Posts Tagged ‘Williamsburg’

Six Degrees of Separation–Gretsch Style!

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

Question: What does a nearly century-old guitar have to do with a college in the Chicago area, a country music artist from New York, and a classic building in Williamsburg?

Answer: More than you might think.

In a classic example of “six degrees of separation,” a Rex brand “parlour guitar” made in the early 1900s was recently purchased at an estate sale. Parlour guitars” were affordable models designed for personal use in the days when families played music at home for recreational purposes.

Rex Parlour Guitar

Rex Guitar Headstock

Rex guitars were originally made in the Gretsch Musical Instruments factory at 60 Broadway, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and distributed by the Gretsch Company from the early 1900s through the late 1930s.  The Gretsch Company was a fixture in Brooklyn from 1883 until it was sold in 1967. Though the factory is no longer there, the Gretsch building still is. Currently housing some pretty upscale condos, the building is celebrating its centennial this year.

Gretsch Catalog Page From Early 1900s Catalog

Gretsch Factory Building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn

The buyer of this Rex parlour guitar was Mark Vincent Sica, who is the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist in the New York City-based country music band Nashville Attitude. In 2015 Nashville Attitude performed at the Street Sounds guitar store in Brooklyn, at the store’s annual Gretsch Day event. (Street Sounds, owned by Rocky Schiano, is America’s largest retailer of Gretsch guitars, and Mark Vincent Sica is a Gretsch guitar artist.) That particular year’s Gretsch Day had a special theme: celebrating Fred Gretsch’s 50th year in the musical instrument business. Fred is the fourth-generation president of the Gretsch Company, which was founded in Brooklyn in 1883.

Nashville Attitude's Mark Vincent Sica

Fred Gretsch & Rocky Schiano in 2015

Fred Gretsch is a 1971 graduate of Elmhurst College, which is located in the suburbs of Chicago. This past May he was presented with an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the college in recognition of his and his family’s long-time generous support of Elmhurst’s music and music business programs, as well as the annual high-school band competition portion of the Elmhurst Jazz Festival.

Fred Gretsch Elmhurst Commencement 2016

But Fred Gretsch isn’t the only Elmhurst alum to feature in this little story. A gentleman by the name of Edward Paetzold graduated from the college in 1918, some ninety-eight years ago. (Possibly around the same time that Mark Vincent Sica’s guitar was made in the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn.)

Edward Paetzold 1918

Elmhurst Commencement 1918

Edward Paetzold is the grandfather of a lovely lady named Lynne Riordan—who happens to be married to a New York-based vocalist and guitarist by the name of…wait for it…Mark Vincent Sica.

And this entire story came to light this past June 4, when Mark and Lynne attended the 2016 Gretsch Day at Street Sounds in Brooklyn, and related the tale to Fred Gretsch himself.

You can’t make this stuff up!

Gretsch Day at StreetSounds 2016

Fred Gretsch at StreetSounds Event

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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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Brooklyn Walking Tour: Traveling Through Gretsch History Today

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

By Fred Gretsch

On July 30, 2014 I had a unique opportunity to take a step back into Gretsch Company history. As a matter of fact, I actually took several hundred steps, as I walked the streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where the company got its start. Along the way I visited several sites that mark the evolution of the company from its inception in 1883 through 1969, some seven decades later.

Gretsch drummers and history buffs joined the walking tour of historic Gretsch locations in Brooklyn.

Best of all, I had the pleasure of being joined by more than twenty drummers who are fans of Gretsch drums and their fascinating history. Since these drummers were all from the New York area, the information offered in our “Brooklyn Walking Tour” was all the more personal for them.

We started the day by meeting at Main Drag Music, which is located in the heart of the Williamsburg district—and thus in the heart of historic Gretsch territory. John Fell of Main Drag helped to coordinate the list of attendees, and he provided us all with a great base of operations. Before leaving for our walk, I spent a little time sharing specific facts and anecdotes about the Gretsch Family itself.

A History Synopsis
I began with how my great-grandfather, Friedrich Gretsch, founded the company in 1883 when he opened a little shop at 128 Middleton Street in Brooklyn. There he and a few workmen made drums, banjos, tambourines, and other musical items.

Fred Gretsch, Sr.

When Friedrich Gretsch died suddenly in 1895, his eldest son (and my grandfather) Fred Gretsch Sr. took over the company—at the tender age of fifteen. Initially he was aided by his mother, Rosa, who was by all accounts a remarkable woman. But he showed considerable business acumen on his own, and by the turn of the century five years later he’d expanded the business significantly. By the time the 1912 catalog was published, Gretsch could justifiably claim to have “the largest musical instrument factory in the U.S.”

My grandfather ran the business with his two younger brothers—Walter and Louis—for several years. They later left to pursue other interests, while he

Fred Gretsch Jr.

continued to direct company operations. Eventually, his two sons—my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., and my father, William W.

William Walter "Bill" Gretsch

Gretsch—joined the business. My uncle took over when my grandfather retired in 1942, but he took a hiatus to serve in World War II. My father then ran the company from 1942 until his own untimely death in 1948. My uncle returned to lead the company until its sale to the Baldwin Company in 1967—which marked the close of the Gretsch Brooklyn era.

Stepping Out In Brooklyn
Through the good graces of KMC Music—the company that exclusively distributes Gretsch Drums throughout the USA & worldwide—I was fitted with a wireless headset microphone system so that I could narrate the walking tour to all of the attendees, who were themselves fitted with earphones. It was a pretty modern way to delve back into more than 130 years of history.

Gretsch Building #2 at 104 to 114 South Fourth Street. Built around 1895.

Once we all had our audio connection set, it was time to head out for our first destination:  104-114 South 4th Street, which was home to Gretsch Building #2, built circa 1895. The original Gretsch building #1, built in 1883, had been at 128 Middleton Street, about a mile away off Broadway. But regrettably, it no longer stands.

As we made our way south on Wythe Street, I pointed out how the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn was a great industrial area in the years that Gretsch operated there. In fact, the area and the company share some significant dates. My great-grandfather opened his shop in 1883, the same year that the Brooklyn Bridge opened. In 1903 the Gretsch Company was incorporated, with Fred Sr. and his brother Walter as directors. In that same year the Williamsburg Bridge opened.

Today, Williamsburg has become pretty gentrified. Only a few remnants from Brooklyn’s industrial heyday remain among its trendy restaurants and residential lofts. Fortunately, some of those are the very buildings we were to visit.

Our next stop was right around the same block, facing the Williamsburg Bridge. It was Gretsch Building #3, at 109 South 5th Street. Located directly behind the South 4th Street building, Building #3 was owned by a Gretsch cousin.

By 1916 the company had to expand again, so the ten-story Gretsch Building #4 was erected at 60 Broadway.

Continuing under the Williamsburg Bridge via Berry Street, we emerged into the shadow of Gretsch Building #4 at 60 Broadway. This iconic ten-story structure was erected in 1916. It’s the classic edifice that graced the pages of Gretsch catalogs, flyers, and advertisements—and gave birth to Gretsch’s most famous instruments—for more than sixty years. The basement was used for storing parts, most notably die-cast hoops by the thousands. I vividly remember visiting that building as a youngster.

Speaking of youngsters, one tour attendee who had a special interest in Gretsch history was my young cousin, Garrett Gretsch. Representing the fifth generation of the Gretsch Family in America, Garrett is the grandson of my uncle Richard “Dick” Gretsch—a unique family figure who passed away in 2010 at the age of one hundred and one. Although he didn’t work for the Gretsch

From left, John Palmer (of KMC Music), Fred Gretsch, and drummer/author John Sheridan (in foreground) standing at the corner of Broadway and Wythe street in Brooklyn and looking up at the top of the iconic Gretsch Building #4 at 60 Broadway. (Photo by Vincent Tese.)

Company as an adult, Uncle Dick certainly would have been employed in Building #4 as a teenager. His father (and my grandfather) Fred Gretsch Sr. would likely have had him (and his two brothers) packing phonograph needles, which were hot items in the early years of the 20th century.

Although drum and guitar production originally took place at 60 Broadway, by the mid-’60s drum production had to be relocated to 109 South 5th Street in order to expand guitar production in the wake of Beatlemania. Drums came into similar demand. Those were heady days for the Gretsch Company.

Sadly, those heady days didn’t last long. As I explained in my narrative, in 1967 my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., sold the Gretsch Company to the Baldwin Piano company. That company moved instrument production from Brooklyn to Arkansas in mid-1969. However, in 1985 my wife Dinah and I were successful at returning Gretsch to family ownership. At that time we relocated drum production from DeQueen, Arkansas to Ridgeland, South Carolina, where the Gretsch USA drum factory is still located today.

As we all stood and viewed the building at 60 Broadway—which still bears the Gretsch name—I told my tourmates that in 1999 my cousins, my sisters, and I sold the building to a developer, who renovated it into luxury condos, adding two more stories for additional penthouses. (By 2004, a one-bedroom studio apartment at “The Gretsch” sold for $650K!)

On the way back to Main Drag Music from 60 Broadway, we stopped at an old building on Dunham Place. It featured ancient wooden double-doors that arched at the top and came to a point, looking very much like the entrance to a carriage house. I pointed out that this was yet another location that Gretsch used for the purpose of warehousing product. Standing there, you could just imagine a 19th-century horse-drawn wagon emerging from those peaked double-doors, on its way to deliver Gretsch instruments to local customers. I thought that was a pretty charming image with which to close what I hoped was an informative and enjoyable tour.

Post-Tour Gatherings
When we returned to Main Drag Music I had a great time answering questions, signing autographs, and taking photos with the drummers who had come on the tour (as well as many who hadn’t). John Palmer of KMC music acted as host, answering questions about current Gretsch products. And to top things off, a beautiful Gretsch snare drum was raffled off to a lucky attendee. (I’ll let him tell you about it in his comments below.)

Following the event at Main Drag Music, John Palmer and I moved into mid-town Manhattan, where we visited with a whole new batch of Gretsch drum enthusiasts at a reception sponsored by Steve Maxwell’s Drum Shop at 7th Avenue and 48th Street. Steve’s shop is the de facto headquarters for Gretsch drums in New York City, specializing in Gretsch USA products.

Attendee Comments
I was thrilled to be able to share such a great day with so many drummers. And I’m even more thrilled to share some of the wonderful things that they had to say about the Brooklyn Walking Tour, about Gretsch history in general, and about Gretsch drums in particular.

To begin with, Mark Giuliana, who is a Gretsch drum endorsing artist with two outstanding CDs to his credit, said: “I found Fred Gretsch’s encyclopedic knowledge very impressive and inspiring. I guess by most accounts I’m a jazz drummer, so my heroes are Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey—a long list of guys who made their names on Gretsch drums. It was cool to tie the research that I’ve done on those drummers to the history that Fred was providing—oftentimes from his own first-person experience. Specifically I remember Fred talking about one of the first buildings we saw—on South Fifth Street. He pointed to a window on the second floor and said that it was where they did some of the drum wraps back in the early 1960s. It was nice to imagine how, as he described, great drummers would come in all the time—some to get new drums, some to just bounce ideas off each other. That was really cool. To be honest I learned nearly as much about the history of Brooklyn and New York City as I did about Gretsch drums. It was beautiful how Fred tied in a focus on the company with a history of the city and how the company grew and shifted with all its changes.”

Here’s what Brooklyn-based drummer Tony Leone thought of the day: “I found the Brooklyn Walking Tour to be interesting, informative, and above all inspiring. Having played Gretsch drums for over twenty-five years and having owned several ‘Round Badge’ kits and snare drums, it was great to visit the buildings where, ‘that great Gretsch sound!’ was born. Hearing Fred himself speak about his family lineage and about his time working in the factory as a kid added an air of pure authenticity. It felt like the spirits of the great Gretsch legends, like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams were walking along with us!

“When we returned to Main Drag Music after the tour I expected there would be giveaways of T-shirts, stickers, and the like. I did not expect to walk out as the winner of a new Gretsch Brooklyn Series chrome over steel snare drum. And besides being a wonderful surprise, that drum has proved to be exactly the drum I needed to add to my arsenal! It has a crack that cuts right through the volume of any mix, but it also has warmth, depth, and an extremely musical tone, with far more dynamic range than any other snare drum in my collection. I’ve taken that drum on every gig I’ve had since winning it!”

Mishka Shubaly is a modern-day renaissance man, with a new album coming out on CD and vinyl, as well as five bestselling Kindle Single stories to his credit. He comments, “I’m a huge fan of Gretsch—the story, the people, and the products. One of the things that impressed me about the Brooklyn Walking Tour was how the Gretsch story is such a deeply American story, as well as a deeply New York story: A talented, hard-working immigrant comes here and builds something that goes on to touch the entire world.

“What I found particularly interesting is how significant milestones in Gretsch history line up with events in New York City’s history. And the story’s ending is so fantastic, with Fred reclaiming the company from an investor that devalued it, and returning it to the Gretsch family. It’s like a Hollywood movie! I’d love to see the Brooklyn Walking Tour become not just a yearly thing for drum insiders but a cultural event for folks interested in New York/ Brooklyn/manufacturing history in general. It really is an amazing story, and Fred’s genuine enthusiasm is as rare as it is touching.”

John Sheridan, who, in addition to describing himself as “a player/collector/aficionado of Gretsch instruments for more than forty years,” is also the co-author (with Rob Cook) of the recently published Gretsch Drum Book, offers these kind remarks: “Along the entire tour Fred revealed interesting historical facts as well as answering a steady flow of questions from tour members, myself included. Of particular interest to me was the South 4th Street building (I lived in nearby Greenpoint for ten years and never saw that building’s exact location), as well as the Dunham Place warehouse, which I never knew existed. Fred kept us all moving and well-informed. He also carried a binder filled with archival Gretsch photographs and documents, which he freely shared with us onlookers. Bottom line:  A splendid time was had by all, with Fred W. Gretsch at the heart of it!”

Steve Maxwell is an old and dear friend as well as a great Gretsch supporter, and I’m flattered by his comments: “We had a nice reception at my shop for anyone who wanted to meet Fred, say hello, take a photo, get an autograph, and talk about Gretsch drums with the family member who’s helped to keep the business alive. He is hugely important. Though the reception was scheduled from 4:30 to 6:30, we didn’t leave until about 7:45. We had a lot of people, and it was a fun time.

“Later, Fred was kind enough to express his appreciation for what we do to support the Gretsch brand. I, in turn, am very appreciative of how the quality of the product has been so superb for so many years, and how the dedication to the brand is there because Fred’s kept it a family-owned business. It’s a great product with historical significance.”

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