Celebrating Fred Gretsch’s Fifty Years In The Music Business
This past May 30 saw a very special event in Brooklyn, New York: a celebration of Fred W. Gretsch’s fiftieth anniversary in the music industry. Representing the fourth generation of the Gretsch family business, Fred’s career began on March 2, 1965. Today he remains at the helm of the Gretsch Company—and as such is one of the very few individuals in the musical-instrument industry still actively involved with the brand that bears his name.
It’s entirely appropriate that the celebration of Fred’s anniversary was held in Brooklyn, because that’s where the Gretsch Company was located from its inception in 1883 until 1969. In those years the company manufactured great drums, guitars, banjos, and other instruments under the watchful eyes of Fred Gretsch’s great-grandfather (Friedrich Gretsch), grandfather (Fred Gretsch Sr.), father (William “Bill” Gretsch), and uncle (Fred Gretsch Jr.). The iconic Gretsch Building that housed the factory still stands today at 60 Broadway, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge.
And so it was that Gretsch fans, artists, and music-industry colleagues from across the country came to Brooklyn to help Fred and his family celebrate this auspicious occasion. And it all started with…
Gretsch Day At Street Sounds
Street Sounds is located on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn. Touting itself as “the world’s largest Gretsch dealer” (for guitars, amps, and related accessories), Street Sounds staged an all-day event that showcased Gretsch products and Gretsch artists alike.
Store owner Rocky Schiano decorated the shop for the occasion with an impressive array of Gretsch guitars. This included several stunning creations by the Gretsch Custom Shop operation. Rocky greeted the crowd, and then introduced Gretsch Guitar product manager Joe Carducci, who served as emcee for the day’s festivities.
Following a video presentation highlighting Gretsch history, Joe introduced Fred and Dinah Gretsch, who greeted the crowd on behalf of the Gretsch Family and the Gretsch Company. Fred then spoke about the importance of family, commenting on how he and Dinah shared a multi-generational involvement in business with daughter Lena, and pointing out that there were fifth- and sixth-generation Gretsch family members in attendance at the event. Dinah Gretsch offered her thanks to the audience for their attendance, then went on to express her deep personal conviction that music enriches the lives of those who pursue it.
Entertainment for the day began with a performance by Justin Keenan and Ben Fraser—two members of an Australian quintet called The Go Set. Switching between acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin, the talented duo impressed the crowd with their melodic stylings. Their closing number, “Liberty Bell,” was offered as a tribute to the spirit of America.
Senior master builder Stephen Stern was on hand to represent the Gretsch Custom Shop. He presented Fred with a specially-created banner featuring the Custom Shop logo and the signatures of all of the talented artists and builders at the shop itself.
You couldn’t get more “local Brooklyn” than the next band on the bill. Called Off The Roof, this young trio featured Rocky Schiano’s daughter Kristina on drums. (Gretsch drums, naturally.) Their energetic set of punk-infused R&B included numbers by Jimmy Eat World and Alicia Keys, as well as a unique arrangement of the classic Jackson 5 tune “I Want You Back.” Pretty impressive, considering that it was their self-described “first time playing out.”
Mark Nelson and Mike Nieman, representing the Gretsch drum-making operation, made the next presentation to Fred Gretsch. Appropriately enough, it was the prototype of a limited-edition snare drum model called the FredKaster ’65 FG. Only fifty of these unique 7×14 commemorative drums will be offered for sale in the US. Fred’s drum came with its head signed by everyone involved in the manufacturing and sale of Gretsch drums.
You might not think of New York City as a hotbed of country music, but Staten Islands’ The Nashville Attitude would prove you wrong. Fronted by the vocals, guitar, and banjo of Marc Vincent Sica (with Elvin Cartegena on guitar and Ian Underwood on bass) the group stormed through a set of foot-stompin’, knee-slappin’ tunes, including an ever-accelerating version of Johnny Cash’s classic “Rock Island Line” that challenged the stamina of drummer Dave Strickland.
The next scheduled act was Jet Weston and his Atomic Ranch Hands. But before they began, Joe Carducci introduced a surprise artist: the legendary “father of twang,” Duane Eddy. After modestly acknowledging the crowd’s enthusiastic applause, the Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer sat in with Jet and the band, adding his special touch to several tunes . . . including his 1960s hit, “Rebel Rouser.”
Then Jet and his boys returned to play an entertaining set of their trademark western swing and standards. Following a crowd-pleasing sing-along rendition of “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” Jet offered musical tributes—first to Dinah Gretsch by singing the classic “Dinah…Is There Anyone Finer?” and then to Fred Gretsch in the form of special lyrics added to Roy Hamilton’s 1958 hit “Don’t Let Go.”
Rocky Schiano returned to the stage to introduce New York state senator Marty Golden, and to bring Fred and Dinah back up as well. Golden then read a senate proclamation that highlighted the history of the Gretsch Company and its connection to Brooklyn, and went on to salute Fred Gretsch on his fiftieth anniversary.
Joe Carducci could barely contain his enthusiasm when introducing the next artist, citing him as “the Guinness World Record Holder as the fastest banjo player on the planet!” This was Todd Taylor, who—accompanied by the talented Mike Moody on bass—proceeded to demonstrate why he holds that title. The soft-spoken southern gentleman more than lived up to his reputation.
Throughout the day Joe Carducci presided over the giveaway of valuable door prizes. These included Gretsch T-shirts and tote bags, as well as several Gretsch guitars. The day’s big winner was Kentucky Parkis, an elementary schoolteacher who also teaches bass guitar in the Little Kids Rock music-education program. Literally in tears of surprise and happiness at her good fortune, Kentucky took home a classic orange-finish Gretsch 5420 guitar worth over $1,200.
The performances closed with an appearance by The Empty Hearts, an all-star band featuring Wally Palmar (the Romantics) on lead vocals, rhythm guitar, and harmonica; Elliot Easton (the Cars) on lead guitar and vocals; Andy Babiuk (the Chesterfield Kings) on bass and vocals; and Clem Burke (Blondie) on drums and vocals. Clem played on a totally appropriate Gretsch Brooklyn Series kit for the occasion.
Offering what they themselves describe as “simple, straightforward, soulful rock ’n’ roll informed by ’60s garage rock and British Invasion sounds,” the group’s set combined original tunes from their new self-titled album with hit songs from each of their bands—including a joyous closing rendition of the Romantics’ “What I Like About You” that left the crowd screaming for more.
Joe Carducci concluded the celebration by thanking Rocky Schiano and Street Sounds for staging the event, thanking everyone in the audience for attending, and offering one more round of congratulations to Fred Gretsch on his fiftieth Anniversary. A good time was had by all.
Stay tuned for videos from the event to be posted soon!
A Very Special Party
The day-long public celebration at Street Sounds was followed by a private party under a sparkling white tent at the nearby Dyker Beach golf course. The guest list included four generations of the Gretsch Family, along with Gretsch artists, industry colleagues, and other people near and dear to the hearts of Fred and Dinah Gretsch.
The party was presided over by Dinah, who opened the festivities by saying “We’re here to celebrate my greatest hero: Fred Gretsch.” Dinah then introduced a video program containing congratulatory messages from family, friends, and artists all over the world, as well as from the Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum, Elmhurst College, Berklee College of Music, the Little Kids Rock program, and Modern Drummer magazine.
A particularly moving moment in the evening came when Dinah read a paper composed by grandson Logan Thomas. Written for a school assignment called “My Definition Of A Hero,” it eloquently described how and why Logan’s grandfather, Fred Gretsch, met that definition.
Later in the evening a succession of guests offered personal anecdotes and appreciative words in tribute to Fred. These included David Wish, founder of the Little Kids Rock program, who saluted Fred as a mentor and supporter of LKR’s goal “to bring music to every single child in this country.” Dave then presented Fred with a framed photo of an LKR concert, emblazoned with a congratulatory message from the 195,000 children in the LKR program.
Terry Dennis, who has worked with Fred and Dinah Gretsch in a design capacity for more than twenty years, created a one-of-a-kind commemorative “trophy” to be presented to Fred from Dinah. The award’s design was based on imagery from historic Gretsch catalogs.
Duane Eddy described how he was first introduced to Fred and Dinah in 1991—by George Harrison. Andy Babiuk cited Fred’s “persistence,” including how Fred relentlessly pursued him about writing a book on Paul Bigsby. Tony Oroszlany, president of Loyola High School in New York (Fred’s alma mater) saluted Fred for his ongoing support of the school. Street Sounds owner Rocky Schiano recalled “getting a history lesson about Brooklyn from Fred” during a stroll through the Williamsburg section. Bill Acton, of Fender’s Gretsch Specialty Team, stated how it was an honor to partner with Fred in marketing Gretsch guitars world-wide, describing him as “the nicest man in the business to work with.” Dave Waters, also of the Fender/Gretsch team, noted that of all major American guitar companies, only Gretsch has someone with the brand’s name running the company. And guitarist Elliot Easton related how he and Fred met and bonded over a bit of guitar minutiae: the fact that in the early 1990s, out of all left-handed guitar models only Gretsch’s featured control knobs that also worked “lefty.” Elliott—a left-handed player—particularly appreciated this attention to detail. This led to a friendship that ultimately generated a signature guitar model that he and Fred designed together.
Finally, Dinah brought Fred himself up to the podium—where he received a lengthy standing ovation from all in attendance. Discarding the written comments that he had prepared, Fred said instead, “I’m overwhelmed. I can’t add any more in words…but please know how much is in my heart. I thank you all.”
Then, with a twinkle in his eye and excitement in his voice, Fred added, “Now let’s have cake!”