Yorkshire duo Melvin Besbrode and Steven Leeming have provided pianos for some of the biggest names in music. Angela Barnes meets the ivory kings. Melvin Besbrode puts it down to a fiver. The money he paid to a farmer for a piano here in Leeds.
"I was an art student. In those days you'd be a pop star, a local cemetery worker or a school teacher. I was no good at any of these.
"So it was in one of my periods of unemployment that I bought the piano. I taught myself to play. It was back in 1974 and I was just out of my student days looking for nothing to do."
His purchase was a Scheidmayer, a famous make, especially well known in Germany. And in between watching cricket on the telly, he'd play in the lunch hour.
"At 5, it was ridiculously cheap. I bought another from a second hand shop in Roundhay Road and advertised it in the Yorkshire Evening Post. I got 20 replies. I'd bought it for 15 and I sold it for 25. I saw a niche in the market and thought, 'That's how I could make a living.'"
At first, Melvin worked from home. Later he rented warehouses. "In the 70s and 80s no-one valued pianos in England. They were things people inherited and never played. But others on the Continent, like France and Italy, realised how expensive they were to make, and I started to export. Ironically, now I go to Germany to buy pianos and bring them back."
This was the start of a musical future, one which was to strike a chord in the life of Melvin Besbrode who lives in Bramhope. Now alongside colleague Steven Leeming, business is booming in down town Leeds, not only providing musical instruments to enthusiasts, but also hiring to the greats when they're in town.
We can name drop – their Steinway D has been played by Joanna McGregor, Martin Roscoe, Michael Nyman, Richard Clayderman, Johnny Dankworth, Angela Hewitt, Peter Skellern, Ken Dodd and Roy Chubby Brown.
"Only yesterday we had one doctor from Pocklington who had bought a flat in Edinburgh and wanted a piano. And an American family who had bought a castle in Aberdeen as a holiday home. Two sales in one morning."
Melvin sold 1,000 a year when he was exporting. "I'm no good at retailing pianos. After two minutes my conversation is dead. I've not even sold one to a friend but I can buy them," says Melvin.
This is where Steven from Horbury, Wakefield, comes in. While Melvin is travelling across Europe buying, in a purpose-built van which can hold eight pianos (otherwise they are shipped in), he is the sales person.
There's no pretence here. They are both good at what they do. And although the premises are extensive, they are tucked away in a hidden corner of Holbeck.
"I've been here for 25 years," says Melvin. First off it was a three storey warehouse, now it has been expanded to additional property opposite which has been developed over the last 10 years. And negotiations are ongoing over a nearby landmark building to possibly work up as a shop.
"My mum was a piano teacher but I never learnt. I wasn't very good at it. Probably I never liked how I played," says Melvin.
Steve never played either. But he started working at 16 as a piano technician. "There were no courses then. It was the case of a seven year apprenticeship. I went to a former school in Leeds, with not too good a reputation. It was a case of being lucky to get a job," he jokes. "I started at a piano shop in North Street, Leeds and later moved to Kirkstall. Because the piano business was small, you got to know people involved and Melvin and I also met in antiques auction rooms.
"Eventually I started my own company working from home, but I always wanted more." So the outcome was to move to the premises of Besbrode Pianos Leeds about 10 years ago. And the rest is history.
Melvin is very good at sourcing pianos. He has an instinctive eye. Steve does the mechanics and the retailing. It works well.
Says Melvin: "People ask me, 'I've got one of these. Are you interested?' They can be from Germany, France or Italy. We've just had one offered from Romania. We stretch to every little corner of Europe.
"People can see we are generally interested in 18th century pianos and all sorts of curiosities. It's not deliberate. It's just developed that way."
Their haul is varied to say the least. Take the green Steinway Victory, bought in Hanover. They only made 3,000 of these particular pianos. It was at the army base in Kentucky and went with the troops to Germany during the Second World War. Just last week, they packed it up for a house in California.
"We have an active website (in fact they are ranked 71 in the world as a music site) and people will come from London if they know we have 60 pianos on their feet. We had a visit from the head of music at Liverpool University last week and two people from New York on consecutive days. People who are visiting the UK will just call in. And when they find us, it is a great achievement as we are somewhat hidden," says Melvin.
"We also have customers who are buying for a holiday home abroad. One Italian came with a picture of a piano he had actually seen on someone else's website. He asked if we had seen it at all and we said, 'Yes, it's upstairs.' It had been made specifically for an exhibition but it was too expensive for him." Normally though, the general excuse is: "It's too big. It won't fit in the room."
Besbrode is a specialist piano dealer and wholesaler. New and secondhand, grand and upright pianos are in store for sale and hire including pianos by Steinway, Bechstein and Yamaha. They are also agents for Estonia and Kawai.
Melvin's pride and joy is a Pleyel Grand, painted and signed by Georges Meunier who studied at "l'Academie des Beaux Artes." He worked under Jules Chenet known as "Father of the Modern Poster" at the Chaix Printing Press in Paris between 1890 and 1910. Other artists in the group were Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard.
"I bought it in Berlin. The lady who owned it lived in Normandy and it had originally belonged to her parents. It was painted in 1893, when he was 23, just before he became famous," says Melvin.
Another novelty is actually a cocktail cabinet in the shape of a piano, made for an Arab.
On a more local note, Opera North has shown interest in one particular piano (could it be the Steinway Concert Grand, the very best piano's that's made says Melvin) and Besbrode has also done work with Leeds Town Hall (whose spare Steinway is stored at Besbrode) and Leeds's Master of Music Simon Lindley.
Says Steven: "We do quite a few hires for Harrogate Festival and we are doing some work at Harewood soon. Brian Ferry has hired a piano from us for an appearance at Castle Howard. His transport had broken down on the A1.
"When the Halle Orchestra is in town, we help out there too." And while we are mentioning names, lets throw in Rolf Harris, Jules Holland, Des O'Connor, Jeremy Irons and Melanie C of the Spice Girls.
"Paul McCartney's pianist at Glastonbury came with a friend and bought a piano. Some outstanding pianists come in," says Steven.
Besbrode also hosts a Leeds Piano Society concert once a year. They are also open to requests from piano teachers whose pupils may want to perform.
And there into telly too. "We've done Emmerdale. Their piano in the pub is not so good so they've used ours for the sound. We also do work for Heartbeat."