37 minutes | May 24, 2021

Season 2: Episode Five: Amro Music turns 100 years old!

So today we’re going to cover a topic that hits really close to home for us…  and by that, we mean that it helps to literally pay for us to live in our home. We are, of course, talking about a place of employment. We are both gainfully employed by fantastic, privately-owned, local companies that have rather long histories. And both companies are hitting huge milestones this year and next. Memphis Dermatology, where Tara works, will hit 50 years this next year… That’s an amazing achievement for any privately-owned business! I’m sure you’ll hear us talk more about them in the future. Tara has been with them for 13 years now, so it’s a regular topic in our conversations anyway.  Alan’s place of employment for the past 16 years, Amro Music Store hit a gigantic milestone this past month. And that is the topic of our episode!  As of April 10th of this year, Amro Music has been open, and owned and operated by the same family, for one hundred years! Wow… such an amazing accomplishment!  We went to their 100 year celebration a few weekends back and it was a lot of fun. It’s amazing to me when companies are able to withstand the test of time. Someone is doing something right. One of the reasons we try to mostly buy local is because most local companies give back to their communities and Amro is no exception. From what I know, as a previous band kid, and what I have heard from other band parents and children, if you want to be taken care of, you go to Amro. They are a pillar in the Midsouth music community. Amro Music is the largest band, orchestra, and piano retailer in the Mid-South, and is actually one of the largest in the nation as well. They began renting musical instruments for student use more than 50 years ago, and they now supply a large majority of the band and orchestra instruments found in school programs in the Mid-South. Amro is widely respected for its long history of service to music education and Mid-South musicians, the high quality of its employees, its involvement in and assistance to the local music community, and its long-term stability as a business. Amro is also one of the most prominent piano retailers in the Mid-South, providing pianos and organs for both rental and purchase, with a highly qualified team of experts to help people find the perfect instrument for their home or institution. Amro has also been a Steinway & Sons piano dealer since 1964. Being a Steinway dealer is a big deal…  not every dealer gets to represent Steinway pianos. They’re the only concert piano manufacturer whose products are still handmade in the United States.  And didn’t Steinway make a fancy 100 year celebratory piano for y’all to have in your showroom? They did! I think that’s pretty cool…they must like you guys a lot… So how does a company that serves so many communities, take care of all of those customers? Well, Amro has 8 educational representatives, many of whom have formal music education training and years of teaching experience, that regularly visit most of the schools in the mid-south. They provide support for the band and orchestra programs within their respective territories, providing advice, product support, and basically anything else to make sure that the students and directors have everything they need to succeed in their instrumental music learning and teaching efforts. They are an amazing resource for both new and seasoned music educators. Additionally, an in-store team of band and orchestra experts, known as Director Services (this is what I (Alan) do at Amro) act as a music educator call center to provide support for school music educators, as well as the Amro educational representatives (so the ed reps can spend more time out in the field actively helping school music programs, and not have to deal with smaller details, which are way more difficult to deal with from a vehicle). I know being a teacher can be stressful, so I imagine band directors and other music educators are probably extremely thankful to have someone in their corner that’s just a phone call away and knowledgeable of their needs.  It reminds me of that scene in The Office when Jim and Dwight are on a sales call and Dwight calls the big box store and it just rings and rings and Jim calls Dunder Mifflin and Kelly answers immediately and cheerfully. That’s what happens when you call you, right?  Yep! You’re like the Kelly Kapoor of Amro! Maybe a little less bubbly, though. How many schools would you say Amro deals with on a regular basis? All in all, I’m not sure exactly how many school music programs we deal with on a regular basis. It’s not an easy number to keep track of, but it is a LARGE number of school programs… somewhere around 600. Our educational representatives cover a territory that reaches 7 states. We visit or cater to programs in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, and Alabama…  so Amro has a very long reach outside of Shelby County.  So, Amro’s pretty awesome… and they have had a huge impact on this region’s music community in the last century. And since this IS a history podcast, how about we keep to form and get to talking about some history?  Before we get into the history, we have to acknowledge the wonderful Averwater Family, who own Amro Music – and in particular, CJ Averwater, the president of Amro Music – for allowing us to use historical archive recordings of the company’s founder, Mil Averwater, and the rest of theAverwaters, telling the story of Amro’s beginnings. Amro has an amazing history anyway, but being able to share it with all of you, straight from the mouth of the founder and his successors, is a really special thing. So, thank you very much to the Averwater family for allowing us to use these wonderful recordings.  So, Amro Music’s story begins when Mil Averwater and his business partner Frank Moorman were on a temporary layover in Memphis, on their way to Los Angeles. Here’s Mil Averwater, telling us about how Amro landed in Memphis. Mil “I went to work when I was about 16 years old for the Procter & Gamble Company, in the engineering department. Of course, I’d taken classical music for about seven years, through a teacher who was also connected to the Cincinnati Conservatory, and I just quit taking those lessons, and I took one of the short courses in popular music at Leffingwell School down in the heart of Cincinnati. After studying down there and teaching down there, they made a teacher out of me. I worked with those for about 6 or 7 months, I decided to start my own business. I thought I was capable enough to do it.  Well, there were a number of studios in Cincinnati. So, I went to Louisville and tried to find a place in Louisville, but we couldn’t find a decent location. So, we decided then we were going to go on to California. I had a partner by the name of Frank Moorman. We were on a train and we hit Memphis, and I said, “Well, this looks like a good sized town,” and Frank Moorman got cold feet anyway. And he didn’t want to go any farther, because he wanted to be closer to home, see.  So we decided to stop over here, and we spent a few days, and we found a location. We decided we’d try it out here. And that’s how we came to Memphis.” Amro opened its first studio on the second floor of 166 S. Main Street in downtown Memphis. (That’s right where Main Street becomes the walking and trolly only section) The music lesson business was slow early on, and in order to drum-up business (music pun intended), they would throw open the windows of their second floor studio and play to attract passersby, and when they were coaxed upstairs by the musical sounds, Mil would offer them a 30-lesson package. After a while, as enrollment in the studio increased, other teachers were added to the faculty to teach lessons on different instruments such as banjo, guitar, and saxophone.  In the 1920’s, jazz became a very popular genre of music, and it was most popular with the younger generations of the time. In order to latch on to that popularity, Mil Averwater wrote a jazz piano method in 1923 called “The Amro System of Popular Jazz.” The book was used by many pianists to learn jazz techniques.  Let me just take a moment to say how cool it would be to have lived during the time when jazz was becoming popular?!? Now don’t get me wrong, that was not an easy time for people, but I would be all about pulling out my flapper dress and heading to a speakeasy to listen to jazz all night. The Great Depression was a hard time for everyone in the United States, but Mil took a different approach to perpetuating his business, resorting to bartering in lieu of monetary payment. Here’s Mil’s son and second generation owner, Bob, to tell us about that time: “Back during the depression… he kept things going, in some cases, by accepting eggs or whatever… vegetables, from his students. Some of them paid in produce, so to speak. When the war started, musical instruments were not readily available, so he advertised and bought as many instruments as he could, and those were refurbished and put back to good use. This is when things really began to grow – after the war. Schools came back and wanted to reorganize their bands, and this is what we did. We started bands, or reorganized old bands that had folded up during the war.” So, at this point, Amro was fully in the business of instrument sales. It was, at first, just an accommodation for students, but quickly became the financial mainstay of the business. As the popularity of school bands grew, the need arose for more instruments in students’ hands, which led Amro to introduce their first instrument trial rental program. Mil and his crew began to beat the pavement (or, gravel back then), visiting schools in the surrounding states to muster in rental business from the areas. They would even stay some nights in band directors’ houses.  Here’s Mil’s grandson, Pat, a 3rd generation owner and the current Chairman of Amro Music, sharing some background, and talking about the appearance of a new type of competition for the company: “So I remember as a young boy, riding to Amro my dad in his car… parking in the back alley back there at 71 Union, and there were three parking places. One for my dad, and the other one was for Vernon Drane, and then the third spot was for our piano truck to back up to the back door. And you’d go in the old, big heavy metal doors, and you’d step into the building, and it had the old wooden, creaky floors, and no insulation in between the floors. The repair shop was down below us, and every footstep could be heard throughout the whole building. It was just this long store that took up the entire city block. And you know, back in those days, you didn’t have computer systems… you didn’t have point of sale software. In fact, their inventory was taken on the little index cards, where each card was the serial number of an instrument, and when somebody rented that instrument, you wrote their name at the bottom of a list and as they returned the instrument, you crossed their name out and waited for the next person. At 71 Union, any parking was done on the city streets. It was downtown, and while downtown was very vibrant during, you know, the 30’s, the 40’s, and even the 50’s, the suburban shopping malls started coming into play, and so people just weren’t driving all the way downtown anymore.” “Soon after that, the toll-free numbers came out. You know, the 1-800 numbers, and the catalogs that came out, and so now all the national competitors became somewhat local competitors because anybody could pick up the telephone and call and get a price on the same product that you’re selling. That was a new challenge, and we’d never experienced anything like that, and it required new solutions to combat all of that.” Mil’s three children, Bob, Ron, and Joy, all three came to work for the family business, which opened a path to succession once Mil decided to retire. During that time, food and other life essentials, shopping, and even entertainment were becoming more accessible and closer to home for suburban dwellers. The introduction of satellite stores helped to accommodate those customers that weren’t traveling to the city center to shop as much any longer, as Memphis continued to grow and stripmalls became the norm. In 1960, a new branch was opened at the southwest corner of Poplar and Highland. Shortly thereafter, another branch was opened in Whitehaven.  From left to right: Chip, Bob, Mil and CJ in front Upon Mil’s retirement in 1968, Amro Music was a full-line dealer of musical instruments and gear of almost every type…  wind and string instruments, guitars, drum sets, digital pianos, live sound equipment… you name it, Amro had it. The company was incorporated and passed along to the next generation of Averwaters, with Bob Averwater named as president and Ron Averwater named vice president. With the continual growth that Amro was experiencing, along with the growth of the suburban areas, the need arose for yet another branch in Raleigh.  In 1981, Amro made one more move, when the main, downtown branch of Amro Music relocated into its current home at 2918 Poplar Avenue. Since that time, the satellite branches have all closed, and the company has redefined its focus in recent years, with a strong lean toward music education. The company has now been handed off to the fourth generation of Averwaters, and the growth just keeps…  well, growing.  Here’s Nick Averwater, 4th generation owner and current Vice President, on Amro’s focus on education: “You know, over time, I think Amro has adapted to the different markets – you know, of course, when The Beatles came on scene, everybody suddenly started selling a lot of electric guitars and doing that… But at our core, I think we have always been in touch with the music educator. I mean, it started with Mil, our founder, who he himself was a music educator, and that has just been central to our focus through the years – continuing to offer those services and products that music educators need, whether it’s in their home or in their classroom. And so today we benefit from being one of the largest single-location retailers in the country, and again I attribute that primarily to our focus on the needs of the educator as well as our customer – and having a great team here at Amro Music.” Left to right: Nick, Pat, CJ So now, we’ll steer a little away from the history of Amro, and look at something that is pretty amazing…  Let’s look at how a music store can actually survive for 100 years, and still be in a position of growth today. There are many reasons, of course. The first thing that comes to mind is Amro’s focus on education… and we’re not only talking about school band and orchestra students, although they’re an essential part of the focus. Amro also puts a large amount of effort toward helping music educators, as their mission statement makes clear. “Our mission is to spread the joys and benefits that making music provides to the community by providing resources to music educators that allow them to spend more time working with young musicians and less time on busy non-teaching activities.” I’m lucky enough to be an integral part of this effort… My job at Amro is almost entirely to build and maintain relationships with music educators, and to provide a home base of sorts for nearly anything that they might need to make their jobs (and lives) easier. Another reason for Amro’s success and longevity is this… Amro has consistently been innovative in their response to adversity. Mil’s decision to accept goods and services in lieu of payment during the Great Depression is a perfect example. In the past year or so, Amro has once again proved themselves to be industry leaders and innovators during adversity, concerning their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did every department find ways to adapt their approach, offering products to cater to a whole new set of needs, like PPE products, instrument bell covers, and musician’s masks, but the company truly went above and beyond to help music educators find some direction during a grim time, when many were unsure how (or if) they would be able to proceed with teaching music during, or after, the pandemic.  I just have to say that I’ve been extremely impressed by everything Amro did during the pandemic. Admittedly, I was kind of panicked for you and for us when Covid hit. It was a little scary not knowing how a company that provided products for an industry that did literally the exact opposite of what the CDC said to do, was going to survive. But Amro thought outside the box and they made it work. And for that I am super grateful.  Here’s CJ Averwater, 4th generation owner and Amro’s current president, with a bit about how Amro has pushed through hard times: “Obviously before my tenure, you know you had the depression, you had high interest rates – that sort of thing. And right now we’re kind of living in one of the big challenges with the Coronavirus. You talk about changing the way we do business overnight. Back in March we had to shut down the retail side, and move to a skeleton crew, but like every significant challenge we’ve faced, we’ve found opportunities in it, so we’ve rethought all of the processes… we’ve rethought how and why we do certain things, and because of this we’ve found new opportunities that we didn’t know were there before. One of the great things about our history is that whenever we face these challenges, we view it as an opportunity, and we’ve found ways to get past it. But I will say, I think one of the other reasons we’ve been able to bounce through so many challenges is the foundation that those before us have laid.” Amro assembled a team of music educators to create Considerations for a Safe Return to the Instrumental Music Classroom, a step-by-step process on how to safely conduct music classes in person. That process has now been used in schools in California, Texas, and Arizona, in addition to the local Tennessee schools. Amro has also created a podcast called After Hours: Conversations for Music Educators, where music educators have been able to share best practices and tips on how to create successful music programs during COVID and beyond. It actually started as a series of Zoom sessions with an open forum format, and I believe most of the episodes still follow this format. The podcast has been wildly popular in the music education community, and all of the information has been super helpful to programs all over the United States. All of the episodes can be found on Amro’s website.   E’rybody starting podcasts during the pandemic!! Amro’s habit of constantly looking for ways to innovate and improve on current practices, combined with their diligent efforts in imprinting themselves on the Mid-South communities, and the music education industry as a whole, are some of the big reasons they have lasted this long. And they don’t appear to be going away any time soon… that’s for sure.  There is another phenomenon found at Amro that is not found in very many workplaces…  Amro has had a large amount of employees that have stayed with the company for a VERY long time! We spoke with CJ Averwater, Amro’s current president, and he told us that the average tenure for Amro employees is currently 12.8 years. That’s just shy of four times the national average tenure for jobs in the private sector. On June 7th, which is just about two weeks from now, I will have been employed at Amro for 16 years. The Averwater family just makes it easy to work there. I have always been treated fairly, and I have felt acknowledged and valued as an employee. I know that some people say, “oh, my job doesn’t even feel like work,” but I think that’s a little hyperbolic. We work hard at Amro – but it’s work for a greater cause. We’re helping people find their path to making music, and I think that’s a very honorable cause. I think those are the reasons that people stick around for years and years at Amro. We’d be remiss not to mention some of the past employees, and present employees, that have been with Amro for the longest amount of time. Starting with the people who are currently working at Amro – working our way up from the 15 year mark – and keeping in mind that Amro only has about 70 employees in total.  Amro has 6 employees with a tenure of between 15 and 20 years They have 11 employees with a tenure of between 21 and 25 years 4 employees who have a tenure of between 26 and 30 years And 4 that have been with the company for more than 30 years… and of those four, two of these employees have been with Amro for more than FORTY YEARS.  Both of those lovely gentlemen, Archie Fleming and Cliff Acred, are instrument repair technicians now, but both of them have held other positions at Amro during their tenure. They are both fantastic individuals, and I have always enjoyed working with them.  One past employee that absolutely has to be mentioned is – by far – the Amro employee with the longest tenure. I’m not sure that anyone will be able to match it… I guess we’ll have to see.Vernon Drane, also known as “Kowboi,” was hired right out of college by Mil Averwater in 1945. He did just about every job (or maybe literally every job?) that there was to do at Amro, and finally landed in the band instrument repair shop. Vernon worked for Amro until his 2013 retirement right before he passed away, at age 90, in 2014. If you haven’t already done the math, Vernon worked for Amro Music for sixty eight years. Amazing.  We were talking a moment ago about Cliff Acred and Archie Fleming… I have to mention that these guys are both truly top-notch musicians as well… Archie is one of the finest saxophonists in Memphis, and Cliff is an outstanding bass guitarist. Cliff was actually Isaac Hayes’s bassist for a number of years. He can be heard playing bass on Isaac Hayes’s famous theme song to the movie, “Shaft.” Shut yo’ mouth…  I’m just talkin’ ‘bout Shaft…  Actually, several of our employees have played with some big name music acts…  just to name a few…One of the brass repair technicians, Hubert Crawford, or as he’s affectionately known, “H-Bomb” (because of the amount of sound that dude is able to produce from hitting his snare drum), has played with James Brown, The Bar-Kays, Mark Farner, and Eric Gales.  Art Edmaiston, one of the woodwind repair techs, has played with Greg Allman and The Doobie Brothers, among many others. And one of the purchasers, Brian Stuhr, is a fantastic rockabilly guitarist and he plays with pianist Jason D Williams.  Amro has also seen quite a large number of famous customers in its 100 years. There is a poster on the wall of the second floor of the store that lists all of the names – well, probably not even ALL of the names – of Amro’s famous customers. It can also be found on Amro’s website.  Here are the names of some of the bigger names on that list:Johnny Cash, BB King, Roy Orbison, Sam “The Sham” Zamudio, Paul Simon (one of my all-time favorites, Billy Joel, Carole King, Ben Folds (one of our favorites), Willie Nelson, Elton John, local legend and all around amazing guy Kirk Whalum…  and just SO many more. And for one of the biggest names on the list, there’s even a receipt for proof! In March of 1967, Elvis Presley bought a Gibson SG Guitar, a used Epiphone amp, two guitar chord books, and a guitar chord chart. He also borrowed Amro’s Steinway concert grand piano to record several “Live at Graceland” albums.  So many lives have been touched by Amro, in the best way possible. Local saxophone legend Lannie McMillan, and our former neighbor here in Vollentine Evergreen, had this to say about Amro, “Can you imagine all the great musicians Amro has helped start?  It’s impossible to imagine what Memphis music would be without Amro Music’s influence.” I’m lucky and thankful to have such a wonderful and influential place to work every day. Like we said earlier, there are many reasons that Amro has thrived through its 100 years of business, and I hope there will be at least a hundred more.  Wow! What a legacy! I’m always boastful when I tell people my fella works at Amro. But in all seriousness, it’s a wonderful local company that continues to thrive, even during the most challenging of times.  It’s obvious that music is central and imperative to living your best life, just look at all the musical creativity that has come out of just the last 18 months while more people have been at home. We need music. And it’s proven that it makes you smarter… It is! Amro has been there and will continue to be there for the people, communities, band programs, and everything in between to help them achieve their musical goals.  So if you’re in need of musical things, Amro is a great place to look and if they don’t have it, they will surely be able to point you in the right direction! Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoyed today’s story! https://www.amromusic.com/https://www.youtube.com/embed/OnaUWC2NrJE **Photos (and music) on this site are for informational purposes only and constitutes Fair Use under Section 107 of the US Copyright Law. We do not own the rights to these photos. **
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