Classic UK Drum Companies To Know: John Grey & Sons

In the previous episodes, we saw two groups of major also-ran brands from the classic British drum scene: Ajax–Boosey & Hawkes, and Dallas–Carlton–Hayman. Now we’ve reached the third group—which probably have the oldest lineage and are the least fashionable and least well remembered. So, here’s to John Grey, which spawned the brand names Autocrat, Broadway, Clansman, R-M, and Shaftesbury. If none of these names rings a bell, read on, because they were seen on some fine drums.

John Grey & Sons Ltd. began life as a subsidiary of a successful UK musical instrument wholesaler, Barnett Samuel, which in turn originated in the 1830s with Samuel’s father-in-law, Henry Solomon, an entrepreneurial wiz. The John Grey division started to manufacture banjos, flutes, and drums around 1905. The name itself is likely fictional, chosen to sound as blandly British as possible.

In the 1920s, John Grey sold drums with an even more unlikely name: Milwaukee. An ad from 1928 extolled the brilliance of Milwaukee drums by “John Grey & Sons, dance band instruments manufactured by Barnett Samuel & Sons, Ltd (established 1832).” John Grey later supplied another famous British vendor, Rosetti & Co., with Fitzroy drums, which Rosetti hawked as their own. The more you delve into these historic companies, the more it appears that cross-pollination was rife.

Autocrat, Broadway

Next, John Grey was swallowed up by yet another illustrious British importer of band and orchestral instruments, Rose, Morris & Co. Ltd., usually known as Rose-Morris, which began business in 1920. That acquisition occurred in the fall of 1932, and John Grey’s contact address became that of Rose-Morris, at 57 City Road in central London.

Broadway snare
Broadway snare. Photo by Sam Ash.

As the demand for new-fangled drum sets arose, John Grey upped their game.

Evidence of this appeared in a sizable section within Rose-Morris’s wide-ranging band instrument catalogue of 1934—although at the time the John Grey “factory” apparently employed just four artisans: a father and son, a polisher, and a “lad.” The name Broadway also appeared in that catalogue, emblazoned on the company’s cheaper drums, and it would serve as the brand for John Grey’s starter or budget lines for decades to come.

By the time of the 1937 catalogue, John Grey had settled on the Autocrat brand for its top-line drums. The inevitable Leedy-copy box lug was replaced by an art deco style sculpted lug, indistinguishable from that used by Carlton (see episode 2).

Dangerous Times

During World War II, Rose-Morris cooperated with yet another famous rival, Boosey & Hawkes, making pull switches for explosive devices and limpet mines. And—a small aside here—Rose-Morris would later make a rubber practice pad which they called… the Limpet.

Most London-based drum companies suffered wartime damage of varying severity. Rose-Morris’s city HQ was completely destroyed in 1940, and the company’s first factory at 14 Sun Street near Finsbury Square was partially firebombed. After 1945, Sun Street resumed small-scale manufacturing, including that of Autocrat drums.

By the ‘50s, the rather tired John Grey name was relegated to second billing and the drums were now marketed as Autocrat and Broadway, their badges marked with the relevant brand and then “John Grey, London, Made In England.” Autocrat does seem an ill-chosen name, however: dictionaries define it as “tyrant.” Not the cleverest image to take into the let-it-all-hang-out ’60s. Is it too simplistic to suspect this harmed sales?

Mind you, Autocrat drums were indeed bullish, built like tanks, with heavy die-molded hoops and bulbous flush-bracing lugs, so maybe the cap fitted? Compared with Premier’s elegant Streamline Moderne-styled lug, John Grey’s chubby counterpart looked rather gauche—similar to Olympic’s, but meatier. And yet if you find one today, you could be forgiven if you muddled it with Yamaha’s 2016 update of their world-beating Recording Custom lug. Who’d have thought?

Star Following

During the ‘50s and ‘60s, drum companies at first sought popular jazz drummers to validate their gear, moving on to rock idols as the scene changed. Premier and Ajax could boast any number of top drummers, and even Carlton rustled up a handful, but John Grey struggled to offer a single rocker’s name.

Somehow, though, John Grey contrived to claim the allegiance of several jazz greats in their ads. There was Count Basie’s drumming marvel Sonny Payne with an Autocrat Supreme outfit, and then Benny Goodman alumnus Bill Douglass, Eddie Condon’s George Wettling, and even Lionel Hampton—all touted as Autocrat devotees. Commerce back then seemed less troubled by questionable assertions of affiliation.

An Autocrat-brand John Grey kit
An Autocrat-brand John Grey kit. Photo by Gear Garage.

With their all-round excellent chrome plating, outsized bow-tie wing nuts, and quality pearl wraps, John Grey drums were the equal of their more admired competitors. But while Autocrat remained stubbornly scarce, Broadway made up the numbers.

The cheapest Broadway line provided the first attainable tubs for many a budding cash-starved popster. Paul McCartney taught himself to play drums on his brother Mike’s single-tension and frankly archaic Broadway. Colin Hanton’s similar 1956 kit, which he pounded in John and Paul’s first group, The Quarrymen, was a plain white Broadway Club outfit.

Rather more refined, the Broadway Super was like the pro-spec Autocrat, except it had fewer lugs and pressed steel rather than die-molded hoops. The six-lug Broadway floor tom also was single-headed, but strangely the mounted 12-inch tom could be bought single or double-headed.

Change of Tack

In 1964, parent company Rose-Morris moved to a large 50,000-square-foot warehouse and factory in Kentish Town, north London. Here the company made Tone-Blasted Head-Master plastic heads to accompany its drums, and also it had some success with the handsome Clansman range of marching drums, which did not rely on trendy pop-star affirmation. In fact, Rose-Morris made an added commitment in 1967 to its military and field division by opening a heraldic studio that employed artists to emblazon the parade-ground paraphernalia.

Meg White rocks an R-M kit (with later replacement hardware) on The White Stripes' first Jools Holland appearance.

Rose-Morris was increasingly desperate to maintain a slice of the pop market, and around ’67 it came up with a solution: to re-imagine the Autocrat drums as the snappily titled R-M, and to fit them with a wholly different and fresh slimline lug. This coincided with the opening of the Rose-Morris store at 81–83 Shaftesbury Avenue in the thick of London’s West End theater-land, an area thronged with musicians and music shops.

R-M kits could be ordered not only in Marine or Grey Pearl, and Champagne or Red Glitter, but in the sensational Blue or Red Storm Pearl. Rose-Morris took on the Slingerland agency for the UK, and R-M kits were now offered with Slingerland-like mind-blowing Crystal, Ruby, Sapphire or Opal Flames. The earlier, restrictive ratcheted tom holder was superseded by a ball-clamp model, inspired by Slingerland’s sleek Set-O-Matic. These were now pretty cool drums, and you can only imagine Rose-Morris’s frustration at R-M’s meager success.

Last Chance Saloon

Rose-Morris’s final assault on the fast-diminishing UK drum-making scene was called Shaftesbury. There must have been some serious butt-kicking, because Shaftesbury finally attracted some proper rock stars, notably Bev Bevan (of The Move and, later, ELO) who in 1970 was pictured on a Shaftesbury kit with twin 26-inch kicks. Nigel Glockler of Saxon also took delivery of a double kit. Florian Pilkington-Micksa represented the prog rockers, preceding Stewart Copeland as drummer in Curved Air.

Gone were the expensive psychedelic R-M flame wraps, replaced by (probably cheaper) Hayman-style monochrome metallic finishes in Nordic Bronze, Pagan Red, and Arctic Steel.

In keeping with the times, Shaftesbury drums were also available with transparent acrylic shells—and one such kit was featured on the repackaged Drum Spectacular LP by Kenny Clare and Ronnie Stephenson, originally released in 1967 and legendary among British drummers as a brilliant workout by two of the best. It’s doubtful that either of these jazz and session virtuosi played a Shaftesbury kit, though, and the cover was more likely the whim of a graphic artist.

John Grey & Sons Broadway Traveler Outfit
John Grey & Sons' Broadway 'Traveler' Outfit. Photo by Badges Drum Shop.

A Premier 632 Hi-Fi throw-off was fitted to Shaftesbury snare drums, replacing R-M’s stylish but dated long-lever design (and a further example of yet more cross-pollination among the makers). These snare drums were available in wood, aluminum, or acrylic. Otherwise, Shaftesbury drums changed little from their R-M predecessors. Except, that is, for the hardware.

In 1972, the radical Powerdrive hardware system was unveiled. This was before the Japanese companies came into their own and showed the much-needed way forward. Various ambitious designs were presented to bewildered drummers by European companies like Asba/Cappelle of France and Meazzi Hollywood/Hi-Percussion of Italy. The French and the Italians love an engineer, and Shaftesbury’s UK design team tried to match them with Powerdrive and Setlock.

A decade earlier, American Rogers had rather half-heartedly suggested joining your entire kit together with the original Swiv-O-Matic hardware system. Now, Powerdrive/Setlock attempted a similar trick while also re-arranging your kit symmetrically. A double pedal straddled the snare drum stand, and a small-tom was mounted in a cradle directly front and center, rather awkwardly plonked atop the bass-drum shell. The pedal concept was similar to the original Australian Sleishman double, while the footplates brought to mind Rogers. Ambitious but deluded—and there is scant evidence that many were sold.

Shaftesbury faded as the mid-‘70s receded. Rose-Morris became the UK distributor for Ludwig drums in 1975, and it’s likely Ludwig was an easier sell, despite the higher prices.

As the years have rolled by, the John Grey-related drums—whether branded John Grey, Autocrat, Broadway, Clansman, R-M, or Shaftesbury—look ever more attractive, even if they were largely overlooked in their time. Hardly any big-name drummers used them, although in 2001 there was a rare sighting when Meg White of The White Stripes played a red R-M kit—strengthened with a contemporary tom holder and spurs—when the duo stormed Jools Holland’s show on British TV.

These drums will never be big news, but as with the other lost UK marques we’ve uncovered, they perhaps deserve better. Discerning collectors might want to keep their eyes peeled for what could be a bargain opportunity to grab something of rare and historic quality.

About the Author: Geoff Nicholls is a musician, author, journalist, and lecturer based in London. He played drums on BBC2 TV’s award-winning Rockschool in 1984 and 1987 and wrote Byte The Music for BBC Radio 3, which won first prize at the New York Radio Festival in 1994. His books include The Drum Book: A History Of The Rock Drum Kit (2007) and The Drum Handbook (2003), and he is a regular contributor to Rhythm magazine.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.