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.
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.
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).
Concert At Rudy’s Music
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.
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 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!
Additional photos from the Gretsch events at Steve Maxwell’s Custom & Vintage Drum Shop and Rudy’s Music:
Video clips from the concert event at Rudy’s Music can be seen on the Gretsch Company’s YouTube channel.