Making music like David
For 17 years, whenever he saw executives from the Baldwin Piano Company at music industry trade shows, Fred W. Gretsch would ask if they were interested in selling back the business his great-grandfather started in 1883.
For almost two decades, the answer was always no. But Gretsch never surrendered his dream to reacquire the family business that Baldwin bought in 1967. But in 1984, after a market downturn, Baldwin agreed to sell.
“I received the entrepreneurial gene from my family,” said Gretsch, president of The Gretsch Company.
After he and his wife Dinah reacquired the company, Gretsch moved the family business operations to Savannah, Ga., and together they revitalized the company to produce vintage-styled Gretsch guitars and classic Gretsch drums — instruments made legendary by rock stars like George Harrison, Bo Diddley, Chet Atkins and Charlie Watts.
“The music our instruments are associated with — whether it’s drums or guitars — is the key appeal, and it’s the tone and certainly the cool vibe of the instruments and their history. Those are all appealing factors,” said Gretsch, a member of Legatus’ Savannah Chapter with his wife Dinah.
The David Initiative
Gretsch and Dinah are also lending their musical expertise and resources to help develop the next generation of Catholic liturgical musicians. He has teamed with Catholic recording artists and music ministry leaders on a project called The David Initiative, aimed at improving the quality of liturgical music.
“I always enjoy the scriptures that talk about harps and horns, singing and praise. I know how effective those things are,” said Gretsch, who added that the guitar has become the instrument of choice for young people since the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.
“The goal with The David Initiative is to have liturgical music involving guitars and drums, and effective musical leadership that will add to the worship experience — especially for young people. Certainly people of all ages can appreciate that.”
Gretsch added that before rock music took off in the 1950s and changed the company’s focus, The Gretsch Company was heavily invested in music education. And today, Mrs. Gretsch has revived that focus, as she supports a continuing program to aid music education through her Mrs. G’s Music Foundation at the Savannah Community Foundation. An important member of the Gretsch family management team for 38 years, she is also a long-term member of the board of directors of the Georgia Music Foundation, a state non-profit that provides support for music education.
According to the company’s website, the business began in 1883 when Friedrich Gretsch, an immigrant from Mannheim, Germany, opened a small shop in Brooklyn, manufacturing banjos, tambourines and drums.
His son, Fred Gretsch Sr., took over the thriving company in 1895 and moved it to a large 10-story building in Brooklyn. His two sons — Fred Jr. and Bill — assumed leadership of the company in the early 1940s and guided it through a prosperous era as rock ‘n’ roll exploded on the scene in the 1950s and ’60s.
By 1967, Fred W. Gretsch said his uncle was ready to retire and seized the opportunity to sell the business to the Baldwin Piano Company.
“When I first heard about it, it was a big surprise. It was not anticipated. It was my goal certainly to own the business one day,” said Gretsch, who had worked for Baldwin in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Ill. He branched out on his own to work in the musical instrument wholesale industry, servicing large customers like Sears and Montgomery Ward.
Rebuilding the brand
Meanwhile, Gretsch said, Baldwin moved The Gretsch Company’s operations to Arkansas in 1969. By the end of the 1970s, the company had stopped manufacturing guitars. When he acquired the business in the mid- 1980s, it was only producing drums.
“It was a shell of the former business,” said Gretsch, adding that it took about five years to restart guitar production. The products were immediately successful, helping The Gretsch Company once again to become a leading force in the musical instrument industry. Today day-to-day operations are run by Mrs. Gretsch, who is the General Manager for the company.
“Fred’s name and company have been rather iconic in music for decades now,” said Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, a well-known Catholic author and speaker who co-founded the Crossroads Initiative apostolate.
D’Ambrosio, who speaks at Legatus chapter events across the country, met Gretsch at a Legatus Savannah Chapter meeting. While sitting next to each other, Gretsch shared with D’Ambrosio his desire to encourage young Catholic musicians for the renewal of liturgy. It just so happened that D’Ambrosio’s two sons — Anthony and Marcellino — were involved in music ministry and mentoring young Catholic musicians.
“I told Fred, ‘You have to talk to my sons,’” D’Ambrosio said. “We exchanged contact information.
The very next day, I got an email from Fred saying he wanted to get in touch with my sons and talk about this. We put them together and this great idea emerged as they brainstormed and dialogued.”
The David Initiative — a collaboration of several artists and organizations that includes The Gretsch Company — aspires to equip parish music ministers, disciple youth and help bring the Church into a more powerful encounter with Jesus at Mass. The Initiative’s first project is a national contest where contestants submit a video of themselves performing liturgical music. The grand prize winner will receive instruments donated by Gretsch to launch a parish music program, plus they’ll have a song and a music video recorded.
“We’re trying to spark more focus and quality in liturgical music,” said Shawn Williams, a Catholic composer, producer and violinist who runs the Papercastle Records music production company, which is involved in The David Initiative. Williams will also be serving as a judge in the contest, which he said is aimed at developing young talented musicians for the benefit of the Church.
“Ultimately, anything that happens at a Mass is called to lead us to Jesus, which is all that’s true, good and beautiful,” Williams said. “Music can either distract you or draw you in deeper.”
Anthony D’Ambrosio, who initiated The David Initiative with his brother Marcellino, agreed, noting that for centuries the Catholic Church was a leading patron of music, culture and the arts. He said The David Initiative is intended to recapture that investment in beauty.
“In order for us to impact culture, we have to be sponsoring the arts. Our liturgies have to be beautiful,” said Anthony D’Ambrosio, who added that Fred W. Gretsch is one of the few people willing to invest in innovative ideas.
“Fred is someone who has shown himself to be open-minded, willing to take risks and to innovate, which is so vital for our culture,” Anthony D’Ambrosio said.
Gretsch, who has 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, said he has personally seen the benefits that children get from music.
“It’s a logical conclusion that we would promote the enriching of lives through music,” said Gretsch, who grew up in a strong Catholic household and attended 12 years of Catholic schools. He joined Legatus’ Savannah Chapter, which chartered in 2014.
“I find Legatus to be a wonderful community,” Gretsch said. “Community is important, whether it’s a community of music-makers or a community of Legatus members. The faith is important to us, we share that readily, and that brings us together with people that we’d like to get to know.”
With a large family and a thriving business, Gretsch says there is still a lot for him to do and to enjoy.
Said Gretsch, “Our goal is to find and develop the next generation of exceptional leadership for the Gretsch family business, and thereby continue to support the goal of enriching lives through participation in music and raising up liturgical guitarists and drummers.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.