Big band drummer going strong after 50 years in business

September 9, 2013 

John Fornaszewski is still going strong after 50 years of running his own music shop in Granite City.

After five decades, the drummer says he can't see a point when he would leave the business, and he talked to business writer Will Buss about his long tenure:

When did you open for business?

"On Jan. 15, 1963."

Why did you open this business?

"I have been a musician and was young at the time. I always kind of wanted to be in business and gave up the idea of going out on the road and being a musician. I would have had to go out on the road to do that full time. I thought I would open a music store."

How did you get started?

"I had been teaching private lessons and I had so many students that I hardly had time for them all. So I saw an opportunity and it was a good time for me. My mom and dad had a little grocery store, but I didn't want to do that. They had a good business, but it was a seven-days-a-week thing and I wanted a music store business. My mom and dad owned this property and I had a little place in the back of the grocery store where I was giving drum lessons. It just kept growing by leaps and bounds. I opened in '63 and the next year, the Beatles hit and in the music industry, for all of the music and all of instrument stores, the records the Beatles had there has never been anything like it in the world, not just in the United States. So my timing in opening a music store could not have been better. It was just perfect timing when the Beatles thing hit. I was lucky enough to have the brands that were very important to people like clothing. It's not so much that way today, but at one time if you didn't have London Fog or Florsheim shoes, it was difficult. The brands were important to musicians. I happened to have the right brands. The whole thing really went to town."

How old were you when you opened for business?

"I was 23 years old."

How has the business changed over the past five decades?

"You don't have any super hot groups now like you did in those days. We were also in the record business, but eventually, the record business died. We got out of the record business in the nick of time, when eight-track and cassette tapes came, and then CDs, but I was out early in the cassette era. My store has been selling and now only sells musical instruments. Our music store is close to the high school and for a little store that was selling 25 records of each hot group a week, that was a good side income. It was very good and it and was a fun business, but it has all changed. The brands have changed. The Japanese and now the Taiwanese and Chinese are making very good instruments. At one time when I opened in '63, a Japanese guitar was cheap. They were absolutely horrible, but today Japanese and Chinese guitars are good, if not better. It is better than the price of American guitars because American guitars cost three times as much."

What keeps you coming back to the store?

"It's a fun business. I'm still active and teaching. I do a little jogging around. There is not a whole lot of work. You can't make a living playing locally anymore. To be honest, what used to pay $25 for a gig in 1963, local musicians today may be making $40 for a gig. But today gas is about $4 a gallon, drumsticks cost $12 and a drum head costs $24. The pay for local musicians has dropped. You've got to be able to make money with it. When you start out, you are not doing it for the money, but for the enjoyment and to get your name out there and feel like you'll get discovered."

When did you perform?

"I had a good break, and it all stemmed from the music store. Before I opened my music store, I was playing jobs. I played a lot. I was lucky to get into local bands that were good and popular. I was a swing player. This is when swing was still the thing. In the months of May and June, we played for several years for high school proms. At one time I was the musical contractor at the HuKeLau in Fairview Heights. (It opened sometime in the mid-'70s and closed in August 1985, when it filed for bankruptcy.) It was the hottest dinner theater that would bring in big stars. I supplied all of the bands. I was there for about two and a half years. I did very well. It was a very popular place. That was in the '70s. On this side of the river, it was the most popular for entertainment. On the St. Louis side, you had the Chase Hotel and would have big-name entertainment and have big bands and back then those entertainers would come to the HuKeLau. It would be on a smaller scale that held about 325 people. It was always sold out about every night, six nights, maybe seven days a week. In the '60s, I played with local dance clubs around here and I played in the popular night clubs in St. Louis. For about a year-and-a-half, I was at the Bulls and Bears in downtown St. Louis at the corner of Broadway and Market. A lot of big-name people in town would come in. I was also the house drummer at the Missouri Athletic Club, a private club. I was there for four-and-half years. I would close my music store and run over there and play my gig and then get back home and go to bed so I could get up for work the next morning."

Do you plan to retire?

"There were these trade magazines in the music business and I remember when I started in '65, the magazine that came out said on the front that you will never leave your business alive. That struck me, once I read the article in this magazine. And it's true. Music store owners and manufacturers usually stay around unless they can't physically come to work. If they are still able to come to work, they usually die on the spot. That's where I'm at. You never leave the business alive. For most music store guys, that's about the truth, at least for the ones I knew. That's why I've never thought about retirement because it's a fun job. Although you get some headaches, it's not as bad as other things. I'll be here till I drop. My son is 50 and is a musician and is very knowledgeable about the business. He's not here on a full-time basis, but he would be the one to take it over."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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