Posts Tagged ‘That Great Gretsch Sound’

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

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Tony Williams: The Innovator

by Fred W. Gretsch

Music is, and always has been, an ever-evolving medium. Styles are developed, made popular, changed, and re-developed as something new again. And just as it takes a drummer to propel a band, it often takes a drummer to propel these stylistic changes.

I’m proud to say that many of the drummers who have provided this propulsion over the past decades have done so on Gretsch drums. And while each of those drummers has had his or her own distinctive playing style and sound, the “Great Gretsch Sound” of their drums has been the starting point.

From time to time I’m going to take the opportunity to share with you just a few performances by some of those great Gretsch drummers. I hope they’ll encourage you to do your own exploration to see and hear what made these incredible artists so important to the history of music.

Tony Williams - The Early Days

There’s simply no better drummer to start this series with than the great Tony Williams. While not the earliest “Great Gretsch Drummer” (and we’ll get to those earlier drummers in the future), Tony is arguably the single most influential drummer of the 20th century. Initially identified as a “jazz” drummer—mainly because he arrived on the scene as a member of Miles Davis’s legendary 1960s quintet—Tony quickly demonstrated that he was not to be pigeonholed within any style. His playing encompassed elements of jazz, rock, R&B, and Latin music. He combined these with formidable technique and unbridled passion to create dynamic performances that electrified audiences around the world—and sent millions of drummers racing to their practice rooms. Many of today’s greatest drum figures cite Tony Williams as their most important influence.

Tony and his Big Gretsch Kit

So check out the following YouTube clips as a starting point for your own exploration into the talent, passion, and undeniable uniqueness that defined Tony Williams:

1.  This is a performance by the Miles Davis Quintet at the Stadthalle in Karlsruhe, Germany, in November of 1967. Tony was only twenty-one years old at this time, but he had already become recognized as the drummer to watch on the jazz scene.  WATCH.

2.  By 1979 Tony was leading his own groups. At this performance in France Tony gets funky –and incredibly dynamic—on a tune called “Wild Life.”  WATCH.

3.  From the same concert, here’s Tony’s drum solo from “There Comes The Time.”  WATCH.

4.  For an idea of how Tony drove a band, there’s no better example than this recording made live in New York in 1989 by Tony’s Quartet. This clip is Part 1.  WATCH.

5.  And here’s Part 2. What it must have been like to be in the audience for this show!  WATCH.

6.  Here’s another incredible drum solo from Tony, performed at the International Jazz Festival in Berghausen, Austria, in 1989.  WATCH.

Enjoy!

Tony's Famous Yellow Gretsch

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The Gretsch Drum Book Special Hardcover Collector’s Edition

Monday, November 25th, 2013

The Gretsch Drum Book, which became an in-demand item among drum history fans immediately upon its release this past August, will shortly become available in a special hardcover edition.

At once a scholarly work and an entertaining read, The Gretsch Drum Book is the work of Rob Cook—one of America’s best-known drum historians and the producer of the legendary Chicago Custom & Vintage Drum Show. With the invaluable assistance of researcher John Sheridan, Rob details the fascinating story of Gretsch Drums and the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company. It’s a story that’s inextricably linked to the history of the Gretsch Family—a history that spans 130 years and four generations. A foreward by Fred W. Gretsch adds a personal element to the family connection.

This classic hardbound version will be released in a limited edition of only 300 copies, making it a must-have for collectors and for those who revere the legacy of “That Great Gretsch Sound.” The book will be available as of January 1, 2014, and may be ordered exclusively online at GretschGear.com. Retail price is $50.
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Happy Birthday Bill!

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

by Fred W. Gretsch

This coming July 13th is an important date to me. It’s the 90th birthday of Bill Hagner—a gentleman who figures highly in the history of Gretsch musical-instrument manufacturing. In fact, for many years Bill was personally responsible for seeing that that manufacturing was conducted smoothly and efficiently.

Bill started working at Gretsch on December 1, 1941—six days prior to Pearl Harbor day. In a 2009 interview with Gretsch Family publicist Rick Van Horn, Bill recalls, “I had just finished high school, and I answered an ad in the paper for someone to work in the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. I was essentially a clerk. One day I went in to the office of Phil Nash, who was a vice president, and he said to me, ‘I want to tell you something right from the start: Someday this is going to be big company. So I advise you, if you have any interest [in a career], learn what you’re doing and stay with it.” Bill took Mr. Nash’s advice to heart.

Because he was working for Gretsch in 1941, young Bill had the opportunity to interact with my grandfather Fred Gretsch Sr. during the last year that Grandpa was running the company. In that same 2009 interview Bill tells the following story about one such interaction: “Fred Gretsch Sr. came in one day and showed me a little piece of chrome-plated metal, about three inches long. He said, ‘I took this off of a can opener. Some day you’re going to need a piece just like this to use as a throw-off for a snare strainer.’ That’s the foresight this man had.”

One of Bill’s early jobs was to prepare the payroll for the factory workers. All jobs were done as “piece work” at the time, and Bill had to review and approve individual pay slips for each job. When he didn’t understand an operation that was being paid for, he’d go to the worker and say, “Explain what you’re doing to me.” In that way he eventually became knowledgeable about every operation taking place—preparing him to become plant manager down the road.

During World War II American industry turned much of its efforts toward war-related production, and Gretsch was no exception. Speaking of these days in Chet Falzerano’s Gretsch Drums, The Legacy Of “That Great Gretsch Sound,” Bill recalls, “We manufactured musical instruments during the day, till 5:00 p.m. Then I set up a night shift to work till 1 a.m. making wooden parts for gas masks. We made one-inch-wide hoops, like for a bass drum, but only ten to twelve inches in diameter. They were used in the bottom and top sections of the gas mask. Those were the only war products that we made. We also manufactured musical instruments for the government.”

Bill remained with Gretsch after the war, eventually becoming plant manager at the Brooklyn factory at 60 Broadway. The 1950s and early 60s were heady days for Gretsch drums, with great endorsers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams on the jazz side, and future superstars Charlie Watts and Phil Collins on the rock side. Those drummers would visit the factory, and Bill would give them the grand tour, showing them every detail of how their drums were made.

When my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., sold the company to Baldwin in 1967, Bill stayed on. He eventually moved to Booneville, Arkansas when the drum factory was relocated there. But after operations were established by Baldwin, they brought in their own people to run things. Bill found himself transferred to Baldwin’s Cincinnati, Ohio headquarters as Sales Manager.

Bill Reading Gretsch Drums, The Legacy Of “That Great Gretsch Sound” by Chet Falzerano

In Chet Falzerano’s book Bill recalls, “[Baldwin] really didn’t have anybody familiar with the drum situation. From there on it went downhill. About a year later Baldwin’s vice president in charge of all their factories came to me in Cincinnati and said, ‘You know Bill, I have to apologize. I should have let you run [the Booneville factory] the way you ran it in Brooklyn.’ It was really a nice thing to say, but it was too late.”

Bill eventually left the Baldwin Company, and for a short time he manufactured his own line of drums. But marketing problems impeded his start-up efforts, and his venture was not successful. So for a while he took his talents out of the music business completely.

Meanwhile, under Baldwin’s management Gretsch’s fortunes continued to decline. By 1983 they were looking to sell the company altogether. Baldwin’s loss became my gain in January of 1985, when we formally closed a deal that returned the Gretsch Company to family ownership. This was the realization of a dream for me.

Shortly thereafter I wanted to move drum-making operations out of Arkansas and into Ridgeland, South Carolina—where the Gretsch USA drum factory is still located today. Who better to help me in that effort than Bill Hagner? I got in touch with Bill, who was living in Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the time. He offered his services to help in the move of both machinery and inventory. That help proved invaluable in getting the drum-making operation up and running in its new home.

All in all, Bill Hagner spent fifty-eight years associated with Gretsch. His contributions over those years are a significant part of the Gretsch legacy. So, on behalf of the Gretsch Family and all Gretsch fans everywhere, I want to say, “Thanks, Bill…and Happy Birthday!”

Fred W. Gretsch

Bill Hagner

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Dinah and Fred Gretsch Host Drum-Makers Holiday Lunch

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Dinah and Fred Gretsch recently hosted a special holiday lunch for all the staff at the Gretsch USA Drum Manufacturing facility in Ridgeland, SC. The “Drum-makers Holiday Lunch” featured a splendid feast of southern delicacies and this special occasion was very much enjoyed by one and all.

Dinah Gretsch began the lunch by thanking everyone for all their hard work during the year and acknowledged the very important role that they play in upholding the Gretsch tradition for quality and for creating “That Great Gretsch Sound”. Fourth Generation family member Fred Gretsch further demonstrated the long history of this tradition by showing images of some of the earliest Gretsch drums from the pages of a 1912 Gretsch catalog.

With demand for Gretsch USA drums growing all around the world, the factory has recently been expanding its production staff.  So the holiday lunch also provided a great opportunity for the Gretsches to get to know better the newest members of the drum-making team.

Gretsch Drum Team

Front row:  Mrs. Dinah Gretsch, Tonya Munn, Lorena Ortuno, Juana Nunez, Emilia Ortiz, Maria Perez, Barbara Fennell, Harry Dailey, Paul Cooper.

Back row:  Mr. Fred Gretsch, Joshua Safer, Craig Johansen, Lee Vallier, Matt Collett, Adam Dycus.