At Willis we live our mission daily and want to be your trusted resource for anything musical for years to come.
Beginning in 1899 through today, Willis Music’s focus has always been on music education. From their internationally known educational piano catalog to one of the top retail music chains in America the focus on education has always remained. Here’s how it began…
Charles H. Willis began his career in the music business as a retail manager for Church & Company, a music publisher in Cincinnati. He later decided to branch out on his own and began what is now known worldwide as The Willis Music Company. He began his business selling sheet music and catering to music teachers and later decided to enter the publishing business. Charles later recalled “With my entrance in the publication field, I became active in musical circles and gradually developed international connections and wide personal contacts with composers, dealers and artists. Because of these connections, I was able to secure preference in obtaining manuscripts and compositions of nationally and internationally known composers for my catalogue.”
Charles continued to expand, purchasing the John Church Company and the George B. Jennings and Company increasing his catalogue and worldwide presence. In 1910 he incorporated the business and on July 13, 1919 Charles sold The Willis Music Company to Gustave Schirmer who also owned Schirmer Music and The Boston Music Company.
In 1923 John J. Cranley, a fiery, redheaded Irishman from the Boston Music Company, became general manager of the Willis subsidiary. John began as a stock boy at Boston Music and now was leading Willis Music with his hard work and love for the music business. He turned this small organization into a major corporation in very quick order. Under his leadership, Willis Music became “The Publisher” for teaching methods and solo pieces. The John Thompson method, “Modern Course for the Piano” was added to the catalog in 1936 and quickly became, and still is today, the most widely used piano method in the world, published in 17 languages. He then added names like William Gillock and Edna Mae Burnam, who was known for her prolific “Dozen a Day” series.
Little by little, John acquired more than 50% ownership in the company through stock options and then purchased all the remaining stock in the mid 1950’s. In addition to running his company, Willis Music, John continued as a trusted employee as General Manager for Boston Music and Schirmer Music. With his tremendous travel schedule between Boston, New York and Schirmer stores which spanned the country, John chose his son Edward to move from Boston with his growing family to Cincinnati to care for the new family business.
Edward Cranley grew up with his two brothers and two sisters in Medford, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. He loved sports and even spent a time with a Boston Red Sox farm team as a pitcher. At 18 years old and after the start of WWII, Edward joined the Navy and became a navy pilot. After returning from the war Edward worked for Boston Music and his father while going to Boston College.
After graduation and a time in Japan during the Korean Conflict, Edward returned to Boston Music before being called by his father to move to Cincinnati and begin his career with Willis Music. Edward learned the new business quickly while working all departments sharing his father’s enthusiasm for the business and the vision set by Charles Willis so many years ago. Edward became president of the Willis Music Company in 1965 and continued to expand Willis publications worldwide. Willis moved its Corporate headquarters to Florence, Kentucky in 1969 where it continues today.
In the 1970’s Willis’s retail operation consisted of a main store in Cincinnati which sold all types of musical instruments, accessories and print music; and branch stores in various cities like Atlanta, Cleveland, Knoxville, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Chattanooga. Willis began expanding its Cincinnati presence in 1975, opening on the west side of Cincinnati. Later it would expand into communities where stores still exist today like Lexington, Florence, Eastgate, Kenwood and West Chester.
Kevin Cranley, our current President began working in the business for his father at the age of 12; working summers and breaks in the publishing division and after school in the retail store. After graduating from Xavier University in 1980 with a marketing degree, Kevin joined the company full time in the publishing division. He later took over the reins of the retail division and became president of the company in 1990. Kevin became involved in industry associations and in 2011 served a two-year term as Chairman of NAMM, the International Music Products Association.
In 2005, Willis partnered with the Hal Leonard Corporation who now handles product development, production and distribution for the Willis catalog in the Americas and beyond. Hal Leonard provides an unmatched stable of popular songs and talent that have enhanced the iconic Willis Piano Methods. Willis continues to be represented by Shanghai Music Publishing in China, Zen-On Music in Japan and Hal Leonard everywhere else.
Today Willis Music continues its focus on music education through its retail stores and publishing. Willis operates 5 retail stores with everything from print to pianos and everything in between. Willis is a proud partner with Steinway and Sons, servicing Cincinnati, Dayton and Northern Kentucky, and Yamaha Piano in Lexington, representing the entire state of Kentucky. In addition, Willis represents Roland digital pianos in all its markets.
Willis also calls on hundreds of schools weekly supporting band and orchestra programs, their students and families. With the 2013 acquisition of Moeller Music, Willis strengthened its commitment and dedication to school music programs in all markets. At the same time Willis began representing the renowned Yamaha Band and Orchestra line of instruments.
Willis continues to specialize in both acoustic and electric guitars, ukuleles, and percussion. Of course, Willis remains as the place for anything print and media related. With its continued focus on education Willis provides music lessons in all locations for all instruments. Additionally, Willis provides venues for performers throughout the year and provides space for hundreds of recitals for students of all ages.
All of us at Willis are tremendously proud of the legacy that began with Charles H. Willis so many years ago and we are committed to continuing with the same dedication for years to come.