Jerry and Bernice Ash of Sam Ash Music: A Family Business Tribute
Two generations of family reflect on their 55 years of working side-by-side, 72 years of marriage, and Bernice’s role in making “More Cowbell” possible.
With Fred and Dinah Gretsch celebrating a combined 100 years of experience in the music industry in 2022, the 139-year-old Gretsch Company honors another long-time, multi-generational family business with this tribute to Jerry and Bernice Ash of Sam Ash Music: “Family Owned and Operated Since 1924.”
The Ash and Gretsch families have been close friends for many years and through multiple generations. To honor the late Bernice Ash, Fred and Dinah suggested starting the Bernice Ash Memorial Scholarship Fund in 2021 at NAMM’s Believe in Music virtual gathering and offered a donation of $50,000 to start the Award. The annual award provides students and up-and-coming industry leaders with funds to support tuition, training, and professional development opportunities. Winners also participate in a one-year mentorship program through the NAMM Young Professionals group.
It’s rare that a retail store–especially a music store–can survive nearly 100 years. And it’s equally rare that a family-owned business can last through three generations of family members. Some estimate only 13% of businesses survive.
Amazingly, Sam Ash Music continues to beat these longshot odds. In fact, the largest family-owned music store chain is currently run by three members of Generation 3 as well as five members of Generation 4 (with a fifth generation being groomed to take the reins in 20 years or so).
Like Gretsch Company founder, Friedrich Gretsch, a young Sam Ash emigrated to America from Europe to make a better life for himself and, along with his wife, Rose, opened a small music store in Brooklyn. (Rose even sold her engagement ring to help finance the store.) And also like the Gretsch Company, it was the second generation of family leadership that led the growth of the company to unprecedented heights, going from one small Brooklyn location to today’s 44 locations in 16 states.
And some of that store growth can be credited to the Gretsch family. In a 2007 NAMM Oral History interview, Jerry and Bernice shared that in 1964, then Gretsch President Fred Gretsch, Jr. drove Jerry and brother Paul around in his car (it was the first car they had ridden in with leather seats) and showed them areas he thought would make good locations for their next store. The Ashes settled on the Huntington area and Sam Ash Music opened its third store in 1964.
Sam and Rose Ash’s two sons, Paul and Jerry, along with Jerry’s wife, Bernice, were the three visionaries who grew the business by following the business ideals established by Sam and Rose Ash: being honest, fair, respectful, only selling what is good and something you believe in, and working every day to develop long friendships with customers and suppliers.
Along the way, Jerry and Bernice became the face of Sam Ash Music (brother Paul was more than happy to be the behind-the-scenes, making-it-happen business operations guy) and they also became one of the most beloved and respected couples in the music industry for more than 50 years. Jerry Ash recently celebrated his 97th birthday (family members confess that if his hearing were better, he’d still be working). Although Bernice passed away in 2020 and brother Paul in 2014, their legacies are secured in how to run a successful and groundbreaking family-owned retail music store business.
So, how did Jerry and Bernice make it work? What made them tick? How did they remain married for 72 years? And is it true that Bernice was responsible for the famous “More Cowbell” skit on Saturday Night Live? We recently spoke with their youngest-of-three sons, Sammy Ash, Chief Operating Officer, and his son, Ben, Content Marketing Manager, who represent the third and fourth generations respectively. (Sammy was eager to share that job titles are for putting on business cards and that his job is primarily the head of customer service and store building and staffing. Oldest brother David manages computer systems, leases, and insurance while middle brother Richard manages purchasing, sales, and is the main contact for manufacturers.)
Sammy and Ben shared many interesting–and sometimes amusing–insights about their legendary parents and grandparents. Enjoy!
For starters, what are some things you admire about your father and grandfather, Jerry Ash?
Sammy: My father is 97 and I admire that because of the personal discipline he’s had throughout his entire life: believing in exercise, eating healthy, and staying current. He is old school and old world but has a very modern brain. He’s also a lifelong learner. My father still reads the New York Times and enjoys doing their crossword puzzles in pen. He’s just one of those people that wants the best for everybody, and if it is in his power to make your life a little better, he will do it.
Ben: I agree about my grandfather keeping up and staying current. He knows more about pop culture in certain cases than I do and I’m 33. And he’s incredibly approachable. He always wants to learn from people what they’re doing, what their world is about, and how maybe his world could be inserted into their world in one way or another.
Ben, what are some things you and the fourth generation of the Ash family admire about your grandfather?
One thing is all of the time and effort he put into learning about the music industry. He was constantly learning. My grandfather isn’t a drummer, but he learned how to make calfskin drum heads and put them on drums and set up drum kits. The only instrument he knows how to play is the piano, but he took it upon himself to learn the aspects of every instrument we sold up until his retirement. He knew all about guitars, clarinets, drums, even synthesizers. He was one of the first people to ever sell synthesizers. He just had this ability to know what was hot, or going to be hot, and would always say, “If people are talking about it, Sam Ash Music has to have it.”
And what are some things you admired about your mother and grandmother, Bernice Ash?
Sammy: My mother was one of the few women in primarily an all-male industry. Even in the sheet music industry, which she became a pioneer in, she was the only one. She created the modern sheet music department that many manufacturers helped her with, and many dealers copied. And this was a woman who didn’t know much about music when she married my father but worked hard at learning all about it and grew it into a multi-million-dollar-a-year part of the business. When she went with my father to the NAMM Shows, she wasn’t a wallflower standing idly by my father’s side, she was a buyer and there to take care of business. She had valid opinions and she used them, and she worked until she was 85, which is pretty freaking incredible.
I hear your mother was good at judging people and enforcing the golden rule.
Sammy: Oh, she was. If my mother didn’t like you, she wasn’t shy about it. But she was very, very accurate in judging people. And God forbid that you said something negative about my father in front of her. It was the last thing you did, or the last guitar you sold us, or the last drum we bought from you. She wouldn’t tolerate rudeness either. She threw out a famous musician and Hollywood actor who came into the store together drunk and acting disrespectful. When I asked her if she knew who that was, she said, “I don’t care who they were. You’re NOT going to act like that in MY store.” My mother also wouldn’t carry any sheet music or music books with explicit lyrics. To her, this was a family business with family values.
Was your father involved in your mother’s successful sheet music department?
Sammy: Not really. She kept up with the Billboard Top 100 and Top 40 because she wanted to know what the next song was that we needed to have in stock. She did all the curating and decision making by herself. She would involve my father only if a customer stumped her. My mother’s specialty was pop music, my father’s is jazz and classical. So, if a customer asked my mother about a composer she didn’t know about, she’d call my father and have the customer sing it into the phone and my father would identify it. True story. That happened a number of times.
What was their secret to being married 72 years?
Sammy: They did everything together. You always saw Bernice with Jerry. And you always saw Jerry with Bernice. Even on business, they traveled together because they were both part of the business. In the last 20 years that they worked in the office together, my mother would make them lunch and they’d eat lunch together in my father’s office. Tuna fish on rye every day. Jerry Ash has had tuna fish for lunch virtually every day and still does. He’s one of the most regimented men I know.
Ben: My grandparents complimented each other wherever their faults laid. They really were yin and yang as a couple outside of business. That’s what made them such a strong married couple and such great business partners.
What kind of things did they enjoy doing together outside of the office?
Sammy: They both shared a love of the theater. They saw virtually every play and every musical that came to Broadway, Off-Broadway, the Met, you name it. They saw so many first run shows that they didn’t need to go and see any revivals. That was one of the reasons they bought an apartment in the city. They were going in and out of Manhattan way too much, so they bought an apartment so they could go there on weekends and catch the shows and visit museums. They were always enriching their lives together and constantly trying to improve their lot in life.
Your father was born in 1925, a year after his father opened Sam Ash Music. What are some things he learned from growing up in the family business that has been passed down to you and your son?
Sammy: He learned about honesty and how to treat customers and suppliers with respect. Both he and my mother came from very, very modest backgrounds. My mother didn’t own a new dress until she was 18, and my father’s family, there were five of them, lived in a three-room apartment connected to the back of the store. So, the store was literally the playground for the three Ash kids.
And my father saw first-hand how my grandfather treated customers. My grandfather was a very friendly, personable man. They used to say about him, ‘If you came in the store twice, you had a friend. If you came in a third time, you had a nickname.” That kind of friendliness was their advantage over the other small music stores in the area. And that rubbed off on my father.
What role has honesty and doing what’s right for customers and employees played in the long history of Sam Ash Music?
Sammy: Everything. One of my father’s favorite adages is: “Don’t lie for me because I am not going to lie for you!” Lying is just not worth the effort. We put that into our lives, and we put that into our company, and it’s one of the things we’re famous for. The only time I ever saw my father get mad in the store was about 50 years ago when a customer, who was in the wrong, challenged my father’s honesty and called my father a “stinking thief” or something like that.
My father and mother have always been honest, they’ve always worked hard and improved the lives of the people that worked for them. And that’s a big part of our story, the longevity, the people that stay with us because of the rules and ideals Jerry and Bernice Ash set down. We have 10 people in this organization that have been with us more than 40 years, and 7 of them are not named Ash. And we have 96 people with over 30 years with us. This is the kind of culture we have.
What has been your family’s key to making Sam Ash Music so successful and for so long?
Sammy: It’s very rare that a family business survives to the fourth generation. Compromise, I’d have to say, is the biggest reason. We learned compromise by watching my father and his brother Paul on how they worked together and respected each other’s opinion with the understanding that there was only going to be ONE way to do it, either my father’s or my uncle’s, and what we agree on is that. And that same thing was with the next generation, my brothers and I, and I’m hoping with the next generation.
And although this is about my mother and father, I have to get across how important my Uncle Paul was to the growth of Sam Ash Music. My father was seen as the brains and the face of the business, but my uncle took care of everything behind the scenes to make it happen. Ben has a great analogy: If his grandfather is seen as Steve Jobs, then his Uncle Paul was Steve Wozniak. That’s spot on.
What impact have Jerry and Bernice Ash had on the music industry?
Sammy: My father and his brother Paul practically invented the modern music store. Sixty years ago, they had a different vision for the company than their competitors who had small stores and didn’t show a lot of instruments. And my mother. What can I say? She alone pioneered how to run a successful and very profitable department selling sheet music, song books, and instructional books.
My father also helped a lot of people get their big break in this business. He was the first person to give Electro-Harmonix and Mike Matthews a chance. He bought their first products and Mike never forgot that. When everyone else was saying, “Get out of here, kid,” my father gave him a shot. He also gave Bob Moog a shot. We were one of the first stores to sell synthesizers, the first to sell Kustom Amps and probably one of the first Gretsch dealers.
Ben: My grandfather inspired and taught many people in this industry how to run a successful business. Even people starting manufacturing companies would ask my grandfather for advice. I can imagine a lot of people saying, “What did Jerry Ash do and how can I do that too?”
Ben, if you had to name the biggest takeaway you learned from your grandparents, what would it be?
Probably the relationships you work at making. My grandfather is still one of the most, if not THE most, respected people in this industry and it’s all because of the relationships he had and still has. Even if he didn’t do business with you, you still respected him because of the knowledge he gave to you.
I’ve learned so much from my grandfather, not only how to run a business, but also just how to treat people in this industry because we’re a small industry and people remember, and people talk. I can only hope that when I’m his age, people will have the same to say about me because currently all I’m doing is trying to establish as many relationships as possible in this industry. Relationships built on great terms, professional terms, and respectful terms. That’s probably the greatest takeaway I’ve learned from a myriad of things my grandfather has taught me.
Lastly, is it true Bernice Ash may have been responsible for the famous SNL “More Cowbell” skit?
Ben: Yes, it may have all started with my grandmother. Back in the 70s, she had a guy working for her in the sheet music department named Eric Bloom. He was a lead singer and one day struck up a friendship in the store with a group of guys who were in a band. These guys kept coming into the store and hanging with Eric to the point that my grandmother noticed that, one, he wasn’t really doing a great job in the store, and, two, he really liked hanging out with these guys. So, as a kind of mercy, she had to let Eric go but told him, “I’m sorry to have to fire you, but at least you’ll have more time to spend with your friends.”
So, what happens next? Eric Bloom joins the band, they change their name to Blue Oyster Cult, and have a huge hit with “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Twenty years later, the song is spoofed on SNL in the famous “More Cowbell” skit with Christopher Walken and Will Farrell, and “More Cowbell” became this wildly popular catchphrase with all kinds of memes and merchandising and stuff. Latin Percussion even sells a cowbell with “I Need More Cowbell” printed on it. So, yes, my grandmother had a hand in introducing the world to the “More Cowbell” phenomenon.