Portsmouth’s guitar man to the stars

Mike Devereux
Mike Devereux
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You need hands. Combine the dexterity of Mike Devereux’s with Max Bygraves’s theme tune and this unlikely combination gives you the riff for a soaring Portsmouth success story.

It’s a Sunday morning in 1969 when Mike’s phone rings. It’s Portsmouth Guildhall’s management. They’re desperate. Their sound system has bitten the dust, Max Bygraves is playing there that night and it’s sold out. ‘Can’t help us mate, can you?’ they plead.

Looking back to that day 45 years ago, Mike says: ‘I had the tiniest shop, not even the size of my office today, but I was full of bull and I heard myself saying ‘‘no problem – I’ll put a sound system together for you’’.’

Then he panicked, rang around a few customers, borrowed some of their kit and, with what he had, spent the day installing it.

‘Max loved it, so did his manager, and they asked me to do more.’

And so began one of the more extraordinary stories of Portsmouth entrepreneurship.

Before we chat in that office, which is not enormous, Mike whisks me around his empire in an unassuming couple of units on the Fitzherbert Spur industrial estate at Drayton, Portsmouth.

There’s Nevada Radio to the right, a distribution warehouse stacked to the rafters with radios and other bits of electronics wizardry.

‘We sell to Amazon, John Lewis, Selfridges, Maplin, Dixons...’ he murmurs.

But to the left, a small door takes you into Nevada Music – a gigantic space packed with a kaleidoscopic range of electric and acoustic guitars, drum kits, amps, and keyboards. Top-of-the-range electric guitars are on sale for up to £7,000 apiece.

To one side is a stage. ‘Whitesnake came and played here a couple of years ago,’ Mike says nonchalantly, recalling a visit by the rock band.

Beside the entrance is a gallery of signed pictures from stars who have bought from Mike’s Aladdin’s cave of music.

‘Taylor Swift just bought five guitars from us. Oh, and there’s one from Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix’s bass player.

At the time of the Max Bygraves experience, Mike was 21. That tiny shop in Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw, was stocked with bits and pieces for his great passion – amateur radio.

He was a ham – had been since he was a lad and still is. His hobby has taken him around the globe, including a stint setting up a radio station for the King of Jordan, also an avid ham.

At 14 he was the youngest person ever to pass a City and Guilds exam followed by one in morse code.

‘It meant I could get a licence and that meant I could talk to people all over the world.’

A pupil at Portsmouth Technical High School, he moved on to Portsmouth Polytechnic and an honours degree in electronic engineering.

‘My dad always pushed me. When I got my O-levels, he said ‘‘that’s no good, now get your A-levels’’. After those he pushed me on to get a degree, so I was terrified of his reaction when I got my first shop.’

While at the poly Mike had a Saturday job ‘working for a little one-man band electronics shop’ in Fawcett Road, Southsea.

‘I turned up one week and the place had shut. The chap had debts and disappeared.

‘I was paying £8 a week renting a bungalow at Portchester. I found out I could rent a shop with living accommodation above it for £6. The city council had one going in Twyford Avenue so I took it and saved £2 a week.’

And his dad’s reaction? ‘He took it well. He even helped me. Because local people didn’t really understand what I sold, they’d come in and ask me to fix their TVs and hi-fi. Dad would buy broken TVs at auction, I’d fix them, sell them on and we’d share the profit. And that’s how it all started, 45 years ago this month. I’m an accidental businessman.’

Mike says he was competitive, still is at the age of 66.

‘I have a burning desire to be good at everything. Always move with the times; keep changing; keep ahead.’

As the business grew, and with the explosion of the Portsmouth music scene in the 1970s, increasing numbers of musicians turned up asking him to fix their amps.

He had outgrown Twyford Avenue so moved to London Road, North End. This was 1976 and it was called Telecomms, which Mike changed to Nevada Music.

‘They were exciting times. Any musician or band with any aspiration came to us. We started stocking guitars and I built an eight-track studio upstairs. It was THE place to hang out on a Saturday.’

He set up Wessex Music in a co-publishing deal with Warner Brothers Music.

‘The plan was to be a detective agency for them, finding new talent, recording demos in our studio and pushing them on to Warner.’

And the big break? ‘It almost came with a Portsmouth band called Shy. They were good and had a singer called Brian Howe who, of course, went on to be the lead vocalist with Bad Company.

‘And Joe Jackson, a piano player at the old Playboy Club [Kimbells], asked if he could record a demo. He didn’t have any money but said I could have the rights to what he recorded. But I was a friend and he deserved better, so I sent him to United Artists.’

But Shy never made it. ‘In the end I thought the business was too precarious so I wrapped up the lot, closed the studio and went back to the core business.’

There’s a flicker of sadness in Mike’s eyes. ‘I’m 67 next month and I have no intention of slowing down. The business keeps me alive.

‘But I started at the same time as Richard Branson and always feel inadequate. Look at what Richard’s done. A lot of the background is similar – he just happened to have Mike Oldfield and Tubular Bells.’

The twist of fate with Max Bygraves took Mike Devereux on a five-year road trip with some of the biggest names in the history of light entertainment.

Word soon got around that this young sound engineer with a gift for making artists sound great was more than worth having on board.

So he toured with Bruce Forsyth, Dave Allen, Des O’Connor, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise, to name but a few.

Mike says: ‘I did the sound for Morecambe and Wise at the Kings, Southsea. It was fascinating to watch these legendary entertainers, people I loved seeing on TV, behind the scenes.

‘I couldn’t believe how nervous they were before they went on, pacing up and down behind the curtain, continuously rehearsing. Then the curtain would go up and they were so slick.’

Mike loved working with Brucie. ‘I did one of his one-man shows in Bradford. He had a 38-piece orchestra with him and one day after rehearsals had finished, everyone had left apart from him and me.

‘He came and sat with me on the stage and chatted. I’d just finished working with John Inman and all Bruce was interested in was how that show had gone, what it was like and if there’d been full houses. He was more worried about that show than his own.’

And it was working with the stars that convinced Mike he should concentrate on selling kit to musicians and growing his business back in Portsmouth.

It was 1976 and Elton John and Kiki Dee were celebrating Don’t Go Breaking My Heart topping the charts – Elton’s first number one.

‘I was asked to provide the sound system for the disco at Elstree studios,’ says Mike.

‘It was no ordinary disco. We turned up with two removal trucks full of kit.

‘In that room were also Freddie Mercury and the Rolling Stones. At one point I went outside and in the car park were more limos than I’d ever seen in one place before complete with chauffeurs in peaked caps.

‘I thought, ‘‘I’m in the wrong game here. I want some of that’’, so I decided I was better off focusing on the main business.’