Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Goodbye, Ukulele Mama

Some sad news that comes belatedly to Robert Frost’s Banjo—Estelle Reiner, AKA “Ukulele Mama” died on October 29th in her home in Beverly Hills. Ms. Reiner was 94, & died of natural causes.

There are a few reasons you should know Estelle Reiner. She was married to comedian & comedy writer Carl Reiner, & she was actor-director Rob Reiner’s mother. Ms Reiner also delivered a well known line while making a cameo appearance in her son’s When Harry Met Sally. In the scene, she watches as Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a restaurant; when the waiter comes to take Estelle Reiner’s order, she says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” The American Film Institute rated this as the 33rd most famous movie line of all time, ahead of Lauren Bacall’s come-on to Humphrey Bogart in To Have & Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”

Those are both good reasons to know Estelle Reiner, but I knew her as Ukulele Mama. Apparently Ms Reiner always wanted to be a singer, & so took it up as a career at age 65. She released four albums as a singer thru the 90’s, all focusing on “Great American Songbook” material. Then, in 2000, when she was well into her 80’s she put out the wonderful album Ukulele Mama, on which she not only sang but also accompanied herself on ukulele. She was backed by a solid piano-bass-drum trio (Tom Garvin: piano; John Leitham & Trey Henry: bass; & Kendall Kay: drums), & also featured some lovely solos by various musicians on trumpet, clarinet, trombone, & violin. She followed this up in 2003 with Ukulele Mama 2, & then in 2004 with Estelle Reiner Sings Grown Up Songs for Kids, again accompanying herself on uke, & with many of the same fine back-up musicians.

Estelle Reiner was not a uke virtuoso, & she had a pleasant but unspectacular singing voice, if you’re talking about tone. What she did have was oodles of spirit & élan; you only have to listen to about one bar of music to know she loves these songs & that she loves singing them. She also brought her comedic skills to her singing—not in any heavy-handed way, but in the sense of timing & wit, & in the sense of getting inside a lyric & bringing out various meanings, including some of the double entendres in those old songs. Some of my favorite takes from the original Ukulele Mama album are “Lulu’s Back in Town,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “My Baby Just Cares For me,” & “It All Belongs To Me.” I’ll be taking a trip to the Golden State late this week, & I’ll certainly be bringing Ukulele Mama as a sing-along companion.

If you love uke, or want to hear a unique take on some wonderful old tunes, you should check out her cds, which are available at her website. The spirit Ms Reiner was able to communicate thru her singing & uke playing is one of wit & laughter &, to use an old British word, pluck. She will be missed.

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