Werlein’s FOR A SONG
Werlein’s For Music was a fixture at 605 Canal St. for the better part of a century.
THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION IMAGES, Charles L. Franck STUDIO COLLECTION TOP
The deep male voice over the phone intoned the familiar phrase: “guitars, drums, ukuleles, pianos – everything musical at Werlein’s.” Then, the caller would hear the time and the temperature.
The voice belonged to the late Philip Werlein. The phone service was the once-popular “Time and Temperature” number that most everyone in New Orleans dialed regularly.
According to his daughter, Bitsie Werlein Mouton (Mrs. Grover Mouton), “it was an advertising medium that reached across all age groups. It would just stop you in your tracks. It was very somber. He had a very deep voice. People to this day talk about it.”
Werlein’s For Music was a fixture at 605 Canal St. for the better part of a century. Today, the Palace Café restaurant occupies the building, which is still owned by the Werlein’s corporation). While it had other New Orleans locations before Canal Street, the firm’s first home was in Vicksburg, Miss.
According to Mouton, the founder of the family firm was Philip Werlein “the first,” who came from Germany in the 1840s as a music educator. He was able to ship instruments up the Mississippi River, taught music in Mississippi and started a music publishing business in Vicksburg, then relocated to New Orleans in the 1850s. Philip Werlein Ltd.
donated a set of company scrapbooks (HNOC accession no. 2005.0154) containing clippings and other company-related materials dating from 1842 to 1978 to the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Werlein’s music publishing business continued after the Civil War (the firm had been a publisher of the song “Dixie”), but it became best known as a source for instruments and music supplies. According to Parham Werlein (Bitsie Mouton’s uncle and another long-time member of the firm), the Union Army’s occupation of New Orleans resulted in Werlein’s store being closed and its stock disbursed. Employees had hidden some of the pianos in a barn and after hostilities had ceased that stock provided the start of the re-opened business.
Pianos were Mouton’s specialty at Werlein’s. “I play, but I’m not a great pianist,” she admits. Her mother, Anastasia Schlueter Werlein, was a concert pianist – her parents met when her mother, then a college student, played a concert in Shreveport where the young Philip Werlein was working at Werlein’s Shreveport location. “She was surrounded by nuns from the college – it was difficult to court her.” A long and happy marriage resulted, and on moving back to New Orleans Anastasia became the pianist for the local symphony while her husband rose through the ranks at the family company.
Mouton had worked there during summers in school, but when she was in her 30s she and her husband Grover, an architect, came back to New Orleans after years of living in New York and Europe, and she began working full time at the music store, especially interested in selling pianos. Werlein’s had stocked, among other brands, Mason & Hamlin pianos and then added Steinway pianos to the inventory. The Texas pianist Van Cliburn’s parents bought his first Steinway at the Werlein’s in Shreveport.
Werlein’s customers were loyal – not only to the store, but also to their favorite piano. Keith Dockery Derbes (Mrs. Stephen Derbes) says that her mother, the late Keith Somerville Dockery (Mrs. Joe Rice Dockery) of Dockery Farms, outside Cleveland, Miss., had been given a Mason & Hamlin piano from Werlein’s by her parents. After her marriage, her husband offered her a Werlein’s Steinway, and she suggested they trade in her old piano. Immediately, she regretted her decision, but things were quickly resolved. “For all my childhood, we had two grand pianos in the living room,” Derbes remembers.
Certain occupations also gravitate to the piano. “Great surgeons make great pianists,” says Mouton. “I can’t tell you the number of great concert grands I sold to surgeons. Surgeons have some sort of affinity to piano excellence.”
Parham Werlein, with 55 years at the company working at every level, is knowledgeable about band instruments. A saxophonist himself, he often accompanied bandleader René Louapre, director of instrumental music for Orleans Parish Public Schools, on trips to local schools to demonstrate instruments and encourage youngsters to join the band.
Besides selling instruments, Werlein’s also offered musical instruction and instrument repair. In the oral histories collected at the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, Werlein’s figures in many anecdotes of the early years of the music. The legendary Kid Ory, who grew up in Algiers, was playing in bands at 14, when he crossed the river one day in 1900 to visit his sister and go to Werlein’s to purchase his first trombone.
As Ory told the story in 1957, he played the instrument at the store, returned to his sister’s home on Jackson Avenue at S. Robertson Street, and began to play again. Soon there was a knock on the door. The legendary Buddy Bolden was outside, wanting to give Ory a job. It wasn’t to be: his sister told Bolden her little brother had to stay home until he was 21.
Trumpeter Peter Bocage related that he went to New York around 1920 with Armand J. Piron’s band to play recording dates that had been arranged for them by Werlein’s. Bocage said they were the first black band to record for Victor records. An audition for a Broadway hit show, George White’s Scandals, was purposefully sabotaged by the home-sick New Orleans band members, much to Piron’s dismay.
The firm was concerned with everything musical. Werlein’s, at one time in the 1800s, had a concert hall and had sponsored the local appearance of Enrico Caruso and later of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. Parham Werlein pointed out that Werlein’s had a large ticket business, with sales for all local musical events. The symphony had its offices on the third floor. Piano recitals were regularly scheduled in the upstairs auditorium, where Les Paul and Mary Ford also once performed. Werlein’s also stocked sheet music and band arrangements. If you had business with music in New Orleans, you went to Werlein’s.
Fats Domino’s two Steinways came from Werlein’s – and the one damaged in Katrina is now on exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum. Pete Fountain had his clarinets repaired there – and the Assunto brothers (Frank and Freddie) of the Dukes of Dixieland might have done the repair work.
Parham Werlein sold a phonograph and some records to Tennessee Williams, “He said he liked to write with the records on,” he says. The Rolling Stones stopped in while in town. A young Harry Connick Jr. used to come in and play the grand pianos to everyone’s amazement. Werlein’s was definitely in tune with music in the city.
While the firm once had clients and outlets throughout the region, the nature of the music business was changing and the last store in Metairie finally closed.
Mouton notes that “We brought our company to the proper closing, and the family is happy with what we hope we have contributed. It was special because New Orleans is so deeply involved with music.”
A legacy in which she takes special pride is Werlein’s contribution to fostering music for young people. “The very beginning of music is music in our schools, that’s where it all begins, and we contributed there.
“Our stores were always filled with kids with big dreams, and we feel that’s an important legacy that we leave, that we helped children all along their way.”