Remembering Robert Zildjian
April 08, 2013
By Fred W. Gretsch
With the passing of Sabian Cymbals founder Robert Zildjian this past March 28 the percussion industry has lost one of its genuine originals. And I’ve lost a colleague that I respected and admired.
Bob Zildjian’s life and career—which were completely inseparable—covered more than six decades. He was a living bridge between the era when drum and cymbal companies were owned and run by individuals (with last names like Ludwig, Zildjian, Slingerland, Paiste, and, of course, Gretsch) and today’s incredibly expansive percussion industry.
Most drummers know something about Bob’s story, but for those who don’t, here’s a brief synopsis: Bob was the son of Avedis Zildjian, who established the Avedis Zildjian Cymbal Company in the Boston suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts in 1923. Along with his older brother Armand, Bob worked for his father from a very young age, learning every aspect of the cymbal business. That business became everything to Bob, and he approached it with a passion that remained his driving motivation for the rest of his life.
Bob took extended time off from the cymbal business only twice. The first was to attend Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1945. It might surprise some people to learn that Bob’s degree was not in business, but in history and philosophy. But anyone who had the pleasure of spending time with Bob soon learned that his brusque, plain-spoken manner disguised a keen intellect and a philosophical outlook on the world.
Bob’s second “break” from the cymbal business was a stint in the infantry during World War II. Upon his return, he joined a friend’s hunting party on the St. John River in Meductic, New Brunswick, Canada. He fell in love with the picturesque setting, and when it came time for the Zildjian Company to expand its production and export capacity with a second factory, Bob established that factory in Meductic. There the company first made AZCO cymbals, and later made hand-hammered K Zildjian models.
When Bob’s father died in 1979, disagreements between Bob and his brother Armand over the company’s future ultimately led to an irresolvable conflict. Bob was given the choice of taking a cash buyout and leaving the cymbal business altogether, or taking ownership of the Meductic factory in order to stay in the business. But he couldn’t use his own family’s name in any advertising. In effect, at middle age and with a wife and three children to support, he’d have to start all over again.
This prospect might have daunted other men, but not Bob. With the support of his family, he launched a totally new cymbal brand. At his wife Willi’s suggestion, the company’s name was created from the first two letters of their children’s names: SAlly, BIll, and ANdy. Cymbals were first introduced to Europe and Asia in 1982, and to the American market in 1983. From that time until shortly before his passing, Bob remained totally dedicated and deeply involved in the development of Sabian, taking pride in the growth of that company into an international leader. Although he relinquished the day-to-day reins to his son Andy in 1996, he retained the title of “Chairman,” and his presence was a constant inspiration to everyone in the company—as well as to the percussion industry at large.
History includes quite a few connections between the Gretsch and Zildjian families, with Bob a major figure within them. When he worked for the Zildjian company in the 1940s he dealt closely with my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr.—who was president of the company for most of that time—as well as with my father, Bill Gretsch, who ran the company briefly while my uncle served in the navy during World War II. In fact, Bob was one of the few people in today’s music business who knew my father, who passed away in 1948.
Bob and I also had somewhat of a personal connection—if only coincidentally. He founded Sabian in 1982 and first brought cymbals into the US market in 1983—thus establishing his own family business. In that same year I purchased the Gretsch Company from Baldwin—thus returning that business to family ownership.
When Bob was still working for Zildjian in the 1950s and ’60s he was involved in a dispute between Zildjian and Gretsch concerning the ownership of the K Zildjian trademark and the distribution of K Zildjian cymbals. That dispute went on for several years, and many of the exact details have been lost to time. In an effort to rectify that situation I had the pleasure of sharing a breakfast meeting with Bob and his wife Willi at the 2011 NAMM show. I listened avidly as Bob regaled us with story after story about Zildjian history, and how it related to Gretsch history as well. He even told me some things about my uncle Fred that I hadn’t known before.
My wife Dinah and I spoke with Bob and Willi again in July of 2011 when we visited their home town of Brunswick, Maine. Regrettably, circumstances prevented our accepting an invitation to visit with them at their house—for the second time. (A freak snowstorm had forced us to cancel a planned visit some years earlier.)
It was a pleasure to know Bob, whose unique personality and hands-on, no-nonsense style set him apart from the “corporate” image that has come to identify many of today’s music-industry leaders. His like will not be seen again, and I will miss him tremendously.