gretsch Drums’

On The Passing Of Remo Belli

Friday, May 6th, 2016

The Gretsch family joins everyone in the drum and percussion industry in mourning the passing of Remo Belli on April 25. As a veteran of that industry myself, I had the pleasure of knowing Remo for many years on a personal and professional basis. My wife Dinah and I shared  visits with him at trade shows and other drumming events, and we always enjoyed our time together.

But Remo’s connection to the Gretsch family goes back much further. My uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., was a little more than twenty years older than Remo. When Remo was touring as the drummer for Anita O’Day and bandleader Billy May in the 1950s, Uncle Fred was running the Gretsch business. He welcomed Remo into the fold as a Gretsch drum artist. In fact, Remo’s smiling face graces the cover of the 1954 Gretsch drum catalog—right next to Louie Bellson, and in the company of other drum greats like Art Blakey, Jo Jones, and Shelley Manne.

Remo Belli on Cover of 1954 Gretsch Drums Catalog

Just a few years later, when Remo went into business himself, Uncle Fred supported his efforts by becoming a major customer for his Weather King synthetic drumheads. Remo heads are still factory-installed on Gretsch drums today.

Fast-forward to when I entered the drum business fifty years ago. Returning the favor that my uncle had done for him, Remo (who was a little less than twenty years older than I am) served as a mentor to me, offering sound business tips and valuable personal advice. Over the ensuing years I came to cherish his friendship, his guidance, and his unparalleled professional example. I will miss those things—and Remo himself—tremendously.

Fred W. Gretsch
4th Generation President
The Gretsch Company

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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.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Mark Guiliana: A Jazzer For Today

By Fred Gretsch

I want to start this article about Gretsch drum artist Mark Guiliana with a quote from a review of his 2013 recording, A Form of Truth, taken from Relix magazine: “There are musicians that the general public recognizes for their greatness, and then there are the musicians that other musicians stand in awe of. Drummer Mark Guiliana falls squarely into the second category.”

What places Mark at the forefront of today’s jazz drummers is the fact that he combines a genuine respect and reverence for the artistry of historic icons like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach with a totally fresh and contemporary approach all his own. Blending impressive technical skills on acoustic drums with electronic sounds and processing, Mark can—and does—cover all musical contingencies.

In addition to playing in his own quartet, in his band Beat Music, and in an electronic duo dubbed Mehliana (with keyboardist Brad Mehldau), Mark is a first-call drummer for artists as varied as Avishai Cohen, MeShell N’degeocello, Matisyahu, Gretchen Parlato, and the group Now Vs. Now. In 2014 Mark had the opportunity to play on the late David Bowie’s final album: Blackstar (released on January 8 of this year).

Noted for his ever-changing musical personas, Bowie’s last turn took him into acoustic jazz—albeit with a dark and moody tone—and he wanted a rhythm section that could support his concept. So he called on Mark, with the able assistance of bassist Tim Lefebvre.

Reviews of the album have repeatedly mentioned the contributions made by Mark and Tim, as with this one from Billboard magazine: “Blackstar is unmistakably a band record, showcasing a talented group of musicians who are comfortable navigating the songs’ harmonically twisty byways. Special credit goes to bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who lock into Bowie’s grooves, tilting the music in the direction of spooky funk.”

The Wall Street Journal added: “Mr. Guiliana’s staccato drumming pieces the band’s moody wash of sound under Mr. Bowie’s voice as he sings an ominous tale. With Blackstar the delicious conceit of David Bowie conspiring with modern jazz artists is fulfilled beautifully.”

In 2015 Mark “returned to his roots,” recording an acoustic-jazz album called Family First with his quartet. Commenting on that album, Rhythm magazine said: “Mark is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new jazzers out there, and after his more electronic-style recordings of previous years, in 2015 he embraced the classic quartet format for some truly brilliant small-group jazz playing.” The magazine went on to name Mark as one of the top jazz drummers of the year.

In addition to his performing skills, Mark is a dedicated educator, eager to share his distinctive musical concepts with other drummers. He conducts frequent workshops in the New York City area, as well as clinics in various locations around the country. He can also be contacted for private lessons through his Web site, MarkGuiliana.com.

On July 30 of 2014 I had a unique opportunity to take a step back into Gretsch Company history. I walked the streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, visiting several sites that mark the evolution of the Gretsch company from its inception in 1883 through 1969, some seven decades later.  I had the pleasure of being joined by more than twenty drummers who are fans of Gretsch drums and their history. I’m happy to say that Mark Guiliana was among that group. Following the tour, Mark had these kind words to say:

“I guess by most accounts I’m a jazz drummer, so my heroes are Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey—a long list of guys who made their names on Gretsch drums. It was cool to tie the research that I’ve done on those drummers to the history that Fred Gretsch was providing—oftentimes from his own first-person experience. I specifically remember Fred talking about one of the first buildings we saw—on South Fifth Street. He pointed to a window on the second floor and said that it was where they did some of the drum wraps back in the early 1960s. It was nice to imagine how, as he described, great drummers would come in all the time—some to get new drums, some to just bounce ideas off each other. That was really cool.”

I’ll conclude this piece in the same manner as I began it: with a quote, this time from Modern Drummer magazine’s November 2014 cover story on Mark. In it, they refer to him as “the guy to watch if you want to know where the great art of drumming is right now—and where it could be headed.”

YouTube Clips

Here is Mark performing during his clinic at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, held this past November in San Antonio, Texas.

In this clip Mark walks us through some tips and tricks for emulating drum samples with an acoustic kit and few toys.

Here is Mark with Beat Music, at New York City’s Zinc Bar in 2014.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Cindy Blackman-Santana: A Woman For All Seasons

by Fred Gretsch

A gifted writer named Nicole Williams Sitaraman said of Cindy Blackman-Santana: “Hearing Cindy play the drums is like a rapturous percussive tornado of sound. You just get swept away.”

That’s about the most succinct—and accurate—description of Cindy’s talent and versatility that I’ve ever heard. From the highest level of jazz improvisation to the most down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll grooves, Cindy plays it all—and does so with a unique cross-pollination of styles. That is to say, her jazz playing rocks, and her rock playing swings. It’s a musical marriage made in heaven.

And speaking of marriage, Cindy added the “Santana” to her professional name when she married legendary Carlos Santana in 2010—following an on-stage proposal by Carlos at the conclusion of Cindy’s drum solo during a Santana Band concert in Tinley Park, Illinois. (Cindy had been sitting in with the band when Dennis Chambers took a leave of absence.)

However, long before Cindy connected with Carlos Santana, she had established herself as one of the most successful drummers around. In particular she gained recognition and respect among the drumming community as the long-time touring drummer for rocker Lenny Kravitz.

But Cindy actually started out as a jazz drummer. She grew up in a musical household where jazz was the main fare, and she had the benefit of parents who encouraged her interest in drums rather than being daunted by it. She attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied with Alan Dawson—the legendary teacher of jazz icon Tony Williams.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Cindy often cites Tony Williams as one of her greatest influences. From listening to him she learned how to be innovative and to allow the drums to speak with impact. After she moved to New York as a young woman she learned from the top jazz drummers who performed there, including Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones. In particular, Art Blakey became a significant figure in Cindy’s life. “He was like a father to me,” she once said. “I learned a lot just watching him, and I asked him a lot of questions about the drums and music. He answered all of them. He was fantastic.”

Regrettably but predictably, Cindy initially encountered resistance as a black woman playing drums on the jazz scene. She had to deal with racial and gender bias, as well as prejudice against her musical opinions. But she had a simple response: “I learned to completely ignore all that.”

Ignoring negative opinions led Cindy to very positive musical experiences, including work with a list of stellar jazz artists like Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Don Pullen, Hugh Masakela, Pharaoh Sanders, Sam Rivers, Cassandra Wilson, Angela Bofill, Bill Laswell, and many more. In 1987 the first of her own compositions appeared on trumpeter Wallace Roney’s Verses album. This led to her debut recording as a bandleader: 1988’s Arcane, which featured a lineup of jazz luminaries including Roney, Kenny Garrett, Joe Henderson, Buster Williams, Clarence Seay, and Larry Willis.

Cindy pursued her jazz leanings until 1993, when she connected with Lenny Kravitz. She was in New York; he was in Los Angeles, so she played drums for him as he listened on the phone. At Lenny’s insistence she flew out to LA the next day. She stayed for two weeks and appeared on the video for Kravitz’s mega-hit “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” She became his touring drummer virtually from then on, apart from 2004.

Having previously only played jazz shows in clubs and small festivals, Cindy was unprepared for the experience of playing at the stadium level. Her first gig with Kravitz was at an outdoor festival for 70,000 people. “It was in the summer,” she recalls, “so most people had just t-shirts or tanks on. I just saw skin and hands all doing this wave thing. I wasn’t used to seeing that many people. I was disoriented, and my equilibrium was teetering. I had to stop looking and start focusing.”

Explaining the difference between playing rock and playing jazz, Cindy says, “My job with Lenny is to play a beat for hours, make it feel good, and tastefully add some exciting fills and colors. My job in my own band or any creative jazz situation is totally different. We may start with a groove that feels great, and I may play that for hours, too. But I’m going to explore and expand and change it—play around with the rhythm and interact with the soloists.”

Even while anchoring Lenny Kravitz’s shows Cindy has also maintained her role as a jazz composer and bandleader. Her albums have included Telepathy (1994), The Oracle (1996), In The Now (1998), Works On Canvas (1999), Someday (2001), Music For The New Millennium (2004), and Another Lifetime (2010). She also has an instructional drum video called Multiplicity to her credit.

Photo: Dino Perucci

In addition to being a fabulous drummer, Cindy Blackman-Santana is an intelligent, articulate, and gracious person. I’m proud that Cindy is a great Gretsch drum artist. I’m also proud to say that my wife Dinah and I consider her a personal friend.

More information about Cindy Blackman-Santana is available on her website. You can also find a selection of audio clips from her various albums there. In the meantime, you might also enjoy the following video clips.

Here’s a great drum solo from Cindy’s appearance at the 2009 Montreal Drum Fest, demonstrating her versatile rock and jazz abilities:

Another solo, from the 2009 Tam Tam Drum Fest.

Here’s Cindy soloing and also playing with her own band at the Leverkusener Jazztage, in 2013.

Cindy gives her own account of growing up on the drums.  This clip includes a killer brush solo.

Finally, Cindy and husband Carlos Santana performed the national anthem this past June 7 before Game 2 of the NBA finals. The performance was aired live on ABC.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Mary McClanahan: Gretsch’s Female Pioneer

by Fred Gretsch

The November 1939 edition of Metronome magazine—which, at the time, was the bible of the music business—included seven percussion-related advertisements. Each ad featured a well-known performer promoting a recent product release. There was Ray Bauduc for WFL’s “Twin Strainer” snare drum, Buddy Schultz for Avedis Zildjian cymbals, Ray McKinley for Slingerland drums, Jimmy Adams for Ludwig vibes, Chauncy Morehouse for Leedy drums, and Jack Powell for Ludwig drums.

But perhaps the most noteworthy item was placed by the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company: a full-page ad featuring Mary McClanahan, the drummer with Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm All-Girl Orchestra. It reads: “’Charmed with the tone and beauty of my new Gretsch-Gladstone ensemble,’ says charming Mary McClanahan.” This was the first-ever appearance by a female drummer in a major percussion company ad.

Mary McClanahan may, indeed, have been charming. But she was much more than that. By the time she was hired by Spitalny, she was already a respected professional musician. Over 1,000 carefully screened women musicians auditioned for the twenty-two spots in Spitalny’s orchestra. There were several positions available for horn, string, and woodwind players—but only one for a drummer. That coveted spot went to Mary.

For women percussionists who feel unappreciated and unrecognized in today’s predominately male profession, think of what it was like for Mary in 1939. She had to overcome unimaginable hurdles to land the Spitalny gig, to say nothing of earning an endorsement and a full-page ad from a major drum company.

Just as one example, women encountered more difficulties than men when it came to appearance. Regardless of how far they had traveled or how little sleep they’d managed to get on a tour bus, all-girl bands had to appear onstage looking gorgeous, in long dresses and heels. (Never mind that it’s virtually impossible to operate bass drum and hi-hat pedals while wearing heels.) Ironically, while this hard-to-achieve glamour was expected of them, this very attention to appearances was one of the things that led some people to dismiss All-Girl bands as not being “serious” musicians.

By all reports, however, Mary McClanahan was indeed a “serious” musician. In fact, the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company was so impressed with her talent and fame that they not only featured her in magazine advertisements, but also on the cover of their 1941 full-line catalog. There she shared the spotlight with such male drumming stars of the era as Count Basie’s drummer Papa Jo Jones, Artie Shaw’s Nick Fatool, Horace Heidt’s Bernie Mattinson, and Xavier Cugat’s Alberto Calderon. Heady company, indeed.

We don’t know much about Mary’s career following her stint in Phil Spitalny’s orchestra. But there is one intriguing item that appeared in 1946. It’s a newspaper review of a variety show at the Esquire nightclub in Montreal, Canada, and it included the following: “Mary McClanahan, the champion girl drummer, put over an original drumming act with a great deal of savoir faire. Judging by her routine, it would seem that all the ginger-thatched Mary needs to knock out rhythm is a pair of drumsticks, as she pounded out a number of neat paradiddles on everything from an ordinary kitchen chair to the Esquire’s hardwood floor.”

Video Clip:

Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm All-Girl orchestra was exceptionally talented and versatile, as is amply demonstrated in this rare 1937 movie short titled Queens Of Harmony. Mary McClanahan can be seen at the 2:30 mark, kicking off a blazing version of “Tiger Rag.”

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Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Stefanie Eulinberg:  Rockin’ With The Kid

by Fred Gretsch

Stefanie Eulinberg is a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, she’s petite (just five feet tall), bubbly, smart, outspoken, funny, and sassy. On the other hand, she’s the hard-hitting drummer for Twisted Brown Trucker—the band behind the ultra-macho superstar known as Kid Rock.

Born on December 11, 1967, Stefanie grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. She displayed an early talent for music on a variety of instruments, including the trombone and the cornet. It wasn’t until she spent a summer at the Percussion Institute of Technology in Los Angeles that she gravitated to the drums.


Starting at the age of fifteen, Stefanie worked in cover bands all over the country. Playing different songs for a living was fun—but more importantly it gave her the opportunity to develop her drumming skills. Her influences included Jack DeJohnette, Dave Weckl, Tony Thompson, Chester Thompson, Neil Peart, Dennis Chambers, and Terry Bozzio. That’s quite an eclectic mix, and it helped her develop a slamming style that fuses Sly Stone funk with Bonham-esque heaviness.

After laboring for more than a decade in cover bands and less-than-successful “original” acts, Stefanie found herself in Milwaukee in 1998. That’s when she got a call from her friend DJ Swamp. He told her, “This Kid Rock guy in Detroit has a record out on Atlantic. He needs a drummer for his touring band…right now.” After playing phone tag for a while, Stefanie and the Kid finally connected. “We’ve narrowed it down to three drummers,” Rock told her. “You’re one of them.” (He hadn’t even heard her play yet.)

Stefanie shipped a tape overnight, and within days was the drummer in Twisted Brown Trucker. Kid Rock told her she got the job because she doesn’t play drums like a girl. (A classic understatement if ever there was one.)

In the early days, Kid Rock’s music was a testosterone-fueled brand of punk-meets-rap. In order to anchor the band, Stefanie had to make adjustments in her playing style—adapting from the fluid chops she’d used in cover bands to the rigidity of sequencer-and-click-based music. But over the ensuing years and million-selling albums, Kid Rock’s style has evolved dramatically. After fusing hip-hop and hard rock seamlessly on the 11-times platinum Devil Without A Cause in 1998, the self-described “Bullgod of trailer trash” went from rapper to country balladeer with his 2001 album Cocky. From there it’s been anything goes…and Stefanie has been going right along with it.

Kid Rock’s music now incorporates as much classic rock and country as R&B and rap. (The 2007 Grammy-nominated hit “All Summer Long” was an undisguised homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”) In addition to powering the band from the drums, Stefanie also performs as a vocalist on live shows, and she adds her talents on several other instruments in the studio.

Here’s a bit of Stefanie Eulinberg trivia that you might not know: In addition to her skills as a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, Stefanie is also a vocal actress. Along with Kid Rock and other members of Twisted Brown Trucker, Stefanie voiced a character in the Farrelly Brothers’ 2001 animated movie Osmosis Jones. She also writes theme music for the Disney studios.

Video Clips

You can see and hear dozens of examples of Stefanie’s work by searching for “Kid Rock” on YouTube. In the meantime, though, here are two clips you might particularly enjoy:

Stefanie talks about Gretsch drums (while on tour with Kid Rock in 2008).

Here’s a great clip of Stefanie rocking with the Kid on “All Summer Long” from a music awards show in 2010.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Elvin Jones: The Game Changer

by Fred W. Gretsch

My most recent “Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters” articles have focused on contemporary Gretsch drummers. This time, I want to delve a bit into musical history and talk about the man who single-handedly bridged the gap between hard bop and avant-garde jazz, and changed the very nature of drumming ever after. His name was Elvin Jones.

Elvin’s influence on jazz drumming—and on jazz in general—cannot be overstated. As important a figure on drums as was his mentor John Coltrane on the saxophone, Elvin’s contributions to the art form continue to resonate with drummers more than a decade after his death in 2004. To quote one stellar jazz drummer: “Elvin was committed to playing the drums in a different way. And after he came on the scene, everyone else played differently, too.”

Elvin’s singularity dates back to his early career. After leaving the army in 1949 he played with his brother Thad Jones in a Detroit band led by Billy Mitchell. In 1955 he moved to New York, where he worked as a sideman in the bands of Charles Mingus, Teddy Charles, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis.

By 1960 Elvin was an established figure on the New York jazz scene. As such, he often took part in a unique series of events called Gretsch Nights At Birdland. These were drumming “summits,” where the great jazz drummers of the day (who were all Gretsch drum artists) would appear at the famous New York City nightclub to play separately and together. One of those sessions, which took place in April of 1960, is documented on the unparalleled jazz album Gretsch Night At Birdland. Along with Elvin, it features performances by three other great Gretsch drum artists: Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and Charlie Persip.

But it was when Elvin joined the John Coltrane quartet (with Jimmy Garrison on bass and McCoy Tyner on piano) in 1960 that musical history was made. Elvin found a kindred spirit in Coltrane, and (with the help of bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner) the two pioneers explored the boundaries of jazz. They often played extended duet passages, driving each other on to ever-greater heights of instrumental virtuosity and creative expression.

Over the next six years the Coltrane Quartet redefined “swing”—the rhythmic feel of jazz. Elvin’s drumming evolved from the gritty hard bop of the group’s early recordings on Atlantic, to the hurricane-force implosions of A Love Supreme (recorded in 1964 and released by Impulse records in February of 1965). That recording is considered a milestone in the history of jazz, melding the hard bop stylings of Coltrane’s early career with what came to be called “modal” and “free” jazz.

Photo: Lee Tanner

Elvin’s sense of timing, polyrhythms, dynamics, timbre, and legato phrasing set a totally new standard for drumming—one that led Life magazine to tout him as “the world’s greatest rhythmic drummer.” His unique approach baffled some listeners and inspired others. And I don’t mean just other jazz drummers. His free-flowing style was a major influence on many rock drummers as well, including Jimi Hendrix’s Mitch Mitchell and Cream’s Ginger Baker. That influence has never waned; dozens of today’s top drummers speak of Elvin with reverence and awe. He continued to perform, particularly with his own Jazz Machine, until shortly before his passing.

Although Elvin was always serious about his music, he never took himself too seriously. This is illustrated by his appearance as a villain called Job Cain in the off-beat 1971 Western film Zacharia. In that film he wins a saloon gunfight—then promptly sits down at a drumkit and performs a dynamic solo! (You can still catch that flick sometimes on late-night cable. It’s a hoot.)

Hear Elvin with the classic mid-1960s John Coltrane Quartet playing “Impressions”—including a duet segment where Elvin and Coltrane play together. 

For a purely audio treat, you can listen to Elvin’s complete 1969 album Poly-Currents.

You can see Elvin’s gunfight and drum solo in the 1971 off-beat Western Zacharia.

Elvin simply burns in an unusual two saxes/bass/drums quartet format in 1973.

Elvin explains the concept of polyrhythmic styles, and demonstrates his solo technique, circa 1979.

Here’s Elvin in a clip from 1979 playing with his own quartet. His playing with the band is powerful enough…but the solo….!

Finally, hear Elvin’s own words about his drumming and the way music changed, as part of a terrific 1979 documentary called Different Drummer: Elvin Jones.

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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.

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