Tone and Beauty: Female Pioneer Mary McClanahan

Here's To Mary McClanahan

Seven percussion-related advertisements appeared in the November, 1939, edition of Metronome Magazine, each featuring a well-known performer endorsing the virtues of a recent product release. Ray Bauduc extolled the merits of WFL’s “Twin Strainer” snare drum. Jimmy Dorsey’s drummer, [big band drummer] Buddy Schultz claimed that “No other cymbal gives the tonal excellence, resonance, and brilliant crash of Avedis Zildjian cymbals.” [Jimmy Dorsey band drummer] Ray McKinley “and most of the other leading drummers are Slingerland users and boosters too.” “Jimmy Adams Swings a Hot Ludwig Vibe.” Chauncy Morehouse “tries out the ace drummer’s latest outfit featuring the popular new Leedy Streamline drums with ’Beaver Tail’ rods.” “[trick drummer] Jack Powell the World’s highest paid Solo Drum Star ’Collects’ with Ludwigs.”

But the real groundbreaking advertisement appears on page five, where the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company placed a full-page ad featuring Mary McClanahan. “’Charmed with the tone and beauty of my new Gretsch-Gladstone ensemble’ says charming Mary McClanahan of Phil Spitalny’s ’Hour of Charm’ All-Girl Orchestra.” Next to the bandleader is the copy “Phil Spitalny conducting his All-Girl Orchestra in his latest Paramount Technicolor release ’Moments of Charm in 1940.’”

If reading this advertisement didn’t “charm” you, I don’t know what would. Below the drums is “Vivacious Mary McClanahan, featured drummer of Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra, in General Electric’s ’Hour of Charm’ over coast-to-coast N.B.C. network. Mary began playing the drums at the age of five and has been ’going to town’ ever since. An artist in both symphony and swing, she now reaches her greatest heights handling her new Gretsch-Gladstone Combination as pictured in action above.” Later, “When critics lavish their praise on Mary McClanahan’s superb performance in the All-Girl Orchestra, she generously honors with the Gretsch-Gladstone Combination that is her constant inspiration.”

Granted, the copy is campy and repetitive, but the ad’s real merit is that it features a female. For those women percussionists who feel unappreciated and unrecognized in today’s predominately male profession, think of what it was like for ol’ Mary. Though the first women's rights convention in the United States was held July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, it wasn’t until August 26, 1920 (about 70 years later), that the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and adopted, giving women the right to vote. In 1923 the National Woman’s Party first proposed the Equal Rights Amendment to eliminate discrimination on the basis of gender. It has never been ratified.

Face it guys, until the Feminist Movement of the ’70s, women were treated as second-class citizens. Some argue they still are today. But in 1939, Mary McClanahan had to overcome unimaginable hurdles to warrant a feature full-page endorsement by a major drum company. Sure, an “All-Girl” band was a novelty, however you have to appreciate the pool of talent available to fill a drum chair shared by maybe one or two other drummers of the same gender. One has to believe McClanahan’s talents were more than a superficial novelty. This woman must have had incredible chops.

The Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company was so impressed with her talent and fame that they not only featured her in magazine advertisements, but also on the cover of their full-line catalog. On the cover of the 1941 Gretsch catalog, McClanahan shares the spotlight with Count Basie’s drummer Papa Jo Jones, Artie Shaw’s Nick Fatool, Horace Heidt’s Bernie Mattinson, and Xavier Cugat’s Alberto Calderon – quite an enviable fraternity. Little is recorded about McClanahan’s career after The Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra, but one thing is for sure: Female percussionists of today owe her a lot. Though the struggle continues for aspiring female percussionists, it was McClanahan who broke the mold. The sad part of it is, I bet the rank-and-file of today don’t even recognize her name. [But now they do!–ed.>/]

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