All photos courtesy Jimmy Coppola. Top Photo: Fred Gretsch Jr. (left) and Street Sounds founder Rocky Schiano.
In 1883, German immigrant Freidrich Gretsch found his place in the sun when he opened a small music shop in the then-independent city of Brooklyn. Like the namesake bridge, which opened the same year, a neighborhood family business expanded beyond the environs, and by 1916 became the nation's largest manufacturer of drums, banjos, and guitars.
For 50 years, a dynastic enterprise flourished in Williamsburg, until a takeover by Baldwin Pianos in 1967, necessitated shifting production elsewhere. Although Friedrich's great grandson, Fred Gretsch Jr. reclaimed and rescued the company in 1984, manufacturing would not return to the borough.
Nevertheless, the company's proud heritage continues to reverberate in Brooklyn by way of Street Sounds, located in Bay Ridge by The Narrows. The largest authorized Gretsch dealer in the world, Street Sounds is the venue for an annual anniversary party and concert that attracts enthusiasts from far and wide. Gretsch Day 135 on June 2 coincided with Street Sound's 30th birthday.
Retrospection was definitely in the air. Yet Fred Gretsch's introduction set his eyes upon the future.
"I always enjoy witnessing the continuation of the old into the new. Yet history's history and you can always look it up. We're going to make this a celebration of the next generation of musicians groovin' to Gretsch."
First up was Rock This Town, led by Anthony Bambino, who informed this reporter "it's the only Brian Setzer Orchestra cover band in the USA. I'm actually playing an old Setzer Hot Rod, a 1999 with my favorite colors, lime purple and lime gold. I still love the new ones, too, but I'm a little old school today. When I was 15, I started playing guitar. I was a big Van Halen freak so I started emulating what he was doing. I got into Setzer about six years ago. I lost the hair, I cut it, went Gretsch and love it."
Patrick Sampson, a 19-year-old singer/guitarist, was also on the bill. His story crystalizes Fred Gretsch's ideal: "I just started playing four years ago. I wrote and recorded my first album on my Gretsch New Yorker model. It means a lot to an artist when you have the right tools to bring to life what's in your head. That's what Gretsch is to me."
These young artists deserve their Gretsch endorsements. Similarly, Rocky Schiano, founder of Street Sounds, has earned his place in the Gretsch sun. In 2004, upon becoming an authorized Gretsch dealer, he expanded his modest CD store into a full-blown musical instrument emporium, which is now a showplace for the company.
Rocky outlined his mission: "Street Sounds works closely with USA custom shops senior master builder Stephen Stern, based in Corona, California, as well as doing exclusive Street Sounds professional runs out of Japan, as well as Gretsch Electromatics through the South Korea factory. Working with Gretsch is a unique experience because of the passion and involvement of the internal crew. It is truly a lifestyle brand and not just a company that produces guitars. We are a community with the Gretsch players, collectors, and fans. That's what today is all about."
During the festivities Rocky, Stern, and newly promoted master builder Gonsalvo Madrigal gave a presentation on the Street Sounds dynamic. Rocky maintains that a true custom guitar originates from an idea hewn out of a block of wood. Several satisfied clients gave testimonials.
One example was a Penguin with a specific Chevy Bel Air color. Rocky suggested adorning the guitar with wooden finishes instead of plastic. The result was the creation of a "dream guitar."
Another customer, distraught over his ailing cat, wanted a pick guard that resembles his pet. The image he supplied enabled the team to make another fantasy come to life.
Rocky stated the overriding goal: "What the Gretsch custom shop is all about is really customizing to the client, to the person, to your personality. It's not just another Gretsch—it's not just another guitar."
The spotlight next shone on a special guest, The Grand 'Ol Opry's fingerstyle legend Doyle Dykes, who personally addressed Fred Gretsch.
"Without you and the dream you had, none of us would be here today doing this. I started playing Gretsch over 50 years ago. One of my favorite things to do is sit at home and take out my Falcons and my old 6120's. Recently I made an album of just playing Gretsch guitars. That's like shooting fish in a barrel. It's called Return of the Falcon.
Dykes then played an instrumental, "Return to 60 Broadway," in honor of the company's hallowed Brooklyn headquarters.
Dykes confided a secret: "Duane Eddy told me one time, 'You gotta have some kind of attitude and confidence or you don't play in front of people.' And it's the truth."
The Slim Kings, comprising singer/guitarist Michael-Sacker Berner, bassist Andy Attanasio, and drummer Liberty Devito brought the event to a bluesy finale. Berner commented: "I play a lot of old guitars. The 1965 Gretsch Corvette has been particularly reliable. I also have a Gretsch Rancher from 1955. It's really a beautiful piece of Americana. And they last. Although I'm from Manhattan, when I learned that they're from Brooklyn, I loved them even more."
Devito, who accompanied Billy Joel for 30 years, didn't skip a beat answering what Gretsch represents to him: "When I see the logo, I think of The Ed Sullivan Show, The Beatles, and George Harrison playing his Country Gentleman."
Many attendees echoed this refrain throughout Gretsch Day 135, and credited that event for galvanizing them into becoming aspiring guitarists. The company has regularly paid homage to rock luminaries by replicating iconic guitars. The company's most gratifying replica is what Fred Gretsch identified as the company's biggest seller by far—a Signature series 2011 reissue of the fabled Duo Jet that Harrison considered "his first decent guitar." A highlight of Madrigal's career was being part of the team working on this project.
Product marketing specialist Joe Carducci detailed this undertaking: "My defining moment is February 9, 1964. I was 9 years old. The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. I wanted to be George Harrison, the cool guy who stood in the center. I took a paper bag and with a crayon drew from memory that big-bodied guitar. Now I'm coordinating directly with Olivia and Dhani Harrison. Of course, my first recommendation, burned in my brain, was to do the replica of that guitar, George's all-time sentimental favorite. Through the Harrison family, I learned that guitar doesn't exist anymore. And we mutually agreed we just didn't want to put George's name on a Country Gentleman because we wanted to get the DNA of that guitar, the necrophile, the output of the pickups, the weight of it, everything."
Carducci's disappointment vanished when he learned of the discovery of the original Duo Jet that George used during his formative years.
"In Beatles lore, it was known that George got that guitar from a sailor, who bought it at Manny's Music in NY in 1957 for 210 dollars. When he brought it back it from Liverpool he sold it to George. We bought a first class, round-trip ticket just for the guitar, brought it to the United States, and then brought it to a cancer clinic. A guitar-playing doctor, whose fee was just to hold the guitar, did a cat scan so we could figure out the DNA, the layers of wood and determine how it was chambered without cutting it in half. That's what you have to do. This project was so emotionally and spiritually rewarding for Olivia and Dhani Harrison. For us it was a guitar that George played in the Hamburg days, at The Cavern and with which he recorded Meet the Beatles. We resurrected it, keeping the spirit alive. So it meant a whole lot to me. That moment 55 years ago is why I'm talking to you today."
After cutting the birthday cake, Rocky offered a champagne toast underscoring the company's creed: "Always keep the music going, in your heart, in the community. It makes friendship, There is nothing like it. You require music in your life."
The Gretsch family has been dedicated to fulfilling that need for 135 years. Occasions like this guarantee that pledge will endure.