A renowned cast of well-wishers — Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls, Rosanne Cash & more — will help celebrate Sunday’s milestone, recalling an important era in music history.
The year is 1942.
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Kalamazoo is a bustling artery of industry. With the onset of World War II, the vacancies left by factory workers drafted to fight overseas were quickly filled by women.
At Gibson Guitars’ manufacturing plant, a group of over 70 women, famously dubbed “The Kalamazoo Gals,” took on the role of creating some of the most sought after and timeless instruments ever made.
Gibson shipped nearly 25,000 instruments — guitars, mandolins and banjos — during WWII.
Coincidentally, 1942’s No. 1 hit song was Glenn Miller’s “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo.”
A weathered black and white photograph from this era, taken outside the Gibson factory located at 225 Parsons St., depicts 70 women ready for work.
Irene Stearns was one of them. And on Sunday, she turns 100.
“I have spoken with Irene many times in the last month and have spoken with her often since meeting her during my first visit to Kalamazoo for this project in 2007. As always, Irene is humble and grateful,” says John Thomas, who authored the 2013 book, “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s Banner Guitars of WWII.”
In the book’s forward, Jonathan Kellerman wrote that Irene and the other “gals” were “a band of intrepid, unpretentious, stunningly skillful, thoroughly American women” who made eminent contributions “to both the war effort and to the endurance of one of the greatest musical instrument manufacturers ever known.”
Stearns, along with her colleagues, kept the Kalamazoo factory running and flourishing. Today, a Kalamazoo Gals-era guitar can sell for up to $15,000. To Stearns, “It was just a job.”
Stearns’ virtual centenary celebration on Sunday (Jan. 30) — to be filmed by Grand Rapids’ Dogtown Studio – will include an appearance by Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson and birthday wishes from more than 80 artists around the world (including such guitar virtuosos such as Tommy Emmanuel, as well as legendary artists Rosanne Cash and Waddy Wachtel).
Organized by Thomas and Michigan Music Alliance, the celebration will be streamed live on the MMA Facebook page and on YouTube at 7 p.m. Sunday.
The event will culminate with a video duet by Jennifer Nettles (of Sugarland) and Emily Saliers (of The Indigo Girls) singing Irene’s favorite song, “I’ll Fly Away.”
‘IRENE STEARNS DAY’ RECOGNIZES THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF SPECIAL GUITAR MAKERS
Mayor David Anderson has officially declared Jan. 30 as “Irene Stearns Day” in Kalamazoo, acknowledging her as the last surviving member of the Kalamazoo Gals and noting that she’ll be featured prominently in a forthcoming documentary film, “The Kalamazoo Gals.”
“Irene has accompanied me on this journey from the day we met. She not only is part of the story, but she has also served as the story’s chief storyteller. It’s an extraordinary honor to organize her 100th birthday celebration,” Thomas says.
Stearns and Thomas have appeared previously on the BBC, “NBC Nightly News” in New York City, “Voice of America,” NPR and other prominent media outlets.
While researching an article for a guitar publication before writing his book, Thomas stumbled upon the photograph of Gibson’s new WWII workforce standing in front of the Parsons Street Gibson factory. It set him on a journey to learn more.
Thomas’ research eventually led him to Gibson’s corporate headquarters in Nashville, where he photographed 4,400 handwritten pages in Gibson’s shipping ledgers.
Thomas eventually trekked to Kalamazoo in hopes of finding one of the women in the photograph. He found 12.
Not only were The Kalamazoo Gals instrumental in continuing production at the Gibson factory, their work was superior to that of their male counterparts.
While conducting research for his book, Thomas reviewed three dozen guitars in the diagnostic imaging department at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut: a dozen made by men just before the war, a dozen made by women during the war and a dozen made by men after the war.
“Simply put, they are the finest acoustic guitars that Gibson has ever made. I have confirmed this through X-rays and CT scans,” Thomas says.
“The women’s work was statistically, significantly more refined: Every component made with a little more care, every surface sanded a little more smoothly.”
Get more information about the Kalamazoo Gals, with links to purchasing the book at kalamazoogals.com.
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