WITHER THE BIG FOUR?
While there was nothing really great about “the good old days” in the drum world, there were at least four constants one could count on: The names of Ludwig, Gretsch, Rogers and Slingerland. To a lesser extent, there was Camco and Leedy, and in the student market, Kent and Revere. To a fault, these were all-American made drums with superb construction and longevity and each had its own remarkable sound. There was, and thankfully is today, “that great Gretsch sound,” with endorsers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Mel Lewis and dozens of others. Rogers? Mel Torme’ once remarked that they were “made of cast iron,” and if it was the Buddy or Louis sound one was looking for, Rogers was the brand to get, no matter what the expense. Ludwig, in the jazz sense, always brought to mind the snap of Joe Morello, though that was before Ringo came along and changed Ludwig and the world. Slingerland will forever be identified with Gene Krupa, though they had a stellar roster of dozens of endorsers. With Camco, well, The Beach Boys’ drummer played them, and Leedy seemed to be synonymous with Shelly Mane. Any overseas product that existed back then, and apologies to all involved, was accurately described as “cheap Japanese,” many with a generic or retail store label on them like Stratford or Stewart. Those of us who had sets like that were often laughed at. Tell you what, though. I just got hold of a “cheap Japanese” snare made circa 1963, a Slingerland knock-off complete with a quasi-Zoomatic strainer. This drum sings. But that’s another matter.
Watching the Independence Day parade on television a few seasons back, I was struck by the incongruity of seeing the marching bands’ bass drums emboldened with logos like Yamaha, Tama and Pearl. This is not a dig at those companies. All of them make fine, fine drums, and that goes for the newer companies like Taye and Peace as well. It is a tribute to all of those firms that they overcame the stigma of the description, “cheap Japanese.”
It’s also a tribute to some of the newer American companies, like DW, the revitalized Gretsch company, and the many, many “botique-oriented” manufacturers that have made substantial inroads into the percussion marketplace. DW, by the way, has just released their long-awaited “Buddy Rich” kit to market. The DW management was also happy to inform me that they simply cannot keep up with product demand. That’s good news.
But wither the famed “big four” of yesteryear?
The stories of the downfall of Leedy and Rogers are well known to those who have read Rob Cook’s superb books on those companies, published by his “Rebeats” publishing company. The tale of Rogers, particularly, remains an absolute disgrace. For a brand name that almost every drummer wanted, at some point, to go down the tubes so quickly and spectacularly is an American business tragedy.
Likewise with Slingerland, a brand name that had, at one time or another, both Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich as endorsers. Slingerland has tried to come back several times (Gretsch and/or the Gibson Company we believe, now owns the name), but each attempt to bring it back has been misguided and half-hearted. Their ill-conceived attempt to market Krupa and Rich “tribute” kits was a laugh riot. Slingerland counted on outside marketing people who knew absolutely nothing, and if you remember their ads for the kit, they couldn’t even come up with a decent photo of Gene. I was called in at the 11th hour to help, but it was too late. The damage was done. As an example of how disinterested they continue to be today is their refusal to even acknowledge my new book on Krupa, “Gene Krupa: The Pictorial Life of a Jazz Legend.” The Slingerland name appears on virtually every page either in text or a photo. Is this free advertising for Slingerland? You bet! The company has been approached dozens of times about getting t involved with this book in promotional terms, erhaps as a give away to boost sales of their sets and expand their educational market, but they refuse to even acknowledge e-mails. Do the folks who own and operate Slingerland today want it fail? If so, they’re succeeding. And yes, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to sell books. But to be ignored by a company who is presented with an opportunity–and needs any opportunity it can get–is ignorant and appalling.
It appears that Ludwig continues to do steady business. They’ve added several new lines in the student and pro areas and have brought back the classic Ringo kit, the see-through Vistalites and even a John Bonham “tribute” kit. Their range of endorsers, however, is nothing what it was. The great Ed Shaughnessy and Butch Miles seem to be the only artists popping up in ads lately. Ludwig’s involvement in promotion, clinics, etc., also seems to be a bit limited, although news has come that the Ludwig Company has purchased the famed “Not So Modern Drummer” Magazine, which would put Ludwig back in the publishing business for the first time in decades.
Still, they’ve missed the boat several times in line with possible promotional opportunities. As one example, Ludwig was approached to become involved with the recently-released DVD, “Lionel Hampton: King of the Vibes.” After all, Hampton used the Musser vibraphone, owned and sold by Ludwig, for most of his seven-decade career. A tie-in, to promote both the Musser line and the DVD, appeared to be just perfect for all involved. Ed Shaughnessy even interceded and tried to get things going. As an example, wouldn’t it have been perfect for Musser to produce a DVD “extra” about Musser’s history and their current line? Ludwig’s answer: “We have no money for such things.” Perhaps they just don’t want to sell vibes, but if that’s the case, why is Ludwig still manufacturing them?
Drummers today, of every age and style, have more equipment choices than ever before. Once there was A. Zildjian, K. Zildjian or spun brass. Now there are dozens and dozens of cymbal makers. The same goes for sticks, hardware, drums, cases, electronics, heads, and just about everything else. And everything old is, in fact, new again. Flat base stands are back, and almost every drum manufacturer is offering a version of the classic, white marine pearl covering. But, and call us old-fashioned, I’d sure like to see the Slingerland logo on that bass drum at the Independence Day Parade. And by the way, if anyone ever runs into a set of Revere, let me know.