By Robert Downes
Brant Leonard inserts a needle the size of a half-inch finishing nail into
the stylus of a 1925 Victrola and lowers the arm on a 78 rpm recording of
Mr. Sandman by a long-lost girl band called the Chordettes...
Out pours a sound from the 1940s thats as thick and rich as plush velvet,
and even though there are no electronic parts or speakers in the Victors
Orthophonic Credenza, the music is LOUD!!! It seems almost impossible,
considering this hand-cranked record player relies on a single resonating
wooden chamber as a speaker.
We got louder with our technology, but not necessarily better, Brant
says of the Victrola, which was considered a cutting edge sound system in
the mid-1920s. When you listen to a record on this it seems real. Its
almost like the singers are in the room with you or around the corner.
The quality of the sound from this primitive record player seems almost
beyond belief, and with no volume knobs the only way to turn the sound
down on the Victrola is to close its cabinet doors. Its as if youve
stumbled into a lost world of pure, organic sound, compared to which your
digital MP3 downloads are a ghostly imitation.
Leonard, 61, is more than a casual visitor to this kingdom of sound. I
guess Ive got about 15,000 records altogether, he says. I think Ive
got between 8,000 and 11,000 LPs and probably 2,000-3,000 45s, with a
couple thousand 78s.
For the clueless, 78 rpm albums were the original record albums created on
discs of shellac or an early form of plastic called bakelite. Before
electronic recording techniques were developed in the 1920s, 78s were
created by using a megaphone-like horn to funnel the sound of musicians
down through a needle, etching the music in the grooves of a master disc
that was used to stamp out replicas.
Each 78 packed a single song per side and the records were produced from
the 1920s through the early 60s. Leonard has an RCA Victor 78 record of
Elvis Presley singing Love Me Tender, in which you can hear the scratch
of his guitar strings; and even The Beatles recorded some 78s before
becoming the kings of pop 45s and 33 rpm LPs.
With 15,000 records packed wall-to-wall in his home south of Traverse
City, one might imagine that Leonard has been collecting all his life.
Actually, he didnt get started until after a divorce in 1996.
I had some records as a kid, but I was more into performing in bands in
high school than buying records, he says. But around the time I started
collecting, people started dumping their albums and going to CDs. You
could buy 200 or 300 records for five bucks at a garage sale. Buying
records became something to do for me as a hobby and they were cheap, so
it kind of snowballed.
Leonard collects a lot of other things too. He has three Victrolas, for
instance, and as a lifelong musician he owns a well-rounded collection of
prize guitars, including some fine old Martins and Gibsons. Then there is
his back yard full of junk cars -- he has a sweet spot for old Mopar
Chryslers -- a specialty that includes a 1970s Plymouth Valiant, a 67
Dodge stepvan and a 61 Dodge Dart Seneca to name a few.
But its his piano collection that hits a high note.
I own approximately 55 to 60 pianos and dont hardly ever scrap them. I
have too much respect for what goes into them. They will someday be kind
of like a retirement plan for me, he says with a laugh.
Leonard has kind blue eyes, a soft laugh and a ready smile. His shaggy
appearance and omnipresent cowboy hat belies the fact that hes a
highly-respected piano tuner known throughout the region who has rubbed
elbows with some of the biggest stars in showbiz.
In addition to tuning the pianos for the Dennos Museum Center,
Northwestern Michigan College and many private owners, Leonard rents
instruments to big acts passing through the region.
Ive been doing this for a long time, he says, and there are only a
small circle of people who can rent out a decent piano. A lot of
performers want the big nine-footers.
His clients have included Neil Sedaka, Burt Bacharach, Florence Henderson,
Robert Goulet, Kevin Rhodes, and Bob Seeley & Mr. B. Many of them have
signed the pride of his collection: a 1915 Steinway that was rebuilt in
1989 and is worth an estimated $65,000. Its one of six Steinways of
walnut or ebonized cherry that Leonard owns -- he rents them for anywhere
from $700 - $1,600 per performance, depending on how far he has to drive.
He also owns a vintage 1920s player piano worth an estimated $100,000.
Not bad for a self-taught piano tuner whose first experience with a piano
was dropping one off the back of a pickup truck into a snowbank
Leonard grew up in a military family that was always on the move. My dad
was in the military and I had lived in 18 locations by the time I turned
16, he says.
But he had an early interest in music, playing piano as a kid and then
guitar, bass and Hammond B3 organ in a high school band while living in
By the late 60s Leonard and the Jonathan Trio band had hit the road. We
traveled around two or three weeks at a time from one town to the next --
Kansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Nebraska, he recalls.
On May 4, 1970 -- the day of the Kent State Massacre in Ohio -- Leonards
band arrived for the first time in Traverse City, fresh from a gig at the
Ruby Doo Hotel in St. Joseph, Missouri. They got a job at the Top of the
Park and tore the place up with rock tunes, Motown, and covers of
folk-rock hits like Suite Judy Blue Eyes.
We lit this town up with a line waiting to get in that went on all night
long, Leonard recalls with a sparkle in his deep blue eyes. Seventeen
years after that experience people were still asking me about the band.
For this area, we really were the first covering those kinds of songs.
LEARNING THE ROPES
With status as a bona fide local celebrity, Leonard decided to move to TC
full time in the early 70s, where he was drawn to the folk sounds of a
long-gone and much-venerated basement club called The Keller. I heard a
whole new kind of music there from the rock wed been playing -- artists
like John Prine and Jimmy Buffet -- and it piqued my interest in playing
Soon, Leonard was performing with The Talisman, a band headed-up by Al
Jankowski (noted today as one of the top multi-instrumentalists in the
region). At around the same time, he decided to take up the piano.
I got a junk piano that needed tuning and I borrowed a truck to take it
home, he recalls. Well, I drove about 50 feet and the piano bounced out
of the truck into a snow bank. And I got so mad the air turned blue from
me going off about it. I had to get a front-end loader to get it back in
His then-wife Susie bought him a book on tuning pianos and using a couple
of pairs of pliers, Leonard went after the loose tuning pins of the
I started reading the book and with one thing after another, I worked my
way through it, he says of his self-taught education. Anybody can do
that if you just dont quit.
Today, you can catch Leonards act almost every Thursday night, performing
at the Round Up open mic show at The Hayloft bar on M-72, west of TC.
Hes a guitarists guitarist, with perfect pitch, soulful song
selections, and a deft hand at fingerpicking styles.
Hes also more than a little dedicated: when Leonard lost the index finger
on his right picking hand (to an alligator) on a Sunday in 2005, he was
back onstage at the FarmFest in Johannesburg, performing that Thursday,
and back at The Hayloft as well with a bandage on his hand.
As for his record collection, Leonard seems content to listen to his
albums, rather than selling them on eBay or to other collectors.
Part of this is from sheer inclination, or even perhaps the essence of who
Leonard is as a person. I live by what I hear, he says. I tune pianos
and Im keenly aware of sounds and tone.
Hes also more interested in the rudimentary technology of the past than
the digital sounds of the present. There are probably quite a few record
collectors out there, but Im not on the Internet, he says. I dont
even know how to turn a computer on anymore -- Ive got too much to do
That and the fact that the past is still very much alive in Leonards
collection, and hes still got the sounds of Bob Wills, Bing Crosby, The
Jordanaires, The Easy Riders, Porter Wagner and thousands of other
long-gone musicians in his blood.
He notes that even though they relied on low-tech recording methods, those
old 78 rpms pack a lot of aural information precisely because theyre
whipping around so fast and deep -- kind of like Brant Leonard himself,
come to think of it.
I prefer 78s, he says. You can play a 78 and then play a LP of the
same song by the same artist and the 78 will sound better. Its the
presence I like -- it sounds like youre right there.