Henry Kuhrmeyer was born in St. Paul, Minnesota May 26, 1894. He attended high school in St. Paul, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Business, and was a member of the Zeta Psi fraternity where his brothers gave him the nickname of Kay. Henry thoroughly enjoyed his nickname, using it both publicly and privately, however he did sign letters to his nephew, "Henry." His name was printed on company stationery as H. Kay Kuhrmeyer. Henry served his country during the first World War as a commissioned officer, finally attaining the rank of Lt. Commander while in the Naval Reserve.
After marrying Rosamond Stanley, a New York girl, in 1920, Henry relocated with his new wife to Chicago to take advantage of the many business opportunities.
Groehsl Instrument Company, who had been in business in Chicago since 1890, changed its name to Stromberg-Voisinet. They were expanding their product line from bowl-backed mandolins, to include banjo's and guitars which would position them to become one of the lead instrument producers in the city of Chicago. Kuhrmeyer wished to be a part of their growth.
The musical instrument producer recognized Henry's talents and offered him an opportunity to invest in the company, which he did with the help of his father, Charles. By 1923, Henry Kuhrmeyer was listed in the Chicago City Directory as Secretary for Stromberg-Voisinet. Charles, while a businessman in St. Paul, Minnesota, was listed as the vice-president of Stromberg-Voisinet in the 1928 Chicago City Directory.
Stromberg-Voisinet hit some tough times during the depression when money was needed to keep inventory on hand. George Nicholas Einsele, a real estate developer and owner of the nation's largest string manufacturing business, had noticed Kuhrmeyer's ingenuity and hard work. Einsele had watched Kuhrmeyer lead the industry in the process of laminating material for instrument tops and backs and offered to invest in the company.
Kuhrmeyer had been able to lure three very talented luthiers away from a large competitor company, Lyon & Healy. Joseph Zorzi, Philip Gabriel and John Abbott designed, built and improved within their trade and brought forth with their talents an archtop guitar.
In 1929-30, Kuhrmeyer served as President of the Chicago Zone of the Association of Musical Merchandise Manufacturers. He was proud of his employees and their many years of experience. Henry was involved in the daily operation of the factory along with the labor negotiations which were always present when dealing with a workforce. Kuhrmeyer negotiated with his employees a 40-hour work week, a first in the music industry.
. Kuhrmeyer took the newest technology in amplification and applied it to Stromberg-Voisinet's guitars. Kuhrmeyer had done considerable work on amplification and worked very closely with the United Reproducers Corporation of St. Charles, Illinois.
With the Stromberg-Voisinet company now recognized as a leader in their field, business expanded quickly, and by 1934 Kuhrmeyer repaid the debt he owed Einsele. The Kay Musical Instrument Company already formed, presented itself with a new building, in 1935, at 1640 W. Walnut St. in Chicago, Il.
Kuhrmeyer had begun importing violins and cellos from Germany, but as World War II became reality, trade with Germany became increasingly difficult. In 1937, Kuhrmeyer made his decision to produce cellos and basses at his factory in Chicago, subsequently advertising them in the 1938 catalog.
Henry Kuhrmeyer, with no musical background, was financially successful in the musical instrument business and was able to start planning his retirement in 1953. Sidney M. Katz, who had excellent financial backing from family members including Albert Pick, of Picks Hotels, was interested in purchasing the company. After having worked for Harmony Instruments, Katz knew the musical instrument business, but came to work in the accounting department of Kay Musical Instruments for some time before taking over full and complete leadership.
In 1955, Kuhrmeyer retired allowing Katz full ownership and responsibility. Kuhrmeyer died March 18, 1956, leaving his wife Rosamond, who lived until 1985. There were no children. They had lived in Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois, with Henry commuting to work every day.
Katz made few changes in the first couple of years, but as profits demanded the majority of the Kay line strengthened its shift toward electric instruments. He did allow the bass and cello line to operate nearly unaffected. Katz tried to develop a stronger marketing plan by obtaining Barney Kessel, a noted guitarist, as an endorser.
In 1964, Kay Musical Instruments moved to a new factory in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. The move to the new building attracted a buyer, and in 1965 Katz sold the company to Seeburg, a company already famous for their juke boxes. Katz became the head of Seeburg's musical instrument division. Bob Keyworth, a long time Kay employee, headed up the Kay instrument division.
In 1967, Valco Company who had been responsible for the National and Supro brands, descendants of the Dopyera brothers and Dobro, bought Kay from Seeburg. With Robert Engelhardt as president and Al Link as vice-president of Valco, Kay products were unchanged. During Valco's ownership, Kay's catalog was simply reprinted with Valco's name at the head. Japanese competition, debt accumulation and inventory excesses were difficult for Kay/Valco to handle and a decision was made to dissolve the company.
The assets of Kay/Valco were auctioned off in October of 1969. W.M.I., Weiss Musical Instruments, founded by Jack Westheimer, operated by Sil Weindling and Barry Hornstein, bought the Kay name. Tony Blair, who had been working for W.M.I since 1973 bought the Kay name in 1980 after he heard Fred Gretsch, Jr. was interested in a brand name. By 1982 Blair began using the Kay name on instruments and in 1984 the Kay Guitar Company began manufacturing and importing instruments for beginners.
During the time Valco was dissolving, Robert Engelhardt and Al Link formed a company called Engelhardt-Link. At the auction the new company purchased the bass and cello portion of Valco. Included in the sale were all the assets, remaining inventory, jigs, forms, and tools necessary to produce basses and cellos. Fortunately, Engelhardt-Link was also able to convince a couple of very knowledgeable employees to stay with the company and continue production of upright instruments as they had been produced in years past.
As soon as Engelhardt-Link purchased the acoustic part of the Valco business the bass and cello line was moved to yet another building in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, located at 185 King St. The first Engelhardt bass, made the "Kay way," was shipped from its new factory on February 18, 1970.
Engelhardt manufactures the same line of upright instruments as produced by the Kay Musical Instrument Company. Basses are advertised as Concert (EC-1), Maestro (EM-1), Maestro 1/4 (EM-3), Supreme (ES-1), and Swingmaster (ES-9) models, with the "E" simply representing the Engelhardt name. Cellos represent a larger part of the business than basses.
Serial numbers are consecutive with all sizes and models of instruments running together. Engelhardt produces twice as many cellos as they do basses with schools and beginning musicians being their biggest market. Of the basses produced, the Concert (EC-1) model is the biggest seller.
The first bass with the Engelhardt name left the factory on February 18, 1970 with a serial number of 260. Why this number was chosen, no one remembers. Serial numbers for the Engelhardt basses are well organized and assigned to the instrument just before the instrument leaves the factory. Excellent records are kept and in short periods of time company personnel can tell a caller the year in which an instrument was made.
Since Engelhardt has been manufacturing basses, only a few things differ from the original Kay production since all the same forms and tools are used in the production of the instruments. Every effort is made to produce instruments to exacting tolerances as suggested by MENC, the Musical Educators National Conference, and ASTA, American String Teachers Association. Body size, string length, distance from the nut to the top of the bass, depths of the bass are all monitored continuously to ensure standards are met.
Engelhardt provided Jasper Wood Products, Indianapolis, Indiana, the aluminum mold for producing formed tops and backs. Jasper uses the latest technology in glue and laminate, places the material in the form, then heats the mold dielectrically. A contoured piece is produced which is "strong enough to jump on without removing the contour," according to a salesman at Jasper. Jasper also produces the laminate used to form the ribs of the instruments with Engelhardt employees cutting, shaping and bending the laminate to form the outline of the bass.
Engelhardt did change the circumference of the neck. The neck was made thinner because customers, mostly students, wanted a neck which was more playable. Cal Reeves redesigned the shape and thickness of the neck without weakening the structure. Engelhardt feels this method has been proven as evidenced by the lessened amount of returns to the factory.
Also because of customer demand the flat was removed from the fingerboard, giving the fingerboard a rounded appearance. This change helps the student musician "bow" his instrument with less arm movement.
The outer lining was discontinued within the first six months of production. Engelhardt employees claim they could not see a real benefit to the customer, and realistically, the outer lining required extra time to install. Reference: Engelhardt bass serial number 410 has an outer lining.
Another change came to the distinctive roses within the scroll. For at least ten years roses have been made of plastic and simulated to look like wood. Supreme and Swingmaster basses still support the wooden roses.
Previous to Engelhardt's ownership Kay basses could be ordered and purchased with either a flat or shiny finish. Presently, only shiny finishes are produced since customers were "just never interested in the flat finish," according to Mr. Al Link, owner of the Engelhardt-Link factory.
One fine improvement to the bass came as a result of a customer request about five years ago. Now as standard equipment a rubber "O" ring is placed into the endpin to help eliminate rattling.
Purfling is no longer available on basses from Engelhardt. Engelhardt found purfling to weaken the structure of the ply at the junction of the rib producing a weak edge which chips and cracks with the smallest bump.
Mr. Al Link and the employees at Engelhardt are overwhelmed with orders. Link reported back orders of ten months on regular basses, not to mention back logs of twenty-four months for Swingmaster models. Engelhardt mentioned no plans to change anything in their production of the Kay/Engelhardt bass. It will continue to be made to their same standards.