Stars of the Ukulele
~The ukulele is a noble little instrument... anyone serious about music will eventually come to play one.~
Back in the 19th century, Portuguese immigrants settling in Hawaii introduced a small guitar-like instrument called a braguinha to the locals. Hawaiians dubbed it the ukulele -variously interpreted as meaning 'jumping flea' or 'the gift that came here'. Within a few years it had taken the island by storm to eventually become the traditional instrument of the Hawaiians.
The ukulele become more broadly popular in the 1920s and 30's, featuring heavily during the Jazz age... and throughout the rest of the 20th century has had roller-coaster periods of popularity and decline. Recently it has enjoyed something of a revival but the ukulele has always had its supporters. Beatle George Harrison was an enthusiastic ukulele fan, as was actor Peter Sellers and it has been incorporated into some indie music and even punk cabaret at various times.
Small and unassuming, resembling something like a toy guitar, the ukulele has at times been treated cavalierly and even been falsely given a status marginally above the triangle by some. Yet the bright, versatile sound of the ukulele has attracted a wide variety of performers, from serious classical musicians to comedy acts. For some, the instrument became an extension of the performers personality, or at least a side-kick...a kind of second banana to the main act. It's hard to visualise George Formby without his ukulele and Tiny Tim's novelty act was dependent upon the uniqueness of his voice and instrument.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ukulele greats...there are many
accomplished performers I've had to leave off or this page would be a mile long. and there's probably many more I'm not even familiar with.I don't pretend to be a ukulele expert...just an appreciative fan.
Some players are extraordinary virtuosos, some merely competent players but all of the performers below have made their name synomous with their instrument. They have in some way or other made themselves stars of the ukulele....
Before researching this topic I'd never heard of Ernest Kaleihaku Kaai,1882-1962, however, I've since discovered that he has probably done more for the promotion of the ukulele than any other single player. Often labelled the 'father of Hawaiian music' Kaai published the first ever ukulele instruction book...Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It. On top of that he operated the Ukulele Manufacturing company and toured extensively.
Performing all over the world, notably with The Royal Hawaiian Troubadours, the tireless Kaai organized music ensembles and composed and published music and has been hailed as a driving force in raising the level of the ukulele.
Unfortunately I could find no recording of Kaai online, but below is a video featuring traditional Hawaiian music and played expertly by ukulele master, Ohta-San . This is really a lovely musical piece. I've listened to it several times and like it more each time I hear it. Ohta -San manages to extract such a sweet, emotional tone from the ukulele..
Popular in the 1920s and 30's Ukulel Ike, aka Cliff Edwards, was born in Hannibal Missouri (birthplace of Mark Twain) 1895 and as a teenager made a modest living singing in movie theatres and saloon bars.
As an accompaniment to his voice, Ike began incorporating the ukulele into his act, improvising with a style he called "effin"...a bit like the human voice imitating a trumpet. it was a club owner who nicknamed him 'Ukulele Ike", because he could never remember his name.
Edwards had a phenomenally successfully career. Endowed with a beautiful singing voice, Ike's rise to fame was rapid. He was a hit on broadway, made several successful films (appearing in over 100)...and had a massive hit with Singing in the Rain. He sold an incredible 74 million records worldwide, had his own national radio show, his own TV show and after joining up with Walt Disney, was the voice of Jiminy Cricket and the singer of When you Wish Upon a Star.
Such are the vagaries of fate, after shining so brightly, it all ended badly for Ukulele Ike. Addicted to drugs and alcohol...tragically, he died destitute as a welfare patient in a California hospital 1971. His body lay unclaimed for days.
(Note: Thanks to William F. Torpey and Epigramman for drawing my attention to this great ukulele star.)
Nobody But You
Mention ukuleles to the old folk and chances are they'll talk about Roy Smeck. Smeck's sensational virtuosity combined with entertaining showmanship has made him a legend of the ukulele. Apart from being a highly accomplished player, as seen in the video below, Smeck flicks, turns and swirls his instrument around between changing chords and strumming with complete ease, never missing a beat..he even blows into it at one stage.
Known as the 'wizard of strings', at times his
fingers move so quickly they become a blur and just the sheer energy of
the music is impressive. During his career he made over 500 recordings,
appeared in films and wrote method books and arrangements for various
string instruments. Smeck was also a virtuoso on the banjo, Spanish
guitar and Hawaiian guitar but the ukulele remained his favourite.
Interestingly, he pioneered audio and video techniques, creating multi-tracked video years before anyone else. Smeck died in 1994, aged 94.
"Eeh, isn't it grand!"
British entertainer George Formby, son of the famous musical hall performer George Formby Snr (or John Booth) made his name singing amusing songs and playing the banjo ukulele on screen, stage and various recordings.
A popular instrument of the 20's and 30's, the banjo ukulele had the neck, style and small scale tuning of the ukulele but the body and tone of a banjo. In the clip below however, he appears to be playing a kind of elongated ukulele. Although Formby once joked that he "could only play in one key" it wasn't true, and he did develop several distinctive strumming techniques including the 'split stroke', the 'triple', the 'circle', the 'fan', and the 'shake'.
The Lancashire lad was endearingly cheeky and his comedic songs often loaded with double entendre -his song With my Little Stick of Blackpool Rock was banned by the BBC in 1937 because the lyrics were considered too risque..
Formby's most famous piece, written by Noel Gray, was Leaning on the Lampost:
I'm leaning on the lampost on the corner of the street
In case a certain little lady goes by..
Oh me, oh my...
Adopting the persona of the good-hearted klutz, Formby was hugely popular and his catchy, syncopated ukulele style has been emulated countless times by subsequent performers.
Why Don't Women Like Me?
Tiny Tim, (Herbert B. Khaury) who's signature tune was Tiptoe through the Tulips, enjoyed a relatively brief but widespread period of popularity in the 1960s/70's.Tim was an avid fan of music of the 20's and 30's and was something of a musical archivist -his knowledge of vintage tunes was said to be encyclopedic. Tim's trademarks were his high-pitched falsetto voice,colourful clothes and his ukulele.
Originally Tim sung in 'normal' voice-the story goes he discovered his high voice register while singing along to his car radio and was amazed by his own range. With his new found vocals he entered a talent show, singing You are my Sunshine, to great applause. Subsequent performances earnt him a cult following and he eventually became a household name.
As the punk era 80's dawned, Tim's star faded, although he still produced albums, played live venues and appeared in television commercials. Eventually he became a permanent act at Spookyworld, a Halloween themed amusement park.
suffered a heart attack in 1996, on stage holding his ukulele, at a
Gala benefit in Minneapolis. As he was led off stage by his wife Susan
Gardner, she asked him if he was okay, to which he replied "no, I'm
not". He died shortly afterward.
In the following video, a clip from an appearance on an Australian television show, Tim doesn't so much play the ukulele as use it as a prop. Not sure quite what's going on with the eye movement and head shaking...lol. Love him or loathe him...he was certainly an original.
Living in the Sunlight
Regarded as one of the best players in the world today, Shimabukuro's incredible, complex technique and skill puts paid to the idea of the ukulele being a 'toy' -an idea that he himself suggests has come about largely because of the amount of low-quality ukuleles on the market. They range in price from $30 to $5000.
A Japanese American who grew up in Hawaii, Shimabukoro has been playing the ukulele since he was four (a family tradition) and never felt a desire to change instruments, always believing he could he could play anything 'with time and creativity'. Jake is certainly an innovator and has brought new interpretations and sounds to songs never before played on the ukulele. Like Ernest Kaai before him, he has raised the instrument to a new level.
~I remember the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix…He did things with an electric guitar that I hadn’t imagined, hadn’t thought possible. James Hill does that with the ‘ukulele.~
David Kidney, The Green Man Review
Like Shimabukuro, Canadian James Hill is at the top of the field..and is regarded by many as the greatest player. Hill does things on the ukulele few thought possible and is constantly touring the world amazing audiences with his virtuosity.
up in Langley, British Columbia, where learning the ukulele has
evidently been mandatory in many schools since the 1970s, Hill began
playing at age nine and was seduced by what he saw as the endless
possibilities of the instrument.
Hill released his first album Playing it Like it Isn't in 2002 and is yet another performer to have done much to bring back the ukulele from the dead zone of popular culture. Believing the ukulele has long been underestimated, Hill has said it's his mission to convince the skeptics of the extraordinary capabilities of the instrument...and so far, it looks like he's succeeding.
Super Mario Theme
John King was an American classical guitarist who developed a penchant for Hawaii and all things Hawaiian. Here he plays Bach, written for the violin and transcribed by King for the ukulele. The performance highlights the different sounds that be accomplished...in this case, classical. I'm amazed at the sound here and it further confirms the versatility of this little instrument.
scoffed at the notion that the ukulele was an easy instrument to
play..."some people may tell you the ukulele is easy to play, but
believe them… anytime someone tells you something is easy to learn,
it’s probably because they want to sell you lessons"..and certainly at
the level he achieved, I can believe it.
The Journal of the Society of American Music has referred to King as "perhaps the world's only true classical 'ukulele virtuoso'. King had written extensively about the ukulele, as well as writing blogs and books on musical arrangements. Before his untimely his death in 2009 from a heart attack at age 55, King was in the process of writing a book on the history of the ukulele.
Julia Nunes: Youtube Star
Julia Nunes is a young singer/songwriter from New York who has carved out a stellar career on her ukulele through youtube. Nunes won the Bushman World Ukulele Video Championships in 2008 and has played live at various venues around the world, including gigs as a support act for Ben Folds, one of her musical idols.
Whether she's singing an upbeat melody or a poignant ballad, Nunes throws her heart and soul into the performance. Often filming from her university dorm, her energetic, original style, appealing videos and her sheer enthusiasm for life and music has a contagious quality and she's managed to drum up a renewed interest in the ukulele..having inspired hundreds,if not thousands of ordinary people to try their hand at playing. She makes the ukulele seem accessible to anyone, which it is.
Nunes sparked my own initial interest in ukuleles and I've been dropping some heavy hints around in the right places that I want one for christmas...
Build me up Buttercup
Buy a ukulele online
The Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum
Curt Shellar..Ukulele, Guitar and Music Resources
More by this Author
So you want to be a film critic? Well here's something to get you started; a general guide to some of the language of film criticism...
~Take a melody, some words...a burst of inspiration and stir gently~ That's all there is to it. No, not really...well it might be that easy for some, but not for others. Just so I don't feel like a total fraud, I...
Post-feminist revolution, 1950's housewives carry a certain amount of hip kudos. Now that we have equality (or a facsimile thereof) we don't have to be on the defensive anymore. We can wear a stiff, full skirt, vintage...