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.”
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.”