DJ's Gretsch Drums


D.J. and 'the' vintage 4-piece round badge Gretsch drumset - Feb 27, 2003
Photo© courtesy Karen Fontana

When Scotty, Elvis and Bill began performing at the Louisiana Hayride in 1954 they met D.J. (Dominic Joseph) Fontana, the staff drummer at the Hayride.  Scotty would say "we heard and liked him and asked if he would like to play with us the next time.  And he did.  He would speed up or slow down just like we would and we said, 'Boy, this is great'.  And he started working with us every time there was money to include him on the dates."  Sometime after, he began performing periodically with the band at the Hayride shows and on August 8, 1955 began performing "for the first time on a regular basis"1, though the business records Scotty has report him officially on the payroll in December of 1955.  (click to see and hear D.J. talk about it). When Elvis signed with RCA and began recording at their studios D.J. was with the band playing one particular drumset on almost every subsequent recording and performance.


Scotty, D.J., Bill and Elvis on the Milton Berle show, June 5, 1956
Photo© courtesy Michael Ochs Archives

D.J.'s most famous drumset is a classic 4-piece round badge Gretsch drum set with Copper color nitron finish, sometimes referred to as Copper Mist, and a distinctive Calfskin front bass head.  The snare drum is 5 1/2" x 14", the tom tom is 8" x 12", the floor tom was 14" x 14" and the bass drum is 14" x 20" with a 20" ride cymbal.  He bought the set complete sometime around 1954 from Herb Brochstein at the Brochstein Music store at 2211 Chenevert St., Houston, TX.  The set however does not show up in any pictures with Elvis before September of 1955.


Bill, Elvis, Scotty and D.J - Russwood Park, Memphis, TN July 4. 1956
Photo© courtesy Alfred Wertheimer

That was the popular combination for the smaller drums produced by Gretsch.  Those sizes were developed with the jazz players in mind and the jazz players were the ones on whom Gretsch focused their principal marketing efforts.  The real reason for the smaller drums is for fitting into tight gig spaces, i.e., crowded jazz clubs and also into NY taxi cabs. They weigh less and take less space and are, therefore, more convenient in many circumstances.


Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, NY April 1, 1957
Photo© courtesy Robert L. Smith

Herb said the set was his personal set, relatively new, no more than a year old at the time. The unusual front drum head was an unshaven calfskin head...one with the fur still on it.  He sold them for $500 he believes and sometime later would see the drums again pictured in Life magazine as Elvis' career took off.2

The nitron colors were lacquer on the earlier 3 ply drums and then some of the later 6 ply were a wrap. The nitron finishes were Cadillac green (which was the only one with gold hardware), copper mist, black and white and were '50s era finishes available only for a few years. The green used for Cadillac nitron green was taken from the color Gretsch used on one of their guitar models.*


Scotty, Dudley Brooks, Elvis and D.J. at the Jailhouse Rock  sessions
 at Radio Recorders, Hollywood, CA May 1957

The tom mount on DJ's kit, located to the rear and between the lugs,  is typical of the '50s and a hold over from the years when mounted toms were used more like a cowbell or other accessory. Eventually toms were developed as a full voice in the kit.  With modern hi-hats and other stands and so forth, the low, way back position between the lugs was abandoned.

Though no longer using the Gretsch set to perform, D.J. has all the original pieces except the floor tom which was replaced with a 16" x 16" when the original was stolen.   Nashville-based session percussionist and drum restoration specialist Sam Bacco refurbished the set around July of 2000.


D.J.'s vintage 4-piece round badge Gretsch drumset - Feb 27, 2003
Photo© courtesy Karen Fontana


Round Badge 1883-1971
Photo© courtesy Gretsch Drums

The original Gretsch Round Badge design was the first badge used on Gretsch drums going all the way back to 1883. The badge was round with GRETSCH written across the top and DRUM MAKERS SINCE 1883 along the bottom. The older version of the Round Badge used a carpenter’s tack to attach the badge to the shells while later version used the standard brass grommet to affix the badge. Final production of Gretsch drums with the Round badge was in 1971.


Copper finish

With two major fires at the Gretsch factories in the past, most of the historical records were destroyed including any documents referencing serial number details for drum production. Since these records are no longer available, they are unable to provide detailed production years of individual drums based on serial numbers.3

Special thanks to Dan Boucher for some detailed drum and Gretsch history.  For more info on Gretsch and other drums visit the drum resource site.

1according to Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen in Elvis Day By Day
2courtesy Herb Brochstein and Pat Brown of  Drum sticks.
3 info courtesy Gretsch Drums
*according to Steve Maxwell Vintage and Custom Drums

 

 
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