A love song to Werlein’s, the beloved New Orleans music store
After teaching for a time a Mississippi music seminary, German immigrant Phillip P. Werlein decided in 1842 to open a music shop in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It paid off. His business proved profitable and in 1852, Werlein moved his family and his business to New Orleans where his eponymous store went on to become one of the most beloved and long-lasting local businesses in the Crescent City, with a flagship location on Canal Street and satellite stores throughout the metro area. For more than 150 years, Werlein’s music stores were the place for New Orleans musicians to buy their music and instruments.
In 2003, the last Werlein’s store closed for good. Talking to the National Association of Music Merchants on March 27, 2003 — one day after Werlein’s closed its doors — Parham Werlein, great-grandson of Phillip P. Werlein, said, “Werlein’s survived the Civil War, World War I, the Clutch Plague of the early ’30s, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and the recent oil crunch.” What it couldn’t endure, he said, was the competition introduced by the internet, national chain music companies, and discount catalog sellers.
- Werlein’s stores were fully stocked with all of one’s musical needs. The shops provided instrument service and repairs, music lessons, and sheet music. The company prided itself on its knowledgeable salesmen.
- The business operated under a number of names, including Asbrand & Werlein, which is what it was called upon its New Orleans opening, House of Werlein and Werlein’s for Music.
- The Canal Street store was where many French Quarter musicians shopped. The four-story building housed a floor just for sheet music and another dedicated to pianos. The third floor had more sheet music, an area for repairs and a stage for recitals. The fourth floor contained the company’s offices. Today, that building is home to the Palace Café.
- At its peak, Werlein’s had branch stores all over the greater New Orleans area, including locations on the West Bank, the North Shore, the French Quarter and on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie. Werlein’s also had stores outside of the city in Baton Rouge; Shreveport; and Biloxi and Jackson, Mississippi.
- At the time of its closing, Parham Werlein said the company was the oldest retail music business in the United States and the oldest retail business in the New Orleans area.
- P.P. Werlein was one of the first publishers of the song “Dixie.” However, he mis-attributed the songwriter, which got him into a bit of trouble. It’s not clear whether this was an accident or whether Werlein was trying to avoid paying royalties. Eventually he was threatened with a lawsuit, but he settled out of court.
- Phillip P. Werlein was reportedly a Confederate sympathizer, so when Union forces occupied the city during the Civil War, he fled with his family. When they returned after the war, they found that the family store’s inventory had been seized by federal troops and auctioned off, according to a 1942 story in The Times-Picayune.
- In the 1930s, Werlein’s felt the effects of the Clutch Plague, so the company decided to focus on creating school bands. The company continued to support school music programs long after the Depression. One 1935 ad touted the social benefits of music in schools and included the quote: “Teach a boy to blow a horn and he will never blow a safe.”
- On Thanksgiving Day 1942, to mark the 100th anniversary of Werlein’s, The Times-Picayune ran a 16-page special section dedicated to the company’s history and including ads expressing congratulations from businesses ranging from Rubenstein Bros. to Antoine’s Restaurant to Decca Records.
- In its heyday, Werlein’s was a necessary stop for any musician visiting New Orleans. Jimmy Buffet and Harry Connick Jr. are among nationally-known musicians to cross its threshold. Hank Williams even appeared as an “extra added attraction” at Werlein’s in 1949, before he was big enough to be the headliner.
Local musicians knew: Anyone who was anyone bought their instruments from Werlein’s. It was a part of the fabric of New Orleans’s music scene. Scores of famous musicians, including local musicians Dr. John and Fats Domino, were patrons of Werlein’s. It was even rumored that Louis Armstrong bought his first horn at the famous shop. Even though Werlein’s is gone, the store lives on in the memories of New Orleans music community.