Posts Tagged ‘Gretsch Drums’

Gretsch’s Anniversary Celebration Comes “Home” To NYC

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Events celebrating Gretsch’s 130th anniversary have been taking place all over the U.S. this year—as well as in Canada and Japan. (Don’t miss the story of Fred & Dinah Gretsch’s expedition to climb Mt. Fuji, which you can find here.) But it was particularly fitting for two of those events to be held this past August 3 in Gretsch’s “home town” of New York City.

The Gretsch Company was founded in 1883 when Friedrich Gretsch opened his musical-instrument shop in Brooklyn. The company grew over the next several decades, ultimately being located in the famous Gretsch factory building at 60 Broadway, in the shadow of the Williamsburg bridge. And although the company vacated that building in the late 1960s, it still stands today as a monument to the legacy of a great New York-based musical enterprise.

And so it was that Fred Gretsch—representing the fourth generation of the Gretsch Family—came to New York City on August 3 to bring the anniversary celebration “back home.” Accompanying Fred (who himself grew up in Forest Hills, Long Island) was his grandson Logan Thomas—a sixth-generation Gretsch family member.

Meet And Greet At Maxwell’s Drum Shop

Fred and Logan’s first stop was at Steve Maxwell’s Custom & Vintage Drum Shop on Seventh Avenue at 48th Street. In addition to serving drummers across the country with vintage sales and custom repairs, Maxwell’s is the second-largest dealer of new Gretsch USA Custom drums in America. The shop is filled with new and vintage Gretsch drums, posters, and memorabilia, including a drumkit that once belonged to jazz legend Elvin Jones.

At Steve Maxwell’s Custom & Vintage Drum Shop, celebrating Gretsch’s 130th anniversary and the release of Rob Cook’s The Gretsch Drum Book. From left: Steve Maxwell, Fred Gretsch, Rob Cook, Logan Thomas, and John Sheridan. Rob presented Steve, Fred, and John with special leather-bound editions of the new book.

Owner Steve Maxwell offered his shop as a site for a meet-and-greet between local drummers and Fred Gretsch. In addition, the shop hosted a book-signing party celebrating the release of The Gretsch Drum Book, a new in-depth chronicle of Gretsch drums and the Gretsch Company authored by noted drum historian Rob Cook with researcher John Sheridan. While paperback production editions of the book were on sale, Rob presented Fred Gretsch, John Sheridan, and Steve Maxwell with special leather-bound commemorative editions to mark the occasion.

A special guest at the event was Sam Ulano, who himself is an NYC drumming icon. Sam has been an active player and a highly revered teacher since the early 1950s. And, at the age of ninety-three, he’s the oldest living Gretsch drum endorser. Although in a wheelchair following recent surgery, Sam “held court” in a lively fashion for drummers in attendance, inviting everyone to attend his birthday party on August 12.

Fred Gretsch spent most of the time chatting with drummers, signing autographs, and even adding his signature to several drums. One was a 1961 Starlight Sparkle kit owned by jazz drummer Brandon Sanders. Another was a snare drum belonging to Pavel Timoveev, who had just come to America from Moscow a week earlier dreaming of owning Gretsch drums and who couldn’t quite believe his good fortune.

Distant cousins Bill Gretsch (at left) and Sally Gretsch Coulson presented Fred Gretsch with an album documenting many generations of Gretsch Family history.

Fred himself received a pleasant surprise with the arrival of two distant relatives—Bill Gretsch, of Maryland, and his sister Sally Gretsch Coulson, of New Jersey—who had traveled to this event specifically to present Fred with a gift. That gift was an album illustrating Gretsch Family history back to well before Friedrich Gretsch came to America. Bill and Sally told Fred that their great-grandfathers were brothers, and thus they shared a common great-great-grandfather. Fred commented that having documentation of the family that far back in his hand while his grandson was at his side placed seven Gretsch generations in the room.

Gretsch’s anniversary celebration at Maxwell’s was also attended by several key figures in the Gretsch Drums manufacturing and sales operation. These included Jim Druckrey (COO of distributor KMC Music) and his family, John Palmer (Gretsch Drums product manager for KMC), Steve Nigohosian and Kim Graham (KMC artist relations), and Paul Cooper (production manager for Gretsch USA Custom drums).

The indomitable Sam Ulano was a special guest at the anniversary event. At ninety-three Sam is the oldest Gretsch drum endorser. He’s still an active player and teacher in NYC. Here Sam autographs a drumhead for an admirer.

Russian jazz drummer Pavel Timoveev (at right) got the thrill of a lifetime when he was able to purchase the Gretsch snare drum he’d always dreamed of owning—and then have it personally autographed by Fred Gretsch himself.

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Concert At Rudy’s Music

Rudy's Gretsch Guitar Wall and Posters.

In quintessential New York fashion, Fred Gretsch and Logan Thomas then took a subway from Midtown south to SoHo for the second event of the day: A concert held at Rudy’s Music on Broome Street (just across the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn, and thus even “closer to home” for Gretsch). Rudy’s is an upscale shop specializing in upscale new and vintage guitars, and Gretsch guitars of both types were on display. These included a classic 1956 “Black Gold” 6120 model custom-made for Chet Atkins.

Once again Fred and Logan represented the family, once again signing autographs and chatting with Gretsch fans. Meanwhile, a stellar roster of performers was on hand to entertain the enthusiastic crowd. Fred acted as emcee, introducing each of the artists.

Kim with Her Band.

Although the main focus of the show at Rudy’s was on the guitar side of Gretsch musical-instrument manufacturing, the first Gretsch performer was a drummer: the talented Kimberly Thompson. Well known as the former drummer for pop star Beyonce, Kim is also extremely skilled at jazz, as was made evident by the playing she did with her own quartet. The group played an adventurous yet eminently musical set, combining odd times, dramatic dynamic shifts, poignant melodies, and complex compositions to earn a well-deserved series of enthusiastic ovations from the crowd. Kim herself proved an exciting soloist, with power, speed, and inventiveness to spare.

Up next were the CAAS Cats, a group named for and drawn from the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society. Led by long-time Gretsch guitar artist Bobby Gibson, the group demonstrated the finger-picking playing style made famous by Chet Atkins (himself an iconic Gretsch artist and the namesake of several Gretsch guitar models). With additional guitarist John Standefer, bassist Frank Gruner, and drummer Wayne Johnson, the Cats combined folksy humor with virtuoso playing to the delight of the audience.

Shop owner Rudy Pensa thanked Gretsch Guitars for helping him realize his dream of owning an upscale guitar store.

Shop owner Rudy Pensa took the stage next to thank the audience for coming, and to deliver a heartfelt description of how he came to America from Argentina with the dream of operating a professional guitar shop. With the opening of his SoHo shop—along with another location on 48th Street in Midtown—Rudy’s dream was realized, and he offered his thanks to Gretsch Guitars for helping to make that happen. In so doing, he singled out Gretsch Guitars national sales manager Joe Carducci and FMIC/Gretsch regional sales manager Dave Waters—both of who were in attendance—for their efforts.

Fred Gretsch returned to the stage to make some special presentations. The first was plaques for Rudy Pensa and Steve Maxwell honoring their achievements in the music business and particularly on behalf of Gretsch guitars and drums. The second was framed copies of the Gretsch 130th Anniversary Timeline Poster, which graphically depicts significant milestones in the company’s history.

Fred next introduced the day’s closing act: Paul Pigat & Cousin Harley. This Vancouver, Canada-based trio (with Keith Picot on bass and Jesse Cahill on drums) played an eclectic set of rockabilly, country, Latin, swing, and blues—all founded on Paul’s blazing guitar technique and roots-rock vocals. The group literally flooded the audience with musical energy, stopping at the end of their planned set only long enough to catch a moment’s breath before responding to demands for an encore.

Fred Gretsch closed the show with his thanks to everyone for their support of the day’s events and for their ongoing allegiance to Gretsch guitars and drums. It had been a heck of a party!

The CAAS Cats ably demonstrated the finger-picking style of guitar playing made famous by Chet Atkins.

Guitar ace Paul Pigat led his trio through a rousing and eclectic set of rockabilly, country, swing, blues…and much more.

Additional photos from the Gretsch events at Steve Maxwell’s Custom & Vintage Drum Shop and Rudy’s Music:

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Video clips from the concert event at Rudy’s Music can be seen on the Gretsch Company’s YouTube channel.

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Spotlight: The New Renown

Friday, June 7th, 2013

FROM THE GRETSCH DRUMS WEBSITE:

New Styling. Enhanced Features. The Same Great Gretsch Sound.

Some Change is Good
The concept of the Renown redesign was to give the series fresh visual appeal and enhance sonic performance, while preserving its classic Gretsch vibe and spirit. The newly designed round, two-toned badge features gleaming silver artwork embossed over a black nickel background.

Some Things Didn’t Need to Change
The Renown has always been revered for its rock-solid craftsmanship and excellent sonic performance. Gretsch still uses the proven and unique Renown formula that combines North American Rock Maple with a slightly softer maple species. Each drum is expertly completed with smooth 30 degree bearing edges and Gretsch’s exclusive Silver Sealer interior finish. Heavy-duty Gretsch die-cast hoops are fitted to all tom and snare shells and classic Gretsch lugs adorn each drum. This Gretsch-engineered shell/hoop combination produces explosive attack and power that is rich with warm, low-end timbre.

For all the details including kit configurations and finishes, visit GretschDrums.com.

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Remembering Robert Zildjian

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

With the passing of Sabian Cymbals founder Robert Zildjian this past March 28 the percussion industry has lost one of its genuine originals. And I’ve lost a colleague that I respected and admired.

Bob Zildjian’s life and career—which were completely inseparable—covered more than six decades. He was a living bridge between the era when drum and cymbal companies were owned and run by individuals (with last names like Ludwig, Zildjian, Slingerland, Paiste, and, of course, Gretsch) and today’s incredibly expansive percussion industry.

Most drummers know something about Bob’s story, but for those who don’t, here’s a brief synopsis: Bob was the son of Avedis Zildjian, who established the Avedis Zildjian Cymbal Company in the Boston suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts in 1923. Along with his older brother Armand, Bob worked for his father from a very young age, learning every aspect of the cymbal business. That business became everything to Bob, and he approached it with a passion that remained his driving motivation for the rest of his life.

Bob took extended time off from the cymbal business only twice. The first was to attend Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1945. It might surprise some people to learn that Bob’s degree was not in business, but in history and philosophy. But anyone who had the pleasure of spending time with Bob soon learned that his brusque, plain-spoken manner disguised a keen intellect and a philosophical outlook on the world.

Bob’s second “break” from the cymbal business was a stint in the infantry during World War II. Upon his return, he joined a friend’s hunting party on the St. John River in Meductic, New Brunswick, Canada. He fell in love with the picturesque setting, and when it came time for the Zildjian Company to expand its production and export capacity with a second factory, Bob established that factory in Meductic. There the company first made AZCO cymbals, and later made hand-hammered K Zildjian models.

When Bob’s father died in 1979, disagreements between Bob and his brother Armand over the company’s future ultimately led to an irresolvable conflict. Bob was given the choice of taking a cash buyout and leaving the cymbal business altogether, or taking ownership of the Meductic factory in order to stay in the business. But he couldn’t use his own family’s name in any advertising. In effect, at middle age and with a wife and three children to support, he’d have to start all over again.

This prospect might have daunted other men, but not Bob. With the support of his family, he launched a totally new cymbal brand. At his wife Willi’s suggestion, the company’s name was created from the first two letters of their children’s names: SAlly, BIll, and ANdy. Cymbals were first introduced to Europe and Asia in 1982, and to the American market in 1983.

From that time until shortly before his passing, Bob remained totally dedicated and deeply involved in the development of Sabian, taking pride in the growth of that company into an international leader. Although he relinquished the day-to-day reins to his son Andy in 1996, he retained the title of “Chairman,” and his presence was a constant inspiration to everyone in the company—as well as to the percussion industry at large.

History includes quite a few connections between the Gretsch and Zildjian families, with Bob a major figure within them. When he worked for the Zildjian company in the 1940s he dealt closely with my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr.—who was president of the company for most of that time—as well as with my father, Bill Gretsch, who ran the company briefly while my uncle served in the navy during World War II. In fact, Bob was one of the few people in today’s music business who knew my father, who passed away in 1948.

Bob and I also had somewhat of a personal connection—if only coincidentally. He founded Sabian in 1982 and first brought cymbals into the US market in 1983—thus establishing his own family business. In that same year I purchased the Gretsch Company from Baldwin—thus returning that business to family ownership.

When Bob was still working for Zildjian in the 1950s and ’60s he was involved in a dispute between Zildjian and Gretsch concerning the ownership of the K Zildjian trademark and the distribution of K Zildjian cymbals. That dispute went on for several years, and many of the exact details have been lost to time. In an effort to rectify that situation I had the pleasure of sharing a breakfast meeting with Bob and his wife Willi at the 2011 NAMM show. I listened avidly as Bob regaled us with story after story about Zildjian history, and how it related to Gretsch history as well. He even told me some things about my uncle Fred that I hadn’t known before.

My wife Dinah and I spoke with Bob and Willi again in July of 2011 when we visited their home town of Brunswick, Maine. Regrettably, circumstances prevented our accepting an invitation to visit with them at their house—for the second time. (A freak snowstorm had forced us to cancel a planned visit some years earlier.)

It was a pleasure to know Bob, whose unique personality and hands-on, no-nonsense style set him apart from the “corporate” image that has come to identify many of today’s music-industry leaders. His like will not be seen again, and I will miss him tremendously.

Fred Gretsch

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Building the Great American Drum Set for 130 Years

Friday, January 25th, 2013

FROM THE GRETSCH DRUMS WEBSITE:

Since 1883, Gretsch has proudly been making drums in the USA. For many, owning an American-made Gretsch drum set is a dream come true–a hard-earned return on the investment a drummer makes to become the best player they can be.

Gretsch Drums is proud to celebrate its 130th anniversary in 2013 with a limited run of commemorative USA made drum sets and snare drums that will be released throughout the year. Each drum will include a special 130th anniversary interior shell label that is numbered to signify its production sequence. Drum sets will also include a hand signed Certificate of Authenticity.

Anniversary Drum Sets and Snare Drums

The original Gretsch factories were located in Brooklyn, New York. It was there that a design formula was developed that would result in what drummers all over the world would come to recognize as “That Great Gretsch Sound.™” Today, Ridgeland, South Carolina is the home of Gretsch Drums and the craftsmen there are still using the same techniques and formulas to build the highly coveted Gretsch USA Custom Drums and Gretsch Brooklyn Series Drums.

130TH ANNIVERSARY LIMITED SATIN BIRDSEYE MAPLE

This classic five-piece USA Custom Drum Set features a breathtaking Birdseye Maple veneer. The wood was carefully hand selected for its unique figuring and its grain and color consistency. Only 30 sets will be produced world-wide. The shells are hand sanded and are finished with a clear, non-tinted Nitrocellulose Satin lacquer to preserve the wood’s natural beauty. The shells interiors are finished with Gretsch’s time-honored Silver Sealer and include numbered 130th Anniversary commemorative shell labels. The set also includes matching Birdseye Maple bass drum hoops and Gretsch Permatone drum heads by Remo® with 130th Anniversary logos. All drums are fully made to USA Custom specifications in Ridgeland, South Carolina.

130TH ANNIVERSARY LIMITED SILVER SATIN FLAME

Globally limited to only 35 sets, this USA Custom 130th Anniversary kit features a spectacular Silver Satin Flame Nitron. Silver Satin Flame is a classic finish used by Gretsch during the late 1960s. The kit comes with numbered and serialized 130th Anniversary interior shell labels and Certificate of Authenticity. All drums are precision made to Gretsch USA Custom specifications.

130TH ANNIVERSARY LIMITED SATIN VINTAGE CHERRY BURST

The Gretsch Factory in Ridgeland, South Carolina, USA developed one of the most stunning finishes ever to celebrate the company’s 130th Anniversary. Vintage Cherry Burst is a Nitrocellulose Satin Lacquer that is warm and captivating and, with only 30 sets being produced for worldwide distribution, this six-piece kit is sure to become an immediate collectable.

130TH ANNIVERSARY LIMITED GOLD SATIN FLAME

For those looking to go completely retro, this limited edition four-piece set has all of the classic styling to suit your taste. Built in traditional sizes, this USA Custom Anniversary kit features a Gold Satin Flame Nitron finish and truly quintessential hardware appointments. Shell interiors are finished with Gretsch® Silver Sealer and carry a numbered commemorative shell label. Only 35 of these incredible drum sets will be manufactured and each comes with its own Certificate of Authenticity.

130TH ANNIVERSARY BROOKLYN SERIES LIMITED PEWTER SPARKLE

The USA Factory has also created a celebratory limited edition of the Gretsch® Brooklyn Series. This incredible four-piece set is finished in a stunning Pewter Sparkle Nitron. This beautiful finish must be seen to be believed. The silver-gray Nitron flakes reflect ambient light in a fashion that produces subtle yet striking colors, ranging from a shimmering silver to a gleaming lavender. The four-piece configuration is a “playe’r’s” kit that drives strong grooves in a variety of musical styles. Each set comes with 130th Anniversary internal shell labels and signed Certificate of Authenticity.

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Limited Edition Snare Drums

Gretsch® has released three special limited edition snare drums to celebrate the company’s 130th Anniversary. The interior of each shell carries a commemorative label with the drum’s hand-written individual production number. These drums will only be offered in 2013.

130TH ANNIVERSARY SATIN BIRDSEYE MAPLE SNARE DRUM

6.5″x14″ Satin Birsdeye Maple snare drum; 6-ply Gretsch maple shell with Satin Nitrocellulose Lacquer Birdseye veneer; Silver Sealer with 130th Anniversary interior shell label. 30-degree bearing edge; Lightning throw-off and butt plate, batter side muffler, 16 lugs, Snap-in key holder, 42-strand snares.

130TH ANNIVERSARY CLARO WALNUT SNARE DRUM

6.5″x14″ Solid Claro walnut with Claro walnut reinforcement rings, finished in Satin Nitrocellulose lacquer; Natural interior with 130th Anniversary interior shell label; 30-degree bearing edge; Gretsch Round Badge; Lightning throw-off and butt plate, 10 lugs, 20-strand snares.

130TH ANNIVERSARY FLAT BLACK SOLID ALUMINUM SNARE DRUM

7″x14″ Flat Black Solid Aluminum snare drum; Black Hardware; 45-degree bearing edge; Gretsch Round Badge; Black Lightning throw-off and butt plate, Black Suede Ambassador batter drum head, 20 lugs, 42-strand snares.

For more information, photos, and specs on these and other Gretsch Drums, visit their website.

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Round Badge Makes Return to Gretsch USA Custom Drums

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

As the Gretsch Company celebrates it’s 130th anniversary in 2013, it is also reintroducing the iconic round badge.  Made of brass with a vent hole, the badge will be included on all USA Custom drums, including the G-4000 Series Metal and G-5000 Series Wood Snare Drums.

The newly-designed Gretsch Round Badge shares many of the same characteristics of the original version. Both are made from brass, yet the new version has only the Gretsch name embossed. (On the original brass badge, all of the graphic elements were embossed.) To enhance the look of the new badge, a simulated “patina” is applied giving it a textured, rustic appearance. The new badge will be affixed to the drums’ vent hole using a pneumatically pressed brass grommet. And, a grommet will be used for all drums whereas on the original round badge series the toms used a tack since there was no venthole on round badge era toms. Only the round badge era snares and bass drum had ventholes.

The Gretsch Round Badge was used on all Gretsch USA-made drums between 1930 and 1970 and grew to become an iconic symbol. Gretsch Drums manufactured during this period continue to be highly collectable and extremely valuable throughout the vintage drum community.

Even though Gretsch has introduced several alternative badge styles since 1970, the Round Badge continued to make periodic comebacks for special commemorative products like the 120th Anniversary Edition Products in 2003 and the 125th Anniversary Drums in 2008. In January 2012, a silver version of the traditional Round Badge was introduced on the newly released, USA-made Brooklyn Series.

“The reintroduction of the Round Badge to our USA-made product is a welcome return to a classic and very emblematic Gretsch Drum design,” said John Palmer, Director of Product for Gretsch Drums. “As we approach the company’s 130th anniversary, we are very proud to combine key elements of our rich heritage with our continuing advancements in drum making.”

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Music Icons Meet In Brooklyn

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Charlie Watts and Fred Gretsch Celebrate Each Other’s Anniversaries

This past December 8 saw a unique meeting between two icons of the music industry—both of whom were celebrating very special anniversaries.

Legendary drummer Charlie Watts was performing at the brand-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The seventy-one-year-old Watts and his compatriots in the Rolling Stones were celebrating their fiftieth anniversary as “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.”

Fred W. Gretsch and his wife Dinah attended the Stones concert as a way to celebrate two anniversaries of their own: fifty years of association with Charlie Watts as a Gretsch drums endorser, and Gretsch’s 130th anniversary as a musical instrument manufacturer, which the company will mark in 2013.

The location of the meeting held a special poignancy for Fred and Charlie both, since the Barclays Center is only a short distance away from the original Gretsch factory at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn. As a boy, Fred spent many a summer there working for his uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr. And it was in that very factory that the drumkits used by Charlie in his early career with the Stones were built. (The program for the Barclays Center show, titled 50 & Counting: The Rolling Stones Live included thanks from Charlie to Gretsch Drums and to Fred Gretsch.)

Fred Gretsch and Charlie Watts backstage.

At the Brooklyn show Fred and Dinah had a chance to visit backstage with Charlie, and to exchange reminiscences about Charlie’s long and storied career on Gretsch drums. This was their second meeting this year; they’d gotten together this past March when Fred and Dinah were vacationing in Europe and Charlie was performing in Vienna, Austria with an eclectic group called The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie.

While backstage at the Barclays Center Fred and Dinah also chatted with Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell. This was another reunion of sorts; they had connected in 2008 when Chuck served as the musical director and bandleader for the Gretsch Big Event. That was a concert held at New York City’s Highline Ballroom to celebrate Gretsch’s 125th anniversary.

The Stones’ “50 & Counting” mini-tour started in November with two shows at London’s O2 arena. The show at the Barclays Center was the first on the US leg—and their first in the US since 2006. It is scheduled to be followed by performances at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on December 13 and 15. But another, very special appearance was added to their agenda: the 12/12/12 benefit concert at New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden. On that show the band will be joined by such stellar artists as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, and The Who to raise money for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

The Round Badge Returns to Gretsch USA Custom Drums

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT BY GRETSCH DRUMS:

In January 2013, Gretsch will reintroduce a round, brass, vent hole badge on all USA Custom drums, including G-4000 Series Metal and G-5000 Series Wood Snare Drums.

The newly designed Gretsch Round Badge shares many of the same characteristics of the original version. Both are made from brass, yet the new version has only the Gretsch name embossed. (On the original brass badge, all of the graphic elements were embossed.) To enhance the look of the new badge, a simulated “patina” is applied giving it a textured, rustic appearance. The new badge will be affixed to the drums’ vent hole using a pneumatically pressed brass grommet. And, a grommet will be used for all drums whereas on the original round badge series the toms used a tack since there was no venthole on round badge era toms. Only the round badge era snares and bass drum had ventholes.

The Gretsch Round Badge was used on all Gretsch USA-made drums between 1930 and 1970 and grew to become an iconic symbol. Gretsch Drums manufactured during this period continue to be highly collectable and extremely valuable throughout the vintage drum community.
Even though Gretsch has introduced several alternative badge styles since 1970, the Round Badge continued to make periodic comebacks for special commemorative products like the 120th Anniversary Edition Products in 2003 and the 125th Anniversary Drums in 2008. In January 2012, a silver version of the traditional Round Badge was introduced on the newly released, USA-made Brooklyn Series.

“The reintroduction of the Round Badge to our USA-made product is a welcome return to a classic and very emblematic Gretsch Drum design,” said John Palmer, Director of Product for Gretsch Drums. “As we approach the company’s 130th anniversary, we are very proud to combine key elements of our rich heritage with our continuing advancements in drum making.”

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Chick Webb: The Savoy King

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

Visit The Savoy King website for more information.

Reflections On A Little Giant

by Fred W. Gretsch

I recently learned that a film titled The Savoy King: Chick Webb And The Music That Changed America has been selected for the 50th annual New York Film Festival. . . The documentary brings alive the untold story of drummer/bandleader William Henry “Chick” Webb, the “little giant” who taught himself to drum and taught the rest of the world to swing. I earnestly encourage anyone with an interest in drumming, in jazz, or just generally in music to attend a screening if at all possible.

Music and film critic Garry Giddins wrote, “The Savoy King is a wonderful film—dynamic and true to the spirit of its subject. If Chick Webb’s life had been a novel, filmmakers would have lined up to option it. Through genius and a fabled will, Chick became a true titan in American music. This remarkable story of an indispensable man is one of the great musical documentaries of our time.”

Chick Webb and Gretsch Drums

This historic shot has been colorized to approximate the look of Chick Webb and his Gretsch-Gladstone kit in 1937. Note how the kit is mounted on a rolling console frame.

The occasion of this important film screening got me to thinking about the historic connection between Chick Webb and Gretsch drums. The fact is, Chick was probably the first real drumming star to be promoted as a Gretsch artist. The 1939 Gretsch catalog features a great photo of Chick—touted as “the king of the drums”—enthusiastically swinging behind a Gretsch-Gladstone drumkit.

That 1939 catalog was the first to include Gretsch-Gladstone drums. They were a collaboration between the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company (then run by my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr.) and legendary Radio City Music Hall drummer and inventor Billy Gladstone. Billy had devised a tuning system for snare drums that allowed tensioning of the batter head, the bottom head, or both—all without lifting the drum off its stand.  According to Chet Falzerano in Gretsch Drums: The Legacy Of “That Great Gretsch Sound,” Gretsch-Gladstone drums debuted in 1937 and shortly became the choice of prominent drummers of the day. And the “paramount endorser among this group” was Chick Webb.

If Gretsch-Gladstone drums were unusual, Chick’s kit was downright unique. It was a combination of drums and “traps”—percussive sound effects including temple blocks—all mounted on a rolling console frame. The bass drum was 28″ in diameter; the “rack” tom was 9×13, and the floor tom was 14×16. Zildjian cymbals–one large on Chick’s right and one small on his left–were hung on loop hangers from gooseneck stands attached to the bass drum. The drums were covered in a striking oriental pearl finish inlayed with contrasting green sparkle “chicks” around the center of each drum.

Chick was touted as “king of the drums” on the cover of the 1939 Gretsch Drums catalog.

The unique nature of Chick’s drumkit mirrored his unique qualities as a drummer. No less a drum giant than Buddy Rich revered Chick, saying that Chick “represented true hipness. His playing was original, different, completely his own. If he were alive now, most drummers would be trying to figure out why they decided to play drums. That’s how good he was.”

Chick’s Extraordinary Background

Chick’s abilities as a drummer were made all the more astounding by the fact that he was physically handicapped.  Shortly after his birth (in 1905 in Baltimore) he contracted spinal tuberculosis. The debilitating illness left him with a hunchback and little use of his legs. Doctors suggested that he take up drumming as a remedy for stiff joints.  Chick worked as a paperboy to earn enough to buy a drumset that was fitted with special custom-pedals so that he could reach them. He taught himself to play, and he made his professional debut at the age of eleven.

Chick’s diminutive size sometimes made him hard to see behind his large drums.

When Chick was seventeen he moved to New York, where he started playing with such jazz notables as Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington. At less than five feet tall, he could barely be seen when seated behind his drums. But he could certainly be heard. His forceful sense of swing, accurate technique, control of dynamics, and imaginative breaks and fills gained him the respect of his peers and the admiration of fans. As a result, by 1926 Chick was leading his own band. Although he was unable to read music, he easily memorized the arrangements played by the band. This, in turn, allowed him to direct performances from a raised platform in the center of the ensemble, giving cues with his drumming.

Chick’s band alternated between road tours and long-term stands at New York City clubs through the late 1920s. In 1931, his group became the house band at Harlem’s legendary Savoy Ballroom. There the band delighted dance-crazy audiences with songs like “Stomping At The Savoy” and “Blue Lou.”

Legendary Band Battles

The Savoy regularly featured “battles” between the name big bands of the day, with Chick Webb’s band taking on the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. On one such occasion in 1937, Chick’s band faced the high-flying Goodman band at its peak, with popular superstar Gene Krupa in the drummer’s chair. According to all reports, Chick’s band left Benny’s group drained and defeated. And as for the drumming, Gene Krupa himself put it succinctly: “Chick cut me to ribbons.”

Chick’s Later Career

Another colorized shot depicting Chick in 1938 with his vocal “discovery”—a then-teenaged Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1935, Chick hired a seventeen-year-old vocalist who’d just won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald, and Chick recognized her amazing talent immediately—to the point that he rebuilt his show around her. They formed a powerful partnership and recorded over sixty songs in the next three years. These included “A Tisket-A-Tasket,” which remained at the top of the charts for seventeen weeks in 1938.

The fame of Chick Webb and his band continued to grow, fueled by the group’s reputation as a giant-killer in the Savoy battles and a continuous string of record hits like “T’aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” and “Liza.” But sadly, Chick’s always-precarious health began to give way, and he started to have difficulty finishing performances.

Despite his health problems, Chick continued to tour and record with his orchestra in order to keep them employed during the Depression. But in June of 1939 he became seriously ill, and he entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. After undergoing a major operation, he passed away on June 16, 1939, at the age of thirty-four. His last words reportedly were, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”

With the passing of Chick Webb the world lost a legend…and Gretsch lost an association that was more than just an endorsement deal.  Still, though Chick is gone, his legacy remains. Drummers everywhere who appreciate the history of the instrument know that Chick Webb stands as one of the great innovators. According to Barry Ulanov in A History Of Jazz In America, he was, “perhaps the greatest of jazz drummers—a gallant little man who made his contribution to jazz within a framework of pain and suffering.”

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