…and Leaving the Gibson Company
The Gretsch-McCarty-Bigsby family legacy still going strong today.
By Fred W. Gretsch
I was thinking recently about how three well-timed telephone calls forever linked three families and changed the history of Gibson Guitars, Bigsby Accessories, and the Gretsch Company.
The first call was placed in 1948 from my father, Bill Gretsch, to Maurice Berlin, the Chairman of the Board of Chicago Musical Instruments, the company that purchased Gibson Guitars in 1944. My father called Mr. Berlin because his good friend, Ted McCarty, who was visiting in my father’s office, had shared that he was resigning from the Wurlitzer Company, getting out of the music business, and waiting on a job offer from the Brach Candy Company.
My father told Ted he was too well known and respected, and that the music business couldn’t afford to lose him. Before Ted could leave my father’s office, my father called Mr. Berlin and arranged a meeting between Ted and Mr. Berlin. As you know, that meeting lead to Ted being offered the position of President at Gibson Guitars. His leadership and keen business and engineering skills turned Gibson around and guided them through their golden years of innovation and production in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The second call was placed a little over 50 years ago in 1965 (the year I started to work at the Gretsch Company) by Paul Bigsby from his small factory in Downey, California to his good friend, Ted McCarty, who was in his 17th year as President of Gibson Guitars. Paul had been manufacturing his innovative guitar vibratos since 1952, but he was 65, having health issues, and looking to retire and sell his business.
Ted had helped Bigsby grow in the 1950s by being the first company to put Bigsby vibratos on Gibson’s factory-built guitars. Ted even used his engineering skills to design the swing away handle to replace Bigsby’s original fixed-handle design. When Paul Bigsby called that day, he was calling to offer his business to Ted, not to the Gibson Company. Bigsby felt his business would be in better hands with his friend Ted McCarty and wasn’t interested in selling it to a company.
In 1965, Ted was 57 and very unhappy with recent management changes at Gibson’s parent company. He also probably sensed more changes coming to the guitar industry. Fender had been purchased by CBS Corporation for $13 million in January and Ted knew the guitar boom years couldn’t continue forever.
So, in November 1965, Ted flew out to California, met with Paul Bigsby and bought his company the same day. On New Year’s Day 1966, a truck loaded everything from Bigsby’s shop and drove back to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Ted resigned from Gibson in March and became owner of Bigsby Accessories for more than 30 years.
I was more than happy to contact Ted in 1989 (he was a longtime friend of the family and even attended my baptism) after I bought the family business back from Baldwin and was ready to roll out the new lineup of Gretsch guitars. Even at 80 years old, Ted had a razor-sharp memory and was the world’s leading authority on Bigsby vibratos.
I always felt Ted McCarty didn’t get the proper recognition for all the contributions he made to the guitar industry. With the Gretsch-Bigsby relationship reestablished, Dinah and I were pleased to host a gala dinner to honor Ted (as well as our friend, Duane Eddy) at the 1997 Summer NAMM Show in Nashville. Hundreds of Gretsch retailers, distributors, and guests attended this special tribute to an unsung giant of the guitar business. It was a night all who attended will never forget.
The third call is special to me because it continued the McCarty-Gretsch family friendship started by my father more than 70 years ago in Chicago. In 1999, I was delighted to get Ted’s phone call offering to sell Bigsby Accessories to me. It was a great opportunity since Gretsch guitars and Bigsby vibratos had been inseparable since the 1950s. We were more than happy to purchase Ted’s company on May 10, 1999, and in October 1999, Ted retired at the age of 89 after a long, successful 63-year career in the music industry.
There have only been three keepers of the Bigsby brand the past 60 years and Dinah and I are proud to be the current keepers. Hopefully both Paul Bigsby and Ted McCarty are looking down and smiling at how the Gretsch family has grown the business and preserved the Bigsby heritage. We’re continuing to follow the successful formula established more than 60 years ago, using the same hand-made processes and as many of the original machines and suppliers as possible. There is no better way I can think of to honor friends of the family and keep their legacy alive. I think the previous three generations of Gretsch Company Presidents – my father, uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather – would agree.