Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
For Larry Black, what started out as an invention of necessity eventually became an interesting hobby, and from there it turned into a bonafide business with international clientele.
If Black had played for the Atlanta Braves, when he retired he might have opened an upscale steak house or luxury car dealership. If he had played for the Atlanta Falcons, he might be doing color commentary on NFL television broadcasts. But he played for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra—every bit a major-league franchise—and in retirement, he has become an international entrepreneur.
His business, Leather Specialties Company, produces an accessory for brass instruments that only serious musicians would even recognize, let alone purchase. In what might sound like a glaring paradox, his leather guards protect the instrument from the hands of the musician. Yes, even as an artist is making beautiful music, he is often creating an ugly scar on his instrument.
Larry explains that perspiration produces acids that can damage a brass or silver finish. “Hand acids that touch the silver or lacquer have a tendency to eat through it,” he says. With a good trumpet or trombone costing in the mid four figures or more, it is an investment worth protecting. Larry’s guards cover the instrument where the musician holds it, forming a protective pocket that prevents perspiration acids from eating through the finish. Musicians who perspire more profusely “can go through an instrument in two weeks,” Larry says. “It depends on the player.”
The Leather Specialties Company factory/sales office/studio/world headquarters occupies a barn-size building behind Larry’s home in Pisgah Forest. Mountain views abound, and his next-door neighbors include a couple of goats and a donkey quietly grazing on a Tuesday morning. If the exterior mood is quiet and rural, inside presents a scene of industrious mayhem. Just inside the door sits a 1974 MGB awaiting restoration, alongside a pair of his-and-hers Harley Davidsons, and, hanging on the wall above them, a canoe. The toys tell a story of energy, and after a few minutes talking with Larry and his wife, Rita, the energy becomes obvious.
A quick look around the big room confirms the initial impression. Cartons of 4-by-6-foot leather sheets sit on the floor stacked next to a chest-high work table, which is covered with what appear to be random slips of paper and scraps of leather. Seven sewing machines are spread around the room in no discernible pattern, while a large, early 20th-century machine that Larry calls a “Clicker” sits opposite two standing metal cabinets. The Clicker is the device that actually cuts the leather sheets into patterns that will fit any particular instrument. Larry opens the cabinets to display more than 100 dies, explaining that these are the patterns for his standard hand guards. But he says about 25 percent of his orders are for custom-made instruments. “I have to make special patterns for those,” he says, turning to a work table and flipping through a stack of oddly shaped cards, each bearing a cryptic label: Shire’s “Tru Bore” tenor 2” cap; or, Beech trumpet Olds “Super” (1938-present). To Larry, those notations identify the instrument the pattern is made to fit.
Waist-high cabinets are scattered around the room, each holding completed guards ready to be shipped. On one of those cabinets is a catalog listing all the guards Larry can produce. The catalog is 33 pages long, with more than 50 items per page. A quick calculation produces the staggering figure that Larry can make a specialized hand guard for more than 1,600 instruments.
Off in a corner sits an old roll-top desk, the top of which is covered with at least 50 instrument mouthpieces. Larry opens the desk drawers to reveal more than 100 more.
Toward the back of the room, another three file cabinets are filled—packed, stuffed, crammed—with sheet music. Larry opens one of the drawers explaining, “I have performed all of this at one time or another. I’ve kept them all. These have come in useful in teaching students.” The mention of students turns his attention to a digression. “I got nine kids (former students) out there performing professionally. One at the Chicago Philharmonic, who’s going to the New York Philharmonic, one in Boston, one in Cleveland, and one at the Metropolitan Opera.”
He can’t hide the pride in his voice as he enumerates their success.
The sheet music cabinets are tucked in an aisle which also reveals stacks of CDs, in no apparent order. Larry estimates he has more than 1,000 in his collection. Across the aisle, a sturdy floor-to-ceiling shelf unit holds more piles of big leather sheets. They vary in thickness and color, of which Larry explains: “The trumpet guards are thicker than other instruments, and I also make gig bags (travel cases) that have to be even thicker. As for the different colors, sometimes a customer will say something like, ‘I want a green mouthpiece pouch.’ I’ve got to be ready for that.”
The tour of his workspace is dizzying to an outsider, but amid what looks like absolute chaos, Larry can find whatever he’s looking for with no apparent effort.
Larry has had a horn in his hands since he was in sixth grade. “Trumpet was pretty easy for me,” he says. “I had a friend who got into the band program. He brought home this cornet and he couldn’t get a sound out of it. I tried it and I got a sound right away. I thought, ‘This is cool.’”
Practice Makes Perfect
“He’s a workaholic,” Rita says, as Larry admits that he started work that morning at 5:30. Rita nods and adds, “And he won’t come back in the house until nine tonight.” In addition to the 40-plus hours a week running his business, he says he works out for an hour-and-a-half and practices on his trumpet for at least two-and-a-half hours every day.
His practice studio is a small room tucked into the back of the building. A music stand is surrounded by five trumpets and a few scattered leather cases. Larry says he owns around 17 trumpets.
Those hours playing trumpet are well spent because it is the trumpet that got him here. Now 75 years old, Larry has had a horn in his hands since he was in sixth grade at Lincoln Elementary in Dixon, Illinois. “Trumpet was pretty easy for me,” he says. “I had a friend who got into the band program. He brought home this cornet and he couldn’t get a sound out of it. I tried it and I got a sound right away. I thought, ‘This is cool.’”
Larry played trumpet in his school band as well as a citywide youth band, and he soon started attracting attention. One day, the high school band director approached him, wanting to know if he was interested in playing in the high school band. He was, and he did—while still in the eighth grade.
During high school, it seemed Larry always had a horn in his hands. He played in the concert band, the marching band, the brass quintet, and the jazz band. “My heroes during high school were Maynard Ferguson, Doc Severinson, and Al Hirt,” he says. But he was drawn to philharmonic music. He still recalls the moment when he decided that the concert stage was the path he wanted to follow. One morning, when his mother was driving him to school, they were listening to the radio. “I heard the Chicago Symphony playing ‘Scheherazade.’ It’s a big, fancy piece. I told my mother, ‘I want to do that.’”
From a small-town high school band to the Atlanta Symphony is a long trip, and Larry started his journey by winning a music scholarship to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. After graduation, he took his act on the road, performing with a contemporary Christian group called the Spurrlows. “I played trumpet and drove the bus. We covered the United States and Canada, from Winnipeg all the way down to Miami.” After that, he taught junior high and grade school for a year in a small town in northern Illinois. “That’s when I decided I really want to try my hand at playing professionally.”
The decision entailed more than just applying for a job. Larry enlisted the services of a highly regarded coach, who also played trumpet with the Chicago Symphony. After a year of advanced lessons, he was accepted into the masters music program at Northwestern University.
It was a busy time. In addition to his classes, rehearsals, and performances with the university orchestra, Larry played everything from weddings to symphonies to generate a little income. He also met a voice student named Rita Gingrich.
Half a century later, sitting at a table in the big barnlike building, she grins as she recalls, “We hadn’t even met when I first heard him play. And his sound was so pure that I fell in love on the spot.” Rita went on to earn her master’s degree in voice. “I also had a degree in teaching, so I did that,” she says, shaking her head at the memory. “I just knew I did not want to sing opera, and that’s the only way you can make money. I hated opera. So I taught school, and I was also a church soloist.” Along the way Rita added “Mother” to her resume. She and Larry have two sons, Corey, who lives in Asheville, and his younger brother, Tom, who is in Atlanta. Rita adds that she sang with the Atlanta Symphony chorus “between children.”
But Atlanta was still several stops down the career path. The year was 1967, a time when the war in Vietnam was threatening to delay young careers—or worse. Larry’s talent earned him a spot in the West Point orchestra, where he served for three years. “They had only one opening in the band, and I had to audition against—I don’t remember the exact number—something like 30 others. It was a pressurized situation. I felt like I was playing for my life. And I won the job.”
Rita nods, and in a quiet voice, adds, “When the pressure is on, he rises to the occasion.”
Vision In Leather
Once his hitch at West Point was over, Larry had to rise to the occasion once again. He had to land a job with a civilian symphony orchestra.
But here is where his career began to point him in a different direction. It was just after he got out of the army that his Leather Specialties company began to germinate. “We were driving home—in a brand new yellow Corvette that cost $4,000,” he says, grinning at the “good old days” price. “I stopped in Chicago at Schilke’s music store to get a leather pouch for my mouthpiece to keep it from banging into the trumpet in the carrying case. They told me their supplier had gone out of business; they didn’t have any.
“When we got home, I bought a $10 piece of leather, a couple of punches and some lace. I cut out 10 or 12 pouches, kept one for myself and gave the others to my students. This is how the whole thing got started.”
A couple of years later, one of Larry’s students brought his trumpet into Schilke’s. “Reynold Schilke called me and said, ‘Did you make that leather pouch one of your students came in here with?’ When I agreed that I had, he said, ‘Can you send me 150 of them?’ He didn’t even ask the price.” Larry’s face takes on a helpless expression as he recalls the quandary presented by this unexpected request. “I said, ‘Well, I guess so,’ and he said ‘Done.’ And he hung up. And I said to myself, ‘What did I just say?’”
It turned out to be a crucial moment in Larry and Rita’s future, but the fruits of their labor did not become apparent for many years.
Sharing a reminiscent and partly rueful grin with Rita, Larry continues with the story. “So I went down and bought some leather, and Rita and I were up until three o’clock in the morning for the next three nights, hand cutting and lacing these by hand. And she says to me, ‘Larry, tell me again why we are doing this.’ So that was probably the closest she ever came to divorcing me.”
Rita listens to Larry’s version of the story, then interjects, “The divorce is just our little joke, but it was hard.”
More than 40 years later, Larry is still doing business with the Schilke store. It has changed hands, and the current owner, Andrew Naumann, acknowledged that “the two companies have a long-standing business relationship. Schilke’s has always enjoyed the connection to Leather Specialties and appreciates their continued quality product. Both companies have always shared the same philosophical approach of quality over quantity.”
Despite their initial three-day marathon, Rita never expected their labor to evolve into a full-fledged enterprise? “No. It was just going to be a little pastime. We made some money doing it, but not a lot.” Certainly not enough to alter Larry’s career, which was centered on the Atlanta concert stage.
Larry and Rita take turns describing the economics of the classical music business. They say it’s pretty much like any other entertainment enterprise—from theater to sports. Bigger cities can supply bigger audiences, which translates to more income, in turn generating higher salaries and attracting better performers. Yes, bigger is better.
Hoping to get his foot in a door that was barely ajar, Larry set about auditioning for orchestras in smaller cities. “I auditioned for Pittsburgh, Dallas, Buffalo, Syracuse, and then a couple of West Coast orchestras,” he said. “I made the finals in seven out of nine auditions. I won the job in Syracuse.”
Rita is nodding along with the narrative as Larry recalls that the Syracuse job “didn’t pay much—it was $14,000.” Rita stops nodding. “Can I correct that?” she says. “It was under $2,000.” They think back, putting together the details of their experiences long ago. He agrees that it was, indeed, only $2,000. “I wound up teaching at a parochial school and a junior high and a high school three days a week. Rita was teaching full-time grade school. I told her, ‘We’ll be out of here in two years.’”
I was kind of dubbed the leather man at the Symphony,” Larry says. “So then I would have trombone players ask me to make a guard for their instrument. Then I started making them for French horn players. Pretty soon I was doing all the brass instruments.”
Passing The Audition
It only took one. When the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced an opening in 1970, Larry was ready to audition.
He joined the Symphony that fall as third trumpet, and at a time when it was making its move into major-league status. “Robert Shaw came in 1967 to build Atlanta into a major orchestra,” Larry says. “And he did that in a decade.” When Larry started with the Atlanta Orchestra, it was performing 28 weeks a year, and a decade later, the schedule ran for 48 weeks and nearly 150 concerts. Larry recalled the schedule: “We were off on Sunday and Monday. Then we had a rehearsal on Tuesday, two rehearsals on Wednesday, another on Thursday, and then concerts on Thursday evening, Friday, and Saturday.” At the time, he was also teaching as many as nine students a week.
Some of the concerts in that busy schedule were turned into recordings. Larry played trumpet on 16 albums, which won “14 or 15”—he can’t remember the exact number—”Grammys.”
Meanwhile, he and Rita continued making leather pouches, and their small business began to expand. “I was kind of dubbed the leather man at the Symphony,” Larry says. “So then I would have trombone players ask me to make a guard for their instrument. Then I started making them for French horn players. Pretty soon I was doing all the brass instruments. Rita kept telling me, ‘This is like a hobby’. I think, for the time we invested, we were selling them too cheap.”
Rita says making the guards was a form of therapy. “There are two studies that were done to determine the stress levels of different occupations, and they found that playing in a symphony orchestra was number one or number two in stress.” The statement seems dubious, but Rita is quick to explain the reasons. “You can’t make a mistake in a concert.” She says when an orchestra is playing a complicated piece of music if any one instrument misses a note or a beat, it could throw everyone else off. “So even though we weren’t making much money, it was therapeutic.”
The musical requirements that raise stress levels are part of what attracted Larry to the concert stage. “I liked symphonic music because it was almost a perfect art. You have to be such a clean player, accurate player.”
Warming to his subject, Larry runs with the thought. “You must have a lot of technique, a good sound, really good range. You have to sight-read. This kind of sound just appealed to me over all the other genres of music.”
Once he was established with the Atlanta orchestra, Larry joined the summer faculty at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. “We loved the area and we decided to retire here,” he says. He retired in 2003, and set about turning the “hobby” into a real business.
After building and outfitting the headquarters building behind his house, Larry and Rita turned to building the business. “We didn’t have a website until I retired,” he says. “Our son, Tom, set us up with one [LeatherSpecialtiesCo.com] and all of a sudden we started getting 35 to 40 orders a week.” Those 40 orders can amount to as many as 800 pieces a week that Larry must cut and assemble. “We just keep adding on,” he says. “I’m amazed that we got this many customers.”
Many of those customers are in major symphony orchestras. “Every now and then I’ll see symphony orchestras on television, and when the camera shoots in on the trumpet section or the trombone section, I’ll see my guards.”
The internet connection exposed the company to foreign markets as well, and European and Asian orders now account for about a quarter of his business. He says his top international markets are Germany, Japan, and Switzerland.
And with success came unwelcome imitation. “I’ve had four or five different products copied by other companies. My own design, and they just copied it.” Larry has also worked to make improvements on his designs. “We discovered that leather can tarnish an instrument. We wanted to figure out how to prevent that, and my son Tom came up with a design that has three layers. We call it Tripotec. The leather is backed by a layer of cellophane, and behind that is a velour backing. So the only thing that touches the instrument is fabric.” Larry has also designed guards that attach by either lacing or Velcro.
They look attractive, and musicians want something that looks good on their instrument. The guards also do the job of protecting the instrument.”
One of Larry’s longtime customers is Hickey’s Music Center in Ithaca, New York. David Zimet, the president of Hickey’s, says he’s been buying guards from Larry “since the last century.” He estimates their relationship goes back about 20 years, and says he had a hard time finding a good leather vendor. “I had a customer who was a professional musician in the Atlanta area,” he says. “And she tracked him down for me.” David’s experience underscores the “hobby” nature of Larry’s business before he retired from the orchestra. He wasn’t hunting for customers; they had to go hunting for him. Zimet adds that Larry’s products are “well made and well designed. He does the bulk of my leather business. I really like his products.”
Another longtime client is Dillon Music of Woodbridge, New Jersey, whose Steve Dillon can’t remember how many years he’s been dealing with Larry. “A long time,” he says. “Years and years.” He describes Larry’s products as “topnotch. He’s the only vendor we use for brass guards.” Dillon also points out a quality that makes Larry’s guards popular. “First off, they look attractive, and musicians want something that looks good on their instrument. The guards also do the job of protecting the instrument.” To the beginning musician, a leather guard might seem like an unnecessary add-on, but Dillon says all it takes to make the sale is a little education. “Once you explain how it protects the instrument, there’s no problem.” He adds, “Larry makes good products that are very desired and useful in the industry.”
Larry’s business is mostly a one-man operation, with the significant exception of Sue Kalmbach, who handles the office functions. Sue was brought in five years ago to wash the windows, and she ended up managing the office. This has included everything from taking customer calls and spearheading the marketing—for example, she established a social media presence for the company via its Facebook page, which she says has helped attract customers—to organizing the invoices and shipping the orders. When we walked into the office area of the building she was working on an invoice for an order in Switzerland. She says the worldwide scope of the business can create difficulties in shipping. “I get real funny looks at the Post Office when I ship to Russia,” she says. Packing the shipments can also pose problems. “We get some orders for one piece and some for as many as 2,300 at a time.” But the toughest part of the job is learning which models will fit the different instruments. She laughs as she explains, “When somebody calls and says, ‘I need a guard for this instrument,’ I say ‘Hold on.’ And I yell for Larry.”
In addition to building his business, his daily exercise routine, and his practice hours, Larry continues to perform. He plays principal trumpet in the Hendersonville and Brevard symphonies, and plays in a brass quintet in Asheville. He also teaches at Western Carolina University. “And I still play in churches. I play weddings and services.” He pauses, thinking about the busy hours that fill the days of a 75-year-old who’s supposed to be retired. The thought brings a smile. “I just keep practicing because I enjoy it. I enjoy playing. I’m going to play as long as I can.”
As for the future of his business, Larry is asked if he has a long-range goal. He grins. “Yeah—to keep up with the orders.”
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