Tuesday, March 24, 2009
People Who Uke #2
The recent People Who Uke post was quite popular—I really appreciated all the support & enthusiasm. A couple of tried & true followers did miss their own uking favorites, however, & in response to this I’m posting a couple of follow-ups. While the original People Who Uke involved people who are well known for something other than the fact they play uke, the next two posts will involve people who are known for playing the ukulele.
Of course, here the questions of inclusion may be a bit more problematic—there are any number of exciting & talented uke players around right now, & trying to include all of them wouldn’t be possible—even with two posts it would be impractical in terms of size, & ultimately there’s be any number of oversights.
The original post included 14 famous folks who also play uke, so as an arbitrary figure, I’ll limit these posts to a total of 14 as well. Because I’m writing more about each player than in the original People Who Uke, I decided it would be best to make two posts: the second one will be next Tuesday, “same bat time, same bat channel,” & will continue in alphabetical order. Some names are obvious; others aren’t well-known to the general public, but are highly thought of among uke players. I do believe all of these players made some significant contribution to “uke history.” Hope you enjoy.
Jim Beloff: A solid uke player (& composer), but best known as the man behind Flea Market Music, one of the best sites for uke-related merchandise (including Beloff’s “Jumpin’ Jim” series of uke songbooks) as well as home to the Flea Market Music Bulletin Board, a major cyber gathering place for ukers of all descriptions. Also, along with his sister & brother-in-law, Beloff developed the Fluke & Flea brand ukuleles—odd looking critters, but nice players that a person can buy for a very reasonable amount of $. Would the uke be a hot item today without Beloff?—possibly. But he’s done a lot to raise consciousness about this wonderful instrument.
May Singhi Breen: Not as well known as she should be, Ms Breen was an early (1920s) player who was also influential as an arranger & teacher; in fact she was a major force in convincing music publishers to include uke arrangements (many by her) on most sheet music produced from the '20s & beyond (a tradition that lapsed some time ago). She was also instrumental (as it were) in getting the Musician’s Union to recognize the uke as a legitimate, sanctioned instrument. Ms Breen was married to songwriter Peter DeRose & they performed on radio for a number of years as “Sweethearts of the Air.” May Singhi Breen was also known as “The Ukulele Lady”—not as the inspiration for the song, but one who could make the song come to life.
Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike ): Most folks wouldn’t know this now, but in the 20s, Ukulele Ike was the “cat’s pajamas”—he was a star of Bing Crosby dimensions, & was invited to introduce a number of well-known standards, including such Gershwin works as “Lady Be Good” & “Fascinatin’ Rhythm;” he also introduced “Singin’ in the Rain” long before the movie was even a gleam in anyone’s eye. Besides being a master of the uke, Edwards developed a strange & wonderful style of scat singing which he called “effing.” (hmmm….) Ukulele Ike is known to film buffs by his given name, Cliff Edwards—he acted & sang & uked in films in the 30s, tho his biggest role came as the voice of Jiminy Cricket (singing “Give a Little Whistle” & “When You Wish Upon a Star”) in Disney’s Pinocchio. Ukulele Ike could get pretty ribald in his vaudeville songs, but he could show a soft side too. He did a ballad version of “Only a Paper Moon” that’s superb. Edward's also produced a series of ukulele instruction books in the 1950s.
George Formby: OK, speaking of ribald, there’s British music hall king, George Formby. I believe our British & Canadian readers will be pretty familiar with George Formby, but he's not well-known in the U.S. except in the uke community. Like Ukulele Ike (& roughly contemporary with him), Formby was a star as a singer & a film actor, & for all the comic nature his act, was a masterful banjo uke player. As I mentioned in the first People Who Uke post, Formby was a big influence on the Beatles. Thankfully, his recordings (like Edwards) are available, so you, too, can treat yourself to such delights as “Leaning On a Lamppost” (yes, Herman’s Hermits covered Formby!), “When I’m Washing Windows” & others; & you can see George Formby in action in the video clip at the end of this post. As Formby would say, “Turned out nice again.”
Arthur Godfrey: We’re now in good times for the ukulele, & that’s been the case for a while. As I mentioned in the first entry, that’s true in no small part to Jim Beloff. Well, the 50s were also a good time for ukes, & Arthur Godfrey was a big factor in that resurgence. He played the uke on his radio & TV shows; he had plastic ukes sold under his name (actually, these 50s plastic ukes—made by Mario Macaferri of Django Rheinhardt guitar fame—are really decent instruments), & he played a very large role in the design & introduction of the baritone ukulele. Godfrey wanted something that was easier to play than a guitar, but more “guitar-like” in tone than the smaller ukes, & the baritone ukulele was born. It’s the one form of uke that didn’t directly descend from the original Portuguese instrument.
Ernest Kaleihoku Kaai: Perhaps the most obscure name on the whole list, but very deserving of recognition. Kaai was an early 20th century uke virtuoso—according to the Ukulele Hall of Fame, he may have been the first player to perform “chord melody,” which means playing a song’s melody using chords—it’s a challenging but enjoyable way to play a full arrangement solo, without the necessity of a rhythm guitarist or second uke playing chords behind the melody. Kaai also was instrumental in developing uke tablature & published what is believed to be the first uke instruction book: "The Ukulele, A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It." This came off the press in 1906, quite some time before the first mainland ukulele boom in the 1920s.
Eddie Kamae: Mr Kamae has been a true champion of Hawaiian culture since he began playing ukulele in the 1940s. While many of the hot Hawaiian uke players were concentrating on jazz standards or “hapa-haole” songs—essentially Hawaiian tin pan alley tunes such as “My Little Grass Shack,” “Sweet Leilani,” or “Pearly Shells.” A number of these (tho not all) were written by Anglo songwriters & while admittedly fun to play, can present a somewhat stereotyped picture of island life. Kamae has concentrated on more genuine Hawaiian music, & along with his legendary band, the Sons of Hawaii, has been able to keep some gorgeous traditional music alive. In addition to his considerable uke playing skills, Kamae is also a talented composer—his song “E Ku’u Morning Dew” is simply lovely. Sadly, I couldn’t find a YouTube video featuring Kamae’s playing, but the Sons of Hawaii’s cd are available. I’d also encourage folks to check out Eddie Kamae’s website: Hawaiian Legacy Foundation. A quote from Kamae on the home page is worth contemplating: “All cultures evolve & change, but it is important to identify the heart & soul of a culture—that part is irreplaceable.”
Hope you enjoyed this look at some great uke players, & hope it may inspire you to check out some uke music—or perhaps even consider playing yourself! Don’t forget the inimitable Mr Formby’s video, & be sure to check back for the thrilling conclusion!