The Gretsch Drumkit That Made Olympic History
By Fred Gretsch
As the world focuses on the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, I’d like to share a story that took place the last time that the Summer Olympics were located in the Americas. North America, in fact, exactly twenty years ago.
It was 1996, and the games were being held in Atlanta, Georgia. As always, the athletes of the world had assembled to compete in dozens of events. Also as always, thousands of people had come to view those competitions. And in the evenings, after the competitions had concluded, those thousands of people were enjoying concerts in Centennial Olympic Park, which served as the “town square” for the Olympics.
On the evening of July 27 there was a midnight concert scheduled, featuring Jack Mack & The Heart Attack. This high-energy R&B band was anchored by long-time Gretsch drummer Alvino Bennett. Prior to coming down to Atlanta for the show, Alvino called the Gretsch office to say that the band wasn’t carrying a drumkit for their tour, and to ask if Gretsch might be able to loan him one for the Atlanta show. My wife Dinah and I had a great relationship with Alvino, and as it happened it was Dinah that he spoke with when he called.
Dinah was eager to help Alvino, and she also realized that having a Gretsch kit seen and heard at the Olympics would be a pretty historic situation. So she decided to loan Alvino an already historic set of drums: the iconic yellow kit played by drumming legend Tony Williams during the latter part of his career. When Alvino called, that kit was proudly on display in the Gretsch museum at the company’s headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.
As most drummers know, Tony Williams was 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.
“I was so honored,” says Alvino today. “The Gretsches didn’t have to loan me that particular kit; they could have given me any drumkit. But they gave me Tony Williams’ drums—that yellow drumkit that was so identified with Tony himself.”
So there was Alvino Bennett, playing with Jack Mack & The Heart Attack at the 1996 Summer Olympics, sitting behind a historic drumkit that had been previously owned and used by an even more historic drummer. But the history doesn’t stop there.
Many people might remember the significance of the date—July 27, 1996—but for those who don’t, Alvino picks up the story, saying: “We were on stage, and I was playing Tony’s drumkit, which was a big thrill for me. We’d only played two or three songs when we realized that something had happened out in the park. I was sitting directly under the Jumbotron that showed everything that was going on. It was moving. We saw the audience running in all directions. We thought one of the big power amplifiers for the sound system had gone out. We were sitting there wondering what was happening when all these authorities came up to us yelling, ‘Get off the stage. A bomb has gone off!’”
Hearing those terrible words would likely send anyone running to seek safety. But Alvino Bennett isn’t just anyone. He’s a drummer. He continues the story, saying, “There I was, thinking, ‘This is the kit that Tony Williams played; they’re his drums. And I’m responsible for them.’ So I started trying to take the drums down and get them someplace safe. Then a security person walked up and said, ‘Get your ass off stage.’ I told him, ‘I’ve gotta get my drums off first. These are really historic drums.’ I was trying to explain the situation to him. And finally he said, ‘Listen partner . . . These drums, or your life? You think about it for a few seconds.’”
Alvino laughs, and then says, “I actually did think about it. I thought, ‘If anything happens to these drums I’m going to feel really bad. All of us in the musical world love Tony Williams, and I’ve got his drums!’ But the security guy insisted, so I had to go. In fact, we had to leave everything on stage, because the investigators had to do their sweep of the whole Centennial Park area. We went back to the hotel, and it was surrounded by TV trucks, as well as ATF, FBI, and other agencies. We gave interviews that were broadcast from the Atlanta stations all over the country. And all the time I was still thinking, ‘God I hope those drums are gonna be okay.’”
Fortunately the drums were okay, and after all the investigations were concluded they were returned to Gretsch headquarters. They’re still displayed there today, representing a combination of musical, sports, and political history unrivaled by any other drumkit ever made.