Hitting a High Note
Amro and Memphis: In tune since 1921.
photograph by Jonathan Postal
(page 1 of 2)
It was 1921 and everywhere in Memphis was the sound of jazz and blues music mixing with the music of travel — train whistles and the riverboats’ calliope. Enter into this symphony Mil Averwater and Frank Moorman, passing through on the way from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. They must have heard it all, and seen the throngs of people shopping, working, eating, and playing downtown.
In a time when bigger began to be better — Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores was bagging revenues of $60 million — Averwater and Moorman had simpler dreams. They were musicians with an urge to teach others.
The partners opened Amro Studios — the “A” of Averwater and “M” of Moorman with an “RO” as a fill line — in October 1921 on the second floor of 166 South Main Street. On what is today’s Tri-State Bank’s parking lot at the corner of Main and Peabody Place, the two would open the windows wide to play piano and, when the inevitable passerby wandered in to see what was going on, they would offer a 30-lesson course.
Business grew, built on diversification and immersion into the popular music of the day. Averwater wrote and copyrighted the book The Amro System of Popular Jazz in 1923. When WMC Radio went on the air that same year, he played and arranged talent for the city’s inaugural waveband.
When cotton prices plummeted in 1930, the Great Depression struck Memphis like a mallet. People did what they could to stay afloat as jobs were lost and families condensed into single, bulging households. Nonessentials were cut from budgets everywhere, and music lessons, it would seem, would be doomed. Frank Moorman had left the business early on to return to Cincinnati, but Averwater remained committed to the notion that music is good for the body and soul. Over much of those depressing years, he worked with a system of bartering. He traded a lesson in scales for a basket of eggs, a medley of standards for a gallon of milk.
In 1927, the big band leader Jimmie Lunce-ford came to Manassas High School and began what would become the first public school band program in the city. As the popularity of school bands grew, so did Amro’s business, and the two would meld when Averwater, who had begun offering instruments for sale, would eventually begin supplying those programs in the 1940s and ’50s.
The work consisted of putting boots on the ground then, with Mil and his staff traveling the dirt and gravel roads of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri. It was a familial industry, with the salesmen often staying overnight in the band directors’ homes.
Today, Amro supplies instruments to nearly all the schools within a 250-mile radius of Memphis, and the Averwaters are still conducting the show with Pat Averwater, Mil’s grandson, as president, and great-grandson CJ Averwater as vice president. Great-grandson Nick Averwater who recently graduated from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, has joined the business as well.
It’s a multi generational business serving a multigenerational clientele, CJ Averwater says. “One of the coolest experiences working the floor is when someone comes in and says, ‘I got my first instrument here.’ That’s touching, that lets you know you’re doing something that benefits the community.”
Over time, Amro has grown and contracted with the city. Locations have included Madison Avenue, Monroe, Union, Austin Peay, Elvis Presley Boulevard. and near the corner of Poplar and Highland where Buster’s Liquor now stands. In the 1970s, the operation was moved to its current location at 2918 Poplar, with an addition to the west of the original building in the ’90s doubling the space to its current 25,000 square feet. Housed within are showrooms, repairs workshops, executive and accounting offices, and an auditorium that seats a hundred.
“As business has grown, we’ve been more successful out of one location because a lot of our operation is not necessarily retail itself but in the service we provide outside of the city,” CJ says.