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 this focus on education has always remained. Here’s how it began…
On April 1, 1899, Charles H. Willis, a veteran of the sheet music industry, founded a small business at 41 East 4th Street in downtown Cincinnati. For the next 20 years Mr. Willis and his son William grew the business through hard work and a keen focus on the needs of music educators. During that time the company acquired several music publishers such as The John Church Company and George B. Jennings and Company. In 1919, Gustave Schirmer bought the Willis Music Company, making it a branch of G. Schirmer of Boston, Massachusetts.
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 stockboy 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. Little by little, he acquired more than 50% ownership in the company through stock options and then purchased all the remaining stock. John continued running Boston Music, Schirmer Music and Willis Music. 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 Edna Mae Burnam and her prolific “Dozen a Day” series as well as William Gillock.
John’s son, Edward, became president of the Willis Music Company in 1965. Like his father he grew up in the business at Boston Music. After serving in the Navy during WWII and Korea he moved his Family to Cincinnati to join Willis in 1955. He worked all departments, sharing his Dad’s enthusiasm while continuing the success and growth of the organization. In 1969 the Company’s headquarters and publishing operation moved to Florence, Kentucky.
After graduating from Xavier University in 1980, Kevin Cranley, Ed’s son, joined the company full time. In 1990, Kevin succeeded his father as President and continues in that role today. Kevin also served as the Chairman of NAMM, the industry’s International Trade Association from 2011-2013.
In the past 10 years Willis has gone through tremendous positive change. 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.
In 2012 Willis became the exclusive representative for Steinway and Sons Pianos in the Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Dayton markets. Willis services university music departments, local symphonies and music enthusiasts with the world’s finest pianos.
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.
Today Willis Music stores provide everything musicians of all levels need and desire. With performance spaces in several stores Willis is frequently the venue for beginners, rising stars and Steinway Artists.
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