Tuesday, March 31, 2009
People Who Uke #3
As promised last week, here’s the third installment of People Who Uke. Here we consider folks who are known as ukulele players—but with one or two exceptions aren’t well-known to the non-uking public. Hope you take this as a springboard to check out more uke music—a good uke in the hands of a good player doesn’t sound like one of those $20 models that won’t stay in tune—it’s as real as an instrument gets, & is capable of producing beautiful music.
& even better than listening is playing (so I believe); & while the vast majority of us may not be capable of playing at the level of the folks I’ve written about over the past couple of weeks, the uke is an instrument that’s relatively easy to learn & can be very rewarding even if played at a pretty basic level—just saying….
Israel Kamakawiwo'ole: Also known as Bruddah Iz, this large man played the uke beautifully & sang in a voice that had a transcendent clarity, both in terms of emotion & pitch. Iz was a founding member, along with his brother Skippy, of Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau in the 70s. Although his brother died in 1982, the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau stayed together & their repertoire of traditional music was extremely popular in Hawaii. Kamakawiwo'ole began his solo career in 1990; three other solo albums were released prior to his death in 1997 & four albums have been released since Iz passed away. Of course the best known of these is Facing Future, which had his biggest hit—the reggae-inflected medley of “Over the Rainbow” & “What a Wonderful World.” The songs are a natural pair (the Alice in Wonder Band did them as a medley, too, but with yours truly on guitar, not uke), & Kamakawiwo'ole’s rendition of them is achingly beautiful; his version has also made “Over the Rainbow” an almost crucial song in any performing uke player’s repertoire. When Iz died in 1997 at age 38, the Hawaiian flags flew at half-mast, & he was laid in state in the capitol.
Herb Ohta, Sr.: Here’s a musician that’s almost venerated by the ukulele community, but who remains virtually unknown to the general public in the mainland US. Ohta-San is a true master of the ukulele—playing in a traditional style with a thumb strum, he is able to create masterful interpretations of music from any number of genres—from Bach to Bacharach, from traditional Hawaiian melodies to the Beatles, & with any number of old jazz standards sprinkled liberally & beautifully throughout. Ohta-San has also been a prolific composer; the Ukulele Hall of Fame website notes that his “Song for Anna,” recorded in the 1970s, is the biggest selling uke record of all time. Make sure you check out the video below of Her Ohta’s taking a lovely spin thru “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
Lyle Ritz: Mr Ritz is in a similar position to Herb Ohta, Sr—he’s idolized as an innovator & a master player in the uke community, but his music is unfamiliar to the public at large, at least here in the States. Oddly, a lot of folks have heard Mr Ritz play another instrument—actually two—the upright & electric basses. Lyle Ritz had a thriving career as a studio bassist, & his playing has been featured on any number of songs, including such hits as “Good Vibrations” & “I Got You Babe.” But here we’re concentrating on his uke playing, mostly done on a tenor uke tuned down to DGBE (the typical tenor tuning is GCEA, so Ritz plays his tuned down a fourth). This “guitar” tuning for tenors has gained popularity mostly based on Ritz’s playing. In fact, Gibson produced a line of tenor ukes in the 50s that were designed for this tuning, & Ritz got his start on one of these instruments. In the 50s he recorded two ground-breaking albums, “50th State Jazz” & “How About Uke.” These showed off the uke’s capacity for jamming on old standards, & the albums are well-worth a listen not just for the uke playing, but for the music overall. Ritz is also a masterful arranger, & has published three books of uke arrangements thru Jim Beloff’s “Jumpin’ Jim’s Uke Masters” series.
Jake Shimabukuro: The reigning uke virtuoso, Shimabukuro combines jazz, pop & rock & lightning fast finger work to bring a new, rock star like twist to uke playing—this has earned him the title of “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele.” In addition to six solo albums, Jake Shimabukuro has also worked in the groups Pure Heart & Colon; he has also worked with Béla Fleck, Jimmy Buffet & Tommy Emmanuel. Shimabukuro may be best known for his cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; according to Wikipedia, internet videos of this song have received over 4 million hits; he has successfully covered a number of songs on the uke, however, from Erroll Garner’s “Misty” to Sarah McLachlan’s “Ice Cream” to Chick Corea’s “Spain”; & he’s a prolific composer himself. There’s no doubt that Shimabukuro is the new hot player on the uke.
Roy Smeck: I’ve written about Roy Smeck before on Robert Frost’s Banjo, so I don’t want to be too redundant here. Suffice it to say that Mr Smeck was a virtuoso on string instruments in general; anyone compiling a list such as this for the tenor banjo or the lap steel guitar would have to include his name; & while his guitar playing is less well known, his skills on that instrument measure favorably against virtually any other popular guitarist. Smeck was blessed with amazing instrumental gifts & cursed (or blessed, depending on how you look at it) with no singing ability whatsoever. To compensate for this Smeck not only took his instrumental abilities to the highest level, but also introduced any number of gags into his act—playing instruments behind his back, spinning them around without missing a beat, playing with his teeth & so forth. Unless you’re as gifted as Smeck, these sort of gimmicks wear out their welcome fairly quickly; when they’re combined with virtuoso playing it’s a different matter. Smeck had a long association with the Harmony Guitar Company, which produced a number of instruments—including ukes—under his name. He also wrote instructional material for all the instruments he played. Although I didn’t choose a Smeck video for this post, you can see some fantastic ones over at Citizen K’s blog here.
Bill Tapia: I’ve also written about the Duke of Uke a couple of times on Robert Frost’s Banjo (here & here, & the latter one has a video of him playing “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down & Write Myself a Letter”). Mr Tapia is 101 years young as of this writing & is still doing shows! It’s absolutely mind-boggling. He began performing at age 10 in 1918—no, that’s not a typo—& has had a musical career both as a ukulele player & as a jazz guitarist that’s spanned 90 years. It’s true that Mr Tapia retired from music after a mere 50-year career, much of which involved his guitar work. He kept up his uke chops playing for his wife, who passed away (as did his daughter) in 2001. In the period following this, Tapia was re-discovered as a uke master & began a new musical career in his 90s. For those who haven’t heard Bill Tapia play, I’ll just say this is way more than a gimmick—although his singing voice has lost something to age (but he’s still a fun singer who gets the most out of it), his playing chops would be first-rate at any age. I’d really encourage you to check Mr Tapia out—he’s such a fine musician & his story is so inspiring.
Tiny Tim: Last but not least, eh? I have to admit to mixed feelings about Tiny Tim. Once upon a time good pal Audrey Bilger asked me if I thought the uke could ever recover from Tiny Tim. While my answer was an emphatic “yes,” I knew what she meant & felt she had a point. Tiny Tim’s irony was so deep that it almost seemed un-ironic, & this seemed to reflect on the instrument; or conversely, he was so un-ironic, it seems ironic; his act really was post-modern in this way. On the other hand—hey, I’m an entertainer in my own small way, too, & everyone needs a shtick of sorts. Also, truth be told, other players who appeal to me more—for instance, Ukulele Ike & George Formby—also had some pretty madcap elements to their acts—& like those guys, Tiny Tim actually could play the uke—it was a lot more than some sort of self-conscious prop for him. For those of us who grew up in the 60s with Laugh-In & the other variety shows, there will always be a connection, good, bad or indifferent, between the ukulele & Tiny Tim. &, you know, that’s an accomplishment for any musician, & one that deserves respect.