Brooklyn Walking Tour: Traveling Through Gretsch History Today
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.
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.
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
continued to direct company operations. Eventually, his two sons—my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., and my father, William W.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”