|by Chris Till
For 100 years, Chicago was America’s Music City, producing more musical instruments than any other American city. From roughly 1870 to 1970, from guitars to pianos to brass to drums, Chicago produced musical instruments in truly astronomical quantities and varieties.
The reasons for Chicago’s rise as an industrial powerhouse in the late 1800s have often been told. In short, it has a near-perfect location for advantageous shipping. Going back to frontier days, Chicago had the shortest canoe portage between Lake Michigan and a Mississippi River tributary. Thus, from its very beginning, Chicago linked the Atlantic Ocean (and Europe) with America’s interior. When Chicago became a major hub of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, its geographic centrality became even more pronounced. Finally, in the 20th century, Chicago became a center for trucking, first with Route 66 then with the interstate highways of the 1950s.
With instrument factories spread like diamonds throughout Chicago, South Wabash Street in the downtown Loop became known as America’s original Music Row. Dozens of street level music stores lined Music Row, some with production facilities on upper stories.
Aiding the manufacturers were Chicago’s catalog and retail giants. Sears & Roebuck, Montgomery Wards and Spiegel all called Chicago home. Likely, many instrument manufacturers sweetest dream was to get an instrument into the Sears, Wards or Spiegel catalogs and stores.
As musical trends changed, Chicago adapted its instrument production. When no middle class living room looked complete without a piano, Chicago made pianos. When ukuleles and mandolins became the rage in the 1910s, Chicago made ukuleles and mandolins. When rock and roll exploded in the 1950s, Chicago made more guitars than one can possibly imagine. While a comprehensive list of Chicago musical instrument manufacturers has yet to be compiled, an overview of some of the key manufacturers from the different instrument families is illuminating.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed many records, so the identity of Chicago’s first instrument manufacturer is not absolutely certain. However, the Martin Company, a small brass manufacturer, is generally credited with being the first Chicago musical instrument maker in about 1865. Not to be confused with the great C.F. Martin guitar maker, the Martin Company was the predecessor to the 20th century Martin Band Instrument Company.
Another of Chicago’s very earliest instrument manufacturers, the fabled Lyon & Healy, came to life in Chicago as a simple sheet music store in about 1864. A few decades later, with its motto “Everything Known in Music” and its own catalog and chain of stores, it grew into a manufacturing powerhouse, making not just brass, but pianos, stringed instruments, organs, and harps.
Over the next century, an avalanche of brass manufacturers, like Frank Holton, Benge, and William Frank, rose and fell in Chicago. Today, Schilke, though only founded in 1957, seems to hold the honor of the last standing brass manufacturer in Chicago.
At various times, Chicago hosted both the world’s largest piano maker and the world’s largest organ maker. Imagine this: one hundred years ago, more than 40 piano makers called Chicago home!
Before the advent of radio and record players, sheet music sales measured a song’s success. Folks would buy a copy of the latest song to take home to play on their piano.
W.W. Kimball began as a music store in 1857, but soon began building its own pianos. In the 100 years it spent in Chicago, it became the largest piano maker in the entire world. Dozens of other piano makers followed Kimball in Chicago, rising and eventually falling.
In the organ world, the Hammond Organ Company began in Chicago in 1935. In its 50-year lifespan, Hammond organs rocked the world. Churches everywhere resounded with Hammonds. Though the revered Hammond B-3 organ weighed more than 400 pounds, rock musicians still speak of it in hallowed tones. It can be heard on records by the Allman Brothers and many 1970s progressive rock bands.
Hammond’s rival, the Lowrey Organ Company, began in Chicago in the 1930s and grew into the world’s biggest organ maker. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album, which features a Lowrey organ on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Somehow, and unlike just about all other Chicago instrument makers, Lowrey beat the odds and is still based in greater Chicago.
While Ludwig was once Chicago’s best-known drum company, a legion of other percussion companies began in Chicago. Slingerland, Camco, Musser and Deagan are just a few of the more familiar names.
Next to Ludwig, Slingerland is Chicago’s next best-known drum maker. Founded in 1912, Slingerland began as a ukulele, banjo and guitar maker, often branded as May-Bell. In the late 1920s, it began making drums and found even greater success. Through much of the 1900s, Slingerland and Ludwig alternated as the world’s largest drum company. Following what became a well-worn script, it left Chicago in 1986.
Founded in 1880, and best known for its fabulous xylophones and orchestra bells, J.C. Deagan, Inc. spent about a 100 years in Chicago. Founded in 1948, the Musser Mallet Company, another mallet percussion maker, spent about 65 years in Chicago, before leaving in 2013.
In its golden century of instrument manufacturing, Chicago played home to a remarkable number of guitar makers. While the most familiar names are Harmony, Kay and Valco, there are many, many more. Besides guitars, many of the Chicago companies also made basses, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles and amplifiers.
Though the Harmony Company was not the first Chicago guitar maker, it became the biggest musical instrument manufacturer that this country has probably ever seen. Founded in 1892, Harmony made most every type of popular stringed instrument. At times, it was the biggest maker of guitars, making half of all American guitars in some years. Some of its guitars, like the 1950s Harmony Stratotone (favored by the ill-fated Ritchie Valens) and the Harmony Sovereign (played by Jimmy Page for the “Stairway to Heaven” introduction), are fine and collectible instruments. Others, like the ubiquitous Harmony Stella, were made as budget instruments for beginners. From an utter behemoth for most of the 1900s to its zenith in about 1965, Harmony wasted away and closed in 1975.
The Kay Musical Instrument Company can be seen as Harmony’s little brother: big, but never as big as Harmony. Founded in 1931, Kay was born from two earlier now-obscure Chicago instrument companies. While Harmony is known for solid wood guitar construction, Kay became a pioneer in wood laminate construction and achieved special success with its upright basses. In the end, Kay folded in 1968, a dire year for most American guitar makers. However, its bass manufacturing division spun off under new ownership and still thrives in Chicagoland, first as Englehardt-Link and now as Link Bass & Cello.
With its roots in two older California guitar makers (Dobro and National), Valco came to life in Chicago in 1936. At that time, everybody knew that Chicago, not California, was the heart of the musical instrument business. Though it only lasted until 1968, Valco produced many classic guitars and amplifiers. It is particularly associated with its Supro brand and Montgomery Wards’ Airline brand. Supro amps became an early favorite of a young Jimmy Page.
Though neither Gibson nor Epiphone made instruments in Chicago, the Chicago-based company CMI owned both for many years. Thus, key decisions from celebrated eras of both Gibson and Epiphone came from Chicago.
Chris Till is a vintage musical instrument dealer and music copyright attorney from Ohio.