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?