O.K. Houck Piano Co.

One of Rock 'n Roll's first Music stores

During the mid 1950s through the mid 1960s when Memphis, Tennessee appeared to be the virtual center of Rock 'n Roll, Soul and R&B talent, the O.K. Houck Piano Co. was the premier dealer in the area where almost everyone bought their instruments.  While most of the area music stores focused on "Band" instruments (brass and wind), Houck's carried most of the name brands of guitars like Gibson, Fender, Martin, Gretsch and Rickenbacker.  Ike Turner, who in 1951 recorded "Rocket 88" at the Memphis Recording Service (Sun) for Chess Records with his King's of Rhythm and Jackie Brenston, has said "I came to Memphis to O.K. Houck. It was the first time I saw a Fender guitar, and an electric bass."

Main St. at Union Ave. looking North - ca.1950
Photo courtesy Bill Pollard and Memphis Historical RR

Located on all three floors of the building at 121 Union Ave. on the block between 2nd Ave. and Main Streets, it was just up the street from the Peabody Hotel.  In the front area on the main floor was the sheet music department and offices of the Piano salesman so that when teachers came in for sheet music the salesmen could make contact with them for prospective sales.  You had to go through a hall to the rear of the store where the Instrument department (guitars) was located.  The second floor, accessed through an elevator in the Instrument department, was set up with the organs in the front part, new pianos in the main area and used pianos in the rear.  The third floor was for excess inventory and various used pieces and the entire basement from Union Ave. to the alley behind was used as the repair shop with the exception of a room for drums.*  At the time they were renting the whole building for around $1000.00 per month.

Main St. just south of McCall, Houck's on right - 1948
Photo © Newman Collection

The business had its beginnings in 1883 when it was the O.K. Houck & Co., a music publishing company located at 359 Main St. in Memphis.  Around 1890 there supposedly existed in the area a company called the French Piano Co. where John Cassell Houck was the manager.  It is not clear if the marriage of John to Julia French had any impact but their son Oliver Kershner Houck was the owner and founder of O.K. Houck & Co.  Shortly after the turn of the century O.K. Houck's became the O.K. Houck Piano Company.  

Tennessee Centennial Prize March by Maurice Bernhardt
1897 O. K. Houck & Co. publication

There are two existing charters for O. K. Houck & Co. in the Tennessee State Library and Archives.  One is a charter of incorporation that was filed on November 1, 1900 with James Rose, the then Secretary of the State of Illinois, and was also filed with the State of Tennessee in 1907.  The names on the charter were O. K. Houck, W. B. Price, F. W. Teeple, Jesse F. Houck, and J. H. Dunlap.  The purpose of the business was to "manufacture, import, buy, rent and sell Pianos, Organs, and all other kinds of Musical Instruments and Musical Merchandise, and to publish, import, buy and sell all kinds of sheet music, music books, pamphlets, engravings, pictures and all articles or goods pertaining to such business in Illinois and other states."1

The company grew and by at least 1906 had branches in Little Rock, Shreveport and St. Louis among other southern towns surrounding the Mississippi Delta, and as far north as Chicago.  The other existing charter is a charter revision changing the corporate name from O. K. Houck & Company to O. K. Houck Piano Company.  It was filed on August 13, 1903 and listed the company's address as 245 Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.2  This revision was filed with the State of Tennessee in 1903.  Later, a domestic charter was filed on June 24, 1914.3  The company's address was given as 103 South Main Street, Memphis.

p149 of the 1927 Memphis City Directory
courtesy Chaddra Moore

Upon the death of Oliver Kershner Houck the business passed to his brother, Jesse French Houck Sr.  The 1927 Memphis City Directory lists the South Main address and a "Wholesale Department" at 100 South Front Street.  The President was Jesse F. Houck, Vice-President was W. T. Sutherland, the General Manager was Jesse F. Houck, Jr. and the Treasurer was John G. McConnell.  A full-page ad on Page 149 of the 1927 Directory states that the company sold "pianos, sheet music and small goods, player pianos, organs, victrolas, player piano music and talking machine records".  By then it also listed stores in Shreveport, Louisiana, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Nashville in addition to the one in Memphis.

Though most of the stores were lost during the Great Depression the Memphis store remained.  The report notes in the charter index suggest that the company may have filed for bankruptcy in 1933, but if so it was able to remain afloat and filed a charter on May 15, 1947.4  The incorporators were J. F. Houck,  E. Frank Preston, and Sadie P. Stewart.

Sid Lapworth's business card

By the early 1950s the owner was Carolyn Preston, a relative of the Houck family and the President of the company and overall manager was Ed Fitzpatrick, a nephew of the Houcks.  It was Ed who sold Scotty Moore his 1953 Gibson ES295 which he would use during the first years recording at Sun Records and on tour with Elvis.  In August of 1954 Thomas S. Lapworth (Sid) began working there as the Instrument Manager.  Like many people that work in music stores Sid was also an aspiring musician.

Graduating from Memphis Tech High School in 1942 he worked for the Illinois Central Railroad until drafted by the Army in 1944.  After the service he worked in the Cotton industry and attended Memphis State University.  He graduated in 1952 with the hopes of becoming a Band director but found it tough to make a living teaching music.  Though more inclined to jazz and his first love being the Trombone he took up playing bass while playing with Bill Justis' band and managed to get all the work he wanted.  On  June 5, 1957 he played bass on the recordings of Bill Justis' "Raunchy" and "Midnight Man" at Sun Records.  He played with Bill from 1950 to 1961.

B. B. King with "Lucille"

For about 10 years as the Instrument manager at Houck's, Sid interacted and sold most of the instruments to many of the area's future recording artists that walked though the door.  Artists like Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Johnny Cash, B. B. King and Conway Twitty to name but a few.  Though B. B. initially bought all of his stuff from Ed, Sid recalls selling him one of the Gibson ES-355's that he called "Lucille" (not the first one), and a Fender Bandmaster amplifier.  Sid was also responsible for bringing the Gretsch line into the store and in appreciation Gretsch sent Chet Atkins there to perform.

Bill Black's famous Kay bass, the one now owned by Paul McCartney, actually belonged to Sid first.  Sometime in the fall of 1954 before Elvis, Scotty and Bill gave up their day jobs, Bill went into the store looking for an upright bass.  They didn't have any in stock at the time so Sid offered to sell Bill his own.  Bill, with clothes still soiled from his job at Firestone, went straight to Sid's house to check out the bass.  Sid in the meantime forgot to phone his wife and much to Bill's amusement she refused to let him in when he arrived.  After Sid's assurances she let him in and he wound up buying the bass for $120 cash.

Scotty with 295, Elvis with D-18 and Bill with Kay Bass
Breckenridge, TX American Legion Hall - June 10, 1955
Photo© courtesy Steve Bonner

Earlier still, he had sold Elvis a used Martin 000-18 guitar, his first.  It was small, more like a parlor guitar but it fit his budget at the time.  Not too long after, Elvis traded it in for a D-18, getting exactly the $79.50 that he paid for it in trade.  Around June of 1955 he traded that in for a D-28.  Sid recalls the models well because he was asked about them all the time.  People would come into the store asking what types of guitars Elvis and other artists played, looking to buy the same perhaps hoping to share a similar success.

Soon after Elvis traded up to his Martin D-28, Scotty traded in his ES295 for the Gibson L5 which he used to first record "Mystery Train" along with the previously purchased EchoSonic amp.  The amp was custom built by Ray Butts of Cairo, Illinois and so Scotty could afford it, the store made arrangements to buy the amp from Ray and finance it to Scotty giving him a $65 trade-in allowance for his Fender Deluxe amp.  Normally when the artists would finance their instruments, the store retained the original sales contract until full payment was made.  After payment they generally sent them to the artists for tax purposes, as they did with Scotty.  Sometimes though they would simply disappear most likely going to "autograph seekers" that worked in the offices.

Dealing with so many of the area artists, Sid used to maintain a collection of autographed photos on the walls surrounding his desk  Unfortunately he arrived one day after a redesign of the offices to find them all removed and he never saw them again.  Many of the artists he became friendly with, like Scotty who he recalls would stop in after his trips to California and other places to hang out, go to lunch and share stories.  Another good friend was Luther Perkins

Marshall Grant, Luther Perkins with 55 Esquire and Johnny Cash
Photo© courtesy Jeff Evans and RHOF

Luther as the lead guitar player was the one responsible for creating the very distinct sound behind Johnny Cash and was one of the original Tennessee Two, along with Marshall Grant.  Sid sold Luther a 1955 Fender Esquire (now owned by Marty Stuart) and a Fender Champ amplifier.  Prior to their success when he began falling behind on his payments the store repossessed the guitar and amp.  Luther went to Sid and asked to borrow the guitar for one night needing it to "cut a record".  They had known each other since they worked for the Illinois Central Railroad out of High School so Sid said he'd do it but he had to have it back by 8:00 the next morning before the boss came in.  That night Luther recorded "I Walk The Line" at Sun with Johnny and it became their first No. 1 hit.  True to his word he was waiting at the store when Sid arrived the next morning.  Luther never forgot that favor and they became good friends.  Sid recalls, "Each December when the band wasn't working you'd always find Luther around Houck's doing all sorts of tasks, not taking any pay for it, just to be around the instruments and to meet people, a really marvelous person".

Not everyone though was as trustworthy as Luther.  Sid recalls doing a favor for one artist in particular who had got into an accident and damaged a vehicle loaded with the bands equipment.  He called Sid up in a panic and they went down to the store at 11:00 one night for several thousands of dollars worth of equipment for replacements.  Having known and dealt with him before he figured he'd be good for it but in actuality he stiffed them and the store eventually had to attach some of the artists property for repayment.  Sid got the blame for that.

Though not actually a sale, Sid also helped arrange the procurement of Elvis' first Gibson J200.  Sid says that in 1956 after Elvis' popularity started to skyrocket Gibson approached him and asked if he would suggest to Elvis trading in his Martin D-28 for a Gibson.  Sid suggested to them that they should just give him the guitar.  Since Colonel Parker would never allow Elvis to endorse anything it was decided that they would invoice the guitar to Scotty and give it to him for Elvis since Scotty could and did get an endorsement with Gibson.  Hoping to give it to him in a "presentation" at the store after-hours for publicity, Elvis got arrested after a fight at a local gas station on the way and never made it.  He was later cleared of all charges.  Scotty picked up the guitar later and in 1960 had it reconditioned and personalized for Elvis with his name inlayed on the fretboard.  It is still part of his collection at Graceland.

Elvis' 1st piano from O.K. Houcks
photo© courtesy Guernsey's

In 1999 Guernsey's of New York auctioned a piano that Elvis purchased at Houcks, it was supposedly his first one.  It was a simple used Stroud upright that they say cost him $281.75 and in the same auction they sold the receipt for it dated Sept 30, 1955.  Sid recalls Elvis coming in for one and suggests it might have been Ozzy Blumberg from the piano department that dealt with him but as president Ed Fitzpatrick signed the sales receipt.  The last thing he recalls selling to Elvis was a Fender bass for Bill Black.  Elvis had called him on the phone and he remembers him saying "I want to get Bill one of them hand basses, you know, electric."  He said he delivered it to Elvis at Graceland personally with Elvis answering the back door himself not long after moving in there in April of 1957.

Scotty with Echosonic, Elvis with J200 and Bill with Fender Bass
Photo© courtesy Steve Bonner

Almost in sync with the creative talents and studios that had flourished in Memphis during the '50s and '60s and had begun to dissolve so too did Houck's.  Eventually new management became involved with the store and all of the original people that Sid had worked with moved on.  Ed Fitzpatrick was the first to leave and went to work for the Berl Olswanger Music stores at 804 South Highland Ave. in Memphis becoming partners with Berl.  He had a buyout insurance policy for the business and became the owner after Berl's passing in 1981.

121 Union Ave. as the Sawaddii Thai cuisine restaurant - Aug. 14, 2004

In 1964 Sid left O.K. Houck's and in 1968 moved north to the Ohio area.  The O. K. Houck Piano Company went out off business around 1967.  The charter index shows that its last report was filed on August 21, 1967 and 1967 is also the last year in which the business appears in the Memphis City Directory.  The building at 121 Union Avenue has since housed several businesses, from office supply stores to restaurants.  At least as early as 2003 the occupant was the Sawaddii Thai cuisine restaurant (Sawaddii means "Hello") though it is now owned and operated as the downtown Memphis location of the Bangkok Alley Restaurant.

121 Union Ave. as the Sawaddii Thai cuisine restaurant - Aug. 14, 2004

Sid is now 79 years old, currently residing in Columbus, OH and has since retired professionally from the music industry.  Though age and not the best of health is catching up with him he keeps active playing music.  He finds playing string bass now takes great physical effort, particularly in loading and unloading equipment.  He occasionally plays with Cindy Black's Big Band or her smaller Dixieland group but mostly plays Trombone in an ensemble called "Trombones Plus".  They consist of five trombones, plus piano, bass, drums and vocalist emcee.  Their music is especially written for them and they perform about 60 - 75 shows a year around central Ohio.  If you get the opportunity to see him perform be sure to say "Hello" ( or "Sawaddii" ), maybe he'll share a story or two with you.

Sid Lapworth in Columbus, OH - February 6, 2002
Photo © courtesy Lynn Parks

James V. Roy
November 2003
page updated to reflect current business as Bangkok Alley on April 1, 2012

diag1.jpg (87570 bytes) diag2.jpg (59383 bytes) diag3.jpg (60366 bytes) diag4.jpg (62531 bytes)
*Layout sketches of each floor at 121 Union Ave in the mid '50s (not to scale)
courtesy Sid Lapworth

Just a few of the other instruments Sid recalls selling to area musicians are:
Roland Janes - Gibson Les Paul
Jimmy Van Eaton - Gretsch Drum Set
Sid Manker - Gibson Byrdland and Fender Amp
Billy Lee Riley - Gibson Les Paul
Dickey Lee - Fender Stratocaster
Donald "Duck" Dunn - Fender Bass and Amp
D.J. Fontana - Gretsch drum equipment
Marshall Grant - Bass and Amp
Tommy Cogbill - Fender Deluxe Amp
Sun Recording Co. - Gretsch Drum Set

Records info courtesy Chaddra Moore
Public Services Section
Tennessee State Library and Archives
1 (Record Group 281, Charter No. 9141, Mf. Roll No. 49)
2 (Record Group 281, Charter No. 9108, Mf. Roll No. 49)
3 (Charter Book U-17, Page 170)
4 (Charter Book Vol. 29, Page 60)

Special thanks to John B. Houck, grandson of Jesse F. Houck Sr. and great nephew of Oliver K. Houck - 3/21/2005

Several months ago I was contacted by Dorthy Gustin of California, a distant relative of the Houcks and granddaughter of Anna Mae Houck whose father was the brother to John C Houck, Oliver Kershners Houck's father.  She was kind enough to forward me an article published in the September 27, 1926 edition of The Memphis Commercial Appeal which further clarifies the origins of the O. K. Houck Piano Company.  The article is reprinted here.  -  11/ 24/ 2006




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