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Just like Elvin, Art, Max…

All the way through the ’60s, starting at the age of 13, I’d buy a copy of Down Beat every fortnight from a newsagent that stocked foreign publications. Thirty five cents in the US, it cost half a crown in the UK — a lot of money when I was still at school. Of course I wanted to read interviews with people like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and to absorb the wisdom of critics and columnists such as Pete Welding, Don DeMichael, John A. Tynan and LeRoi Jones. But I also wanted to gaze at the full-page ads for Gretsch drums.

Other manufacturers also used famous players as their pitchmen: Shelly Manne used Leedy drums, we were told, while Buddy Rich played Rogers, Rufus Jones played Slingerland, and Joe Morello had a Ludwig kit. But the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Co. of Brooklyn, NY… well, as you can see above, they had Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and the teenaged prodigy Tony Williams, all of them drummers I worshipped, and most issues of Down Beat included an ad showing one of them with the kit he favoured. That was enough to give me a lifelong yearning to own a set of Gretsch drums: a jazz kit with an 18-inch bass drum and 12- and 14-inch toms, all in that nice black finish that Tony used with Miles, and a five-inch chrome-shelled snare drum. Since you’re asking.

I know it’s stupid to fetishise makers of percussion instruments; after all, one of the most effective drums kits in music history — the one in Motown’s main studio throughout the ’60s, played by Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Uriel Jones on countless classic hits — was a hotch-potch bearing the logos of Ludwig, Slingerland, Rogers and Gretsch. And how great did that sound?

Still, we can dream, and my particular yearning was partially satisfied a few years ago when I was asked what I wanted for Christmas and the only thing I could think of, within sensible limits, was a Gretsch snare drum. So now I have one, just to keep my wrists in shape, although a fear of annoying the neighbours leads me to muffle it with a thick duster, which removes a fair amount of the fun. (The kid across the street who started playing a full kit from scratch a year ago has no such compunction, but at least he’s got a future and I can hear him improving by the month.)

And the point of this, you’re asking? It’s that next month there’s an online auction of equipment from the Gretsch factory, with the proceeds apparently going to the company’s charitable foundation, whose activities include organising drum circles for child refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Here’s a link. You’ll see that among the offerings are not just drums and some of the guitars for which the company also became famous — including the Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy models — but an intriguing miscellany of items including “vintage guitar neck patterns, a rolling rack with ten drawers of saw blades, metal clamps with a large wooden hand drill, an antique cabinet, body forms, wrenches, a sanding table, vintage four-wheel open carts and more…”

I won’t be bidding. I’ve got my drum with a Gretsch badge on it. Just like Elvin, Art, Max, Philly Joe and Tony, right?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. GuitarSlinger #

    For me … the dream kit … ( and the one I loved when the drummer I was playing with had one ) .. was the Sonor rosewood ‘ cocktail ‘ kit ( ala Jack DeJonette )

    God what a sound … what a stage appearance … dynamics and musical ( emphasis on musical ) colors from the loudest of the loud to subtlety you wouldn’t think possible from any drum kit .Assuming of course the right drummer was on the throne .

    As for DB … might interest you I studied with one of their mainstays … ‘ Doc ‘ Fowler ( Dr William Fowler PhD ) Good ole doc . What a mensch ! Not to mention his almost famous sons ( Frank Zappa etc ) was ( is ) good folks as well . Hmm …


    February 18, 2021
  2. howard thompson #

    Love this.

    February 19, 2021
  3. Well my dream kit was a double bass drum Ginger Baker Ludwig. Never quite managed that sadly.

    February 19, 2021
  4. Devin Gray #


    On Fri, Feb 19, 2021 at 12:08 AM wrote:

    > Richard Williams posted: ” All the way through the ’60s, starting at the > age of 13, I’d buy a copy of Down Beat every fortnight from a newsagent > that stocked foreign publications. Thirty five cents in the US, it cost > half a crown in the UK — a lot of money when I was still at” >

    February 19, 2021
  5. Laurie Atterbury #

    as an aside that is an amazing exchange rate. I calculate $2.66 to £1; compare that to today’s !!!

    February 19, 2021
  6. Michael #

    Great to read this Richard. I’m now going to play these drummers on my stereo for the rest of the day. But first they’ll have to wait for a tribute to the great Milford Graves who passed away yesterday. All I have in record or cd form is the concert with Don Pullen recently release in it’s entirety.
    This could turn into a weekend binge!
    Give the drummer some ……

    February 19, 2021
  7. Oh Downbeat! I managed to blag a subcription from my parents, and I can hardly descirbe the thrill of opening it when it arrived at my English boarding school – exile from France where I had grown up until then and neeedless to say where I discovered jazz. There was something so exotic about Downbeat, I can still see the typeface.,almost a sensual pleasure I remember to this day. I used to listen to an amazing jazz show in Europe No1, “Pour ceux qui aiment le jazz” which was co-presnetd by Frank Ténot and Daniel Filipacchi (who went on to bigger things), I also listened (when I could) to their other show “Salut les Copains” – the signature tune was the Markeys “Last Night”, my first taste of the Stax Sound. I wrote to Ténot and Filipacchi, and asked to meet them. On my next trip home to Paris, I was invited to the studio and sat in as it went out live. Another nice anecdote from those days: my Bessarabian grandfather, who hardly spoke English and lived in exile too – in his case Highgate had decided to give me £2 a month pocket money. It was religiously put aisde for one album a month (they were 35 shillings I seem to remember). I would order them from Dobells and as with Downbeat, there was a specil thrill when one of those Blue Note, Attlantic or Prestige albums arrived. I went into the store one day in 1960, and Doug was behind the counter. I asked : “Do you have John Coltrene’s last album” – not aware that my gallicism (in French “dernier” is both last and latest) made me a laughing stock. They rather unkindly (I felt at the time) put me down with “Oh, I didn’t know he was dead”. Did you play the drums, Richard? I played the guitar – with enthusiasm and not much skill – in our school jazz group which included Henry Crallan on piano and Stephen “Unwin” Brown on drums, both brilliant and later to found the folk-rock group Trees. We used to poetry and jazz, and play mostly 12-bar blues chord structures, which I could manage. I struggled to play block chords à la Wes Montgomery and used a hardened thumbnail rather than a pick. The problem was that I didn’t practise at all! I later learned from Adrian Utley, friend and neighbour in Bristol that the only way his guitar playing took off (he was a jazzer before anything else) was by practicing for many hours every day for several years. I feel such respect for those who can manage that kind of discipline. Enjoy your snare drum!

    February 19, 2021
  8. Mike Anscombe #

    A great piece which resonated so much…

    I’m also a drummer.
    I bought Down Beat throughout the ’60’s and drooled over the ads.
    I idolised all the Gretsch players you mention (plus Mel Lewis!)
    I yearned for a Gretsch kit my entire life.

    Four years ago, I bought a Broadkaster kit at the age of 66 as a retirement present. Unalloyed bliss…

    It’s hard to exaggerate the deep yearning for a Gretsch kit on kids in the 60’s…maybe because they were American, hugely expensive and completely unattainable for a teenage oik. But whatever the reason, they did (and still do) sound wonderful.

    In recent years, I’ve re-purchased several “Percussion Special” Down Beat issues on eBay at eye-watering prices and it’s lovely to experience once again the sheer joy of re-reading the interviews (remember Rupert Kettle and the “Rich vs Roach” and “For John C” transcriptions?)

    This has all got far too nerdy, so I’ll shut up and close by hoping that the auction raises a shedload of money for a good cause!

    Thank you for a consistently interesting a thought provoking blog…

    February 19, 2021
  9. Ronald McNeil #

    That can’t be much fun, Richard, the snare on its own. A cheap hi-hat and bass drum would open things up. If there’s an issue with space or volume Pearl has a smart device that lets you convert a standard 14″ floor tom to a bass drum. With a muffler it sounds great.

    February 19, 2021
  10. Bill White #

    This really resonated with me. Downbeat was difficult to track down and in my world, wonderfully hip and exotic. The Gretsch adverts were indeed a huge attraction as were the ads for Blue Note records; even more elusive to someone stuck in a small town in 60s’ Gloucestershire. However when a Blue Note was acquired, the inner sleeve, packed with pictures of albums also available, resulted in possibly even more intense perusal than that devoted to downbeat – always with the lower case ‘d’!

    February 19, 2021
  11. Christer #

    Just like Charlie!

    February 21, 2021

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