By John Montagna
January 8, 2019
Editor’s Note: With all due respect to Steinway & Sons and Guitar Center, not to mention New York Woodwind and Brass, perhaps no two music stores have had the kind of meaningful impact on NYC’s music scene as the late shop Manny’s and its one-time rival and still-thriving Sam Ash (which took over Manny’s in 1999). Manny’s was all about Manhattan; Sam Ash had its roots in Brooklyn. How did the two come together? How did they start? All is revealed in this in-depth report from our intrepid contributor — and “Breaking It Down” podcast host — John Montagna.
Manny Goldrich (1904-1968) opened the first “Manny’s Music” location at 120 W. 48th St. in 1935. “My grandfather started out selling brass and woodwind instruments,” says grandson Ian Goldrich, “and decided to open his own store.” In addition to catering to top jazz and big band musicians from John Coltrane to Benny Goodman, Manny famously offered reasonable payment plans to struggling musicians. “So when nobody else would give them a horn,” Ian explains, “he’d say, ‘Here, take the instrument and pay me off.’ And he’d accept ten dollars a month or whatever it would be. And then because of that, Manny’s became a hang for musicians.” Store credit might have attracted many musicians to Manny’s, but more crucial to the store’s success was its address.
“What are the three principles of retail? Location, location, location,” quips Ian. “And we were right there in Times Square. You couldn’t get any more location-centric than that, you know? You had the theaters, you had the recording studios, and you had the songwriters at the Brill Building. It was all right there. The guys would get out of the Brill Building and say ‘Let’s meet at Manny’s and then go to lunch.’ And that continued [through the years]. It was just the continuation of a hang.” When asked if the “hang” aspect was intentional on his grandfather’s part, Ian is succinct: “Listen, he started collecting signed pictures from the day he opened, you know? He was a smart guy who knew how to market himself. We never advertised at Manny’s until the late ‘90s. Everything was word of mouth.”
Meanwhile, across the river in Brooklyn, another music retailer was beginning a slow, steady expansion. Samuel Ashkynase (1897-1956), an Austrian-Hungarian immigrant, opened his first “Sam Ash” music store in Brownsville at 409 Saratoga Ave. in 1924. His son Jerry was born a year later, followed by Paul (1929-2014) and Marcia — and all three children would ultimately join the family business. Like Manny’s, Sam Ash was built on a reputation for reasonable prices and strong customer service. That success enabled them to quickly open a second location, less than a mile away at 236 Utica Ave. The family put in long hours at both stores to ensure that the musical needs of the community were met, from local players to teachers and students. Brothers Paul and Jerry both served brief stints in the military, but when they returned home to the family store a new musical and social phenomenon had taken hold: rock n’ roll.
The rock revolution meant a shift in focus from sales of horns to guitars, for both Sam Ash and Manny’s. By this time Manny’s son Henry was working at 120 W. 48th, and continuing the “hang” tradition that his father had started among the jazzers. Henry created an environment where the biggest rock musicians of the day could safely browse and shop without being harassed by the public; the famous Wall of Fame of signed photos grew exponentially on Henry’s watch, along with the store’s reputation as a hub for music industry professionals of all stripes. By the late 1960s, the Rockefeller Group was expanding its real estate holdings in midtown and set their sights on 120 W. 48th St., which Manny Goldrich owned. The Rockefellers made Manny an offer he couldn’t refuse: a larger building up the street at 156 W. 48th, closer to Seventh Ave. “It was 40-foot frontage and 100 feet deep,” Ian says, “and they built it to my father and grandfathers’ specs.” Sadly, the store’s founder did not live to see the completed new building. After leaving the business to Henry (and Henry’s sister Helen), Manny Goldrich passed away in 1968, the year before the new Manny’s location opened.
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As the store continued to thrive under Henry’s stewardship during the 1970s, they welcomed neighbors like Rudy’s Music Stop, Alex Music and We Buy Guitars to the block. Fred Giovanelli, a longtime Sam Ash employee, fondly remembers the Music Row of his youth. “48th Street was the original internet! Whatever you wanted to buy, whatever you saw in a magazine, and we didn’t have Guitar Player or Bass Player back then: we had Circus and Creem, and they used to put the product ads in there. You’d read articles: ‘Jimmy Page uses DiMarzio Super Distortion humbuckers [pickups] in his Les Paul,’ and all of us kids had to run out and buy Super Distortion DiMarzios! Whatever it was: You went to 48th Street, and if one store didn’t have it, the next store did. You could always walk away from that block with what you were looking for. You hung out there for the day, you met other musicians, maybe you got a gig, you got advice about stuff. The window shopping was the best; you’d stare at things for hours and not talk to a salesman!”
By decade’s end, The Goldrich family would welcome some new neighbors right next door. The Ash family, having expanded with two locations in Long Island, finally opened the first Manhattan Sam Ash store in 1978 at 160 W. 48th St. Before long the family owned enough stores to start manufacturing their own in-house product line, bypassing distributors and middlemen. “Samson was a company that Jerry Ash founded in the early eighties,” explains Fred Giovanelli. “It was parts first: drum thrones, sticks, guitar stands, accessories. And then somebody came to Jerry with a design for a wireless guitar unit. There was no wireless market at the time; you had to spend $3,000 to custom-install a transmitter in a guitar. But the Samson units cost you, like, $200. Then they went to the microphones, and by the mid-eighties it was worldwide, producing PA equipment, everything.”
During this era, Jerry’s sons Richard and Sammy joined the company, bringing a third Ash generation into the fold. Likewise, Henry’s sons, Ian and Judd, started working at Manny’s in the early ‘80s, a peak period when business was booming up and down 48th Street. “I talk to Richard and Sammy about this,” says Ian. “You basically needed to have a deli checkout thing where you took a number, to get taken care of in any of these stores! We laugh about it now, but we bemoan it as well because all these stores were printing money, you know? It was just so busy!” NYC guitarist and former Manny’s employee Jack Morer agrees, recalling his tenure at Manny’s in the ‘80s. “That store was packed every day, from about eleven in the morning. You’d get the jingle guys coming in early, and the session guys, and then the Broadway guys came in later. All these touring companies coming in…I remember spending two days on the phone with Whitney Houston’s tour manager putting together stuff for them. This was the late eighties and the music business in New York was thriving and musicians were everywhere, and that block was full of musicians.”
“I was there the famous day that David Bowie and Mick Jagger came in together,” Jack says, “and I remember it vividly.” Ian Goldrich also recalls the sudden arrival of the pair of English rock legends at Manny’s: “Yeah, that was actually Black Friday, believe it or not. They had just done a video together (“Dancing in the Street”). The funny thing is, they came up 48th Street in two separate limos! But they did walk in together, and the place just shut down. And this was my father at his best. He never cursed, but if he could have said ‘What the fuck are you guys doing here today?!?’ that’s what he would have said because business basically stopped! And I remember what they bought. Mick bought one of those early TASCAM PortaStudios, and a little microphone so he could record in his hotel room. And then Bowie asked Henry, ‘What did he buy? Give me the same thing!’”
Percussionist Alfredo Hidrovo worked in the drum department at Manny’s in the early ‘90s and remembers his own elite clientele. “Suddenly all of these people whose names I’d read on the back of the albums would come to me: Manolo Badrena from Weather Report, [Soundgarden drummer] Matt Cameron used to come in and hang out with us, Sterling Campbell was a good friend from there. We treated people with a different sense, we were not that formal. Like [Michael Jackson drummer] Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett, he would take things for a gig at Madison Square Garden and give me tickets and passes for the concert. And you would take the freedom of doing fun things like that instead of being so formal.” Jack Morer concurs: “Steve Khan used to come in, Charley Drayton and Steve Jordan, the Letterman guys…I remember one day I see this guy looking at guitars and I walk up to him and say ‘Can I help you?’ And he turns around and it’s Sti