George Way may not be a household name to all drummers, but he was one of the greatest innovators in American drum history. From his first venture, Advance Drum Company, to working with George B. Stone, Leedy, Amrawco, Slingerland, Rogers, C.G. Conn, Leedy & Ludwig, and eventually his own namesake brand, Way was a key contributor to the evolution of modern drums. But his legacy might have faded into the history books were it not for the intervention of Ronn Dunnett of Dunnett Classic Drums, who purchased the rights to George Way drums in 2006 and reintroduced them to the world.
Who Was George Way?
George Harrison Bassett was born in San Francisco in 1891 to George Harrison and Angela Bassett. George’s mother divorced and remarried William Thompson Way of Boston. At age thirteen, George changed his last name to Way. He took drum lessons from the legendary George B. Stone, paying for them by working as an office boy in the Stone drum factory. At age nineteen, and much to the dismay of his well-to-do parents, George began a career as a vaudeville, circus, and traveling minstrel show drummer. He played with Ringling Brothers Circus, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, George Evans’ Honey Boy Minstrels, George M. Cohan’s minstrel shows, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Chicago Yellowjackets, and silent film star Al Jolson. George once said of his career choice, “I went into show business to see the world. I got paid to see things that cost tourists lots of money.”
Drum Business Beginnings
Way learned a great deal from his experiences at the Stone drum factory, absorbing all he could. He eventually started coming up with his own designs. These ideas culminated in 1912, when George opened his own business in Edmonton, Canada, called the Advance Drum Company. It was there that he met his future wife, Elsie Maude Johnson, who worked for him as a secretary. The two were married in 1918.
George settled in as the percussionist for Edmonton’s Pantages Theatre. Life was good, but the Advance Drum Company was not succeeding the way George imagined. In 1921, U.G. Leedy offered George the position of sales manager at the Leedy drum company. Elsie and George packed their bags and left for Indianapolis, Indiana. As described by author and George Way biographer Rob Cook, “Way was ideally suited for the position of sales manager at Leedy. He understood the drummer, the equipment, and the manufacturing processes. He had an outgoing and often downright jovial personality and was personally acquainted with most of the top ‘drum biz’ personalities.”
George was not just a salesman, but also an inventor. While at Leedy, he designed the floating-head hoop, pearl covering, and the parallel drum strainer, and he instituted the Leedy Drum Topics series.
Moving on From Leedy
At the beginning of the Great Depression, around 1929, C.G. Conn purchased Leedy. George was fortunate to keep his job as sales manager for Leedy Manufacturing Co. in Elkhart, Indiana. He worked happily for many years in sales and promotion and even invented several new products. Then World War II came along. By 1942, Leedy began trimming its sales force, and George was let go. Undaunted, Way used his vast experience in grading and selecting calfskin drumheads and started a new venture selling Amrawco (American Rawhide Manufacturing Company) drumheads, as well as drum covering, sticks, mallets, and instructional books. In 1944, Amrawco offered Way a job as sales manager in its Chicago office. While there, George sold almost as many calfskin heads as Leedy did before the war, and he designed a new drying rack for the drumheads.
Slingerland, Leedy, and the Launch on His Own
In 1946, George joined Slingerland as sales manager. Unfortunately, he didn’t fit in well. The executives at the company considered George a bit old-fashioned and set in his ways. George felt they were too profit-driven and not customer-focused. Perhaps as a pleasant distraction, George invented the H.H. Ball Bearing pedal for Slingerland, which was the first pedal to feature enclosed spring mechanisms. But within a year, George and Slingerland parted ways. Way then opened the Hollywood Drum Shop with drummer and Leedy endorser Harold MacDonald. The shop was not as successful as George had hoped, so six months later he sold his interest and moved on.
Despite career setbacks, Way always managed to land on his feet. In 1948, Leedy (now owned by Conn) offered George his old job in Elkhart, Indiana. He returned to Leedy, but as was his experience at Slingerland, Way felt that too much attention was being given to profit over customer satisfaction. In 1951, the Leedy and Ludwig & Ludwig divisions of Conn were merged into the new Leedy & Ludwig drum company. Three years later, Conn decided to get out of the drum business, and sold off the assets.
George was again out of a job, but the entrepreneur in him seized the moment as an opportunity to find investors for his next endeavor, the George Way Drum Company. He set up in familiar surroundings—the former Leedy & Ludwig building in Elkhart. He designed a unique variation of the round turret lug for George Way drums, which was later used by Camco and then Drum Workshop.
Over the next seven years, the George Way Drum Company found success in producing snares and drumkits. The owner of Camco, John Rochon, expressed interest in George Way and purchased a sizable number of shares in the company. Rochon eventually bought out other shareholders until he gained majority control of the George Way Drum Company.
On a Saturday in August of 1961, Rochon called a board meeting and insisted on a number of changes, many of which George thought were a bit crazy. In a letter, George said, “I told [Rochon] that if he thought Elsie and I were a hindrance to the company, we would drop out.” Rochon didn’t waste any time deciding. Shortly afterwards, Rochon called another meeting and accepted their resignations. George wrote, “I don’t know yet whether we quit or got fired.”
The End of an Era
Way worked for the Rogers Drum Company for about nine months before leaving to resettle back in Elkhart. He started a new company, called G.H.W., because, in George’s own words, “This man who took over my old company refuses to let me use my own name, due to an employment contract I held with the stockholders when we first started.” Way also sat in with circus bands like the Ringling Brothers.
In 1964, George had a heart attack. Then he fell down a flight of steps and broke his leg, which never healed properly. Way passed away on February 21, 1969. Frank Reed continued as general manager of G.H.W. and eventually bought the business from Elsie. She died in 1984, and Frank passed away a year later. Frank’s son sold the business to Bob Kane, a retired Conn executive. The residual assets and G.H.W. company name were sold in 1986 to E.H. “Mac” McNease of Witmer-McNease Music in South Bend, Indiana.
Two decades passed until another great innovator and entrepreneur, Ronn Dunnett of the Dunnett Classic Drum Company, decided to revive the George Way legacy. Dunnett is an enterprising Canadian who had built a thriving business producing high-end custom drums. Like George, Ronn has a flair for sales and promotion and a very creative mind. (Some of Dunnett’s innovations include R-Class throw-offs, wood/metal hybrid hoops, the eKee drum key, and an adjustable air vent.)
Dunnett is well educated in drum history and recognized the tremendous impact and legacy of George Way. “My motivation was simple,” Ronn recalls. “George Way was the most prolific designer of drum and percussion products—the DaVinci of his time. Yet few knew who he was or understood the impact his work had on the drums we play today. As a forward-thinking product designer, George Way has always been a great personal inspiration to me. I wanted to restore what was a very important heritage brand and set an example for how such an endeavor could and should be done. By coincidence, the way to do that is exactly the way George ran his companies: with sincerity, honesty, and integrity.” In 2006, Dunnett acquired the rights to G.H.W. and the George Way Drum Company, and a second century of George Way drum production was underway.
For this new generation of George Way drums, Dunnett wanted to stay true to the spirit of G.H.W. but maintain modern quality. He says, “In a way, George is still running his company. Even though he’s gone, I run everything past him. I like to think I know him well enough to know what he would like and what he would detest. ‘What would George do?’ is something I ask myself frequently. I’ve made very few changes to his designs, and I’m constantly reinvesting in the company to recreate his ideas. For example, I’m working on a modern version of his Clock Face throw-off. I’m also planning to make some upgrades to the current drumset hardware, having already die-cast the bass drum claws.”
Ronn adopted George’s tuxedo lugs, beer-tap throw-off (with slight modifications), unique triple-flange hoops, and classic cloud badge. He also maintained many of the classic George Way naming conventions, such as Tradition, Advance, Pantages, Studio, Elkhart, Indy, Prestige, Aero, and Hollywood. Dunnett has offered Way drumkits made of walnut and mahogany, and a variety of snares in mahogany, walnut, maple, copper, aluminum, bronze, and brass, as well as other prototype shells. The popularity of these new Way drums has steadily risen over the past few years. George Way/Dunnett endorser and Lion King drummer Carter McLean offered this testimonial: “George Way drums offer me a sound not found elsewhere in the drum market. They give back whatever I put into them. They’re inspiring to play. George Way is my sound.”
In reflection, Dunnett says, “I would love nothing more than to sit down with George over a beer and trade stories. There really isn’t any way to know how our lives might have had some parallels, but I certainly know we both have had significant successes and a few failures. If there’s one particularly beautiful thing, it’s that George had Elsie there with him through thick and thin. I’m as lucky as George in that I have my own ‘Elsie,’ who is my partner and my biggest supporter.”
Special thanks to author/drum historian Rob Cook and Ronn Dunnett for their contributions to this article and for preserving the history and legacy of George Way.
George Way’s Little Black Book by Rob Cook (Rebeats Publications, 1992)
Mr. Leedy and the House of Wonder by Harry Cangany (Centerstream, 2008)
The Complete History of the Leedy Drum Company by Rob Cook (Centersteam, 1993)
The Slingerland Book by Rob Cook (Rebeats Publications, 2005)