This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jim Beloff, co-owner, Flea Market Music.
Yes, the resurgence of the ukulele is real and this time, it may be here to stay.
“Jumpin’ Jim” Beloff -- along with his wife Liz Maihock Beloff -- are at the forefront of the contemporary ukulele movement, spreading their motto “Uke Can Change The World” through dozens of instruction and song books, how-to DVDs, and concert and teaching appearances world-wide.
Since 1992, the couple has operated Flea Market Music, a company devoted to the ukulele that has developed 25 ukulele songbooks published and distributed by the Hal Leonard Corporation under the Jumpin’ Jim’s brand name, with sales of over 400,000 copies.
The Beloffs regularly perform together at various uke events throughout the U.S. and have toured Australia together. The two also collaborated on the CD, “Rare Air.”
Beloff himself has recorded two solo CDs of original songs performed on the ukulele; “Jim’s Dog Has Fleas” and “For The Love of Uke” as well as “The Finer Things,” a CD of songs he co-wrote with ukulele master Herb Ohta. Beloff has also made two instructional ukulele DVDs, “The Joy of Uke #1 and #2.”
He also wrote the book, “The Ukulele: A Visual History” (1997), the definitive history of the instrument.
After graduating from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in musical theatre, Jim Beloff went to New York where he wrote several produced musicals for children. He also worked in sales for the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, and later in sales for Billboard, eventually moving to its Los Angeles office.
In Los Angeles, the Beloffs began regularly going to the Pasadena Rose Bowl Flea Market where Jim discovered a vintage Martin tenor ukulele lying on a blanket. On a whim, he bought it. To his dismay, he discovered that there were few instructional books or song folios for the instrument that had primarily been popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s in the U.S.
The Beloffs then compiled a book of 30 classic ukulele songs, “Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Favorites” in 1992. The songbook sold far beyond their expectations and further books followed. In 1998, Jim and Liz quit their jobs to pursue their growing ukulele-based business.
In the ‘90s, there were few good ukuleles readily available for new players. Beloff suggested to his engineer brother-in-law, Dale Webb, that he try his hand at making an ukulele. The result was the Fluke, a non-traditionally shaped ukulele with a molded back, the prototypes of which were made using a toaster oven. The Fluke rapidly gained fans due to its modest price and fine tone.
In 1999, Webb and his wife Phyllis started The Magic Fluke Company which has manufactured, and sold nearly 40,000 Flukes and smaller models called Fleas.
The Portuguese are credited with bringing the predecessor of the ukulele to Hawaii in 1879. The braguinha was an immediate hit with the Hawaiians, who renamed it ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-le-le in Hawaii). Ukulele is a Hawaiian portmanteau that translates as "jumping flea" or "the gift that came here.”
In 1915, the Hawaiian exhibit at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco formally introduced the ukulele to Americans. The Royal Hawaiian Quartet played to an estimated 17 million people in a 7 month period and launched the interest in Hawaiian music that lasted for nearly two decades in the U.S.
As Tin Pan Alley churned out novelty songs like "Hello, Hawaii, How Are You?" and “Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home,” Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards (best remembered now as the voice of Jiminy Cricket) became a pop star. Meanwhile, American instrument makers like Martin, Gibson, National, and Lyon and Healy manufactured their own ukuleles.
The '50s brought a brief revival to the ukulele, in large part due to lavish support by Arthur Godfrey, a megastar of the new medium, television.
The novelty popularity of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips (With Me)” by Tiny Tim in 1968 resulted in the small four-stringed instrument becoming the butt of countless jokes and insults for years.
However, the popularity of such leading uke players as Herb Ohta Sr., Herb Ohta Jr., Jake Shimabukuro, Bill Tapia, Chino Montero, Troy Fernandez, Benny Chong, Peter Moon, James Hill, Byron Yasui, Andy Sexton, B.B. Shawn, Moe Keale, Tracey Terada, Ernest Kaai, Jesse Kalima, Eddie Kamae, Lyle Ritz, Led Kaapana, Abe Lagrimas Jr. and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have since insured the ukulele’s place in the line-up of respected stringed instruments.
Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher’s outstanding documentary, “The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog” opens with Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro (a semi-regular member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefers band), wearing jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, playing his ukulele with a flashy brilliance.
Shimabukuros’ mother handed him a ukulele when he was four, and two decades later, his version of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" went viral on YouTube.
After all of the years being in the shadows, the ukulele has gone mainstream again.
It has. If you type in “ukulele” in YouTube, you come up with some staggering number of videos (129,000 videos).
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s show at Carnegie Hall (November 2, 2010) reportedly sold out within hours.
They are amazing. To see them do (Isaac Hayes’ 1971 #1 hit) “Theme for Shaft”; they are just cheeky monkeys. But they are very talented. There are seven of them (with one bassist), they come out in tuxedos, and do all of this unconventional material. They are like art students with real musical talent.
You and your wife Liz have been part of the ukulele movement since 1992.
We have released almost two-dozen books that have sold about 400,000 copies. We are about to release the biggest book, I think, ever published for the ukulele. It is called “The Daily Ukulele.” Of course, it has 365 songs. Most of our books have 30 songs. So, it was like doing 10 of our books at once; it is massive. It will be out in the middle of October. The subtitle is “365 Songs For Better Living.” It is basically for boomers. It has a lot of Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon songs; all of the (music) greats we grew up with. And there are sing-a-long songs like “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Girl).”
You and Liz went to Australia last year.
We did. This is sort of the story that is told in “The Mighty Uke.” Our slogan for Flea Market Music is that “Uke Can Change the World.” In the early days when we said that, it was more tongue in cheek than anything else. Like, why not? Those were our ambitions, but now, it truly has turned out to be the case. This a worldwide phenomenon.
In Sydney alone, there are four ukulele clubs, each with over 100 members. This instrument is very social. You don’t typically have 100 bassoon players getting together once a month to play their favorite tunes. For that matter, you don’t imagine 100 guitarist getting together, because they have conflicting styles and ideas about what they want to play. But the uke, because it is so much about being an accompaniment instrument to singing, turns out to be a very fun social instrument. The classic model for these clubs is that 100 people get together -- making sure to include food and drink in the mix -- and they just sing and strum songs until the wee hours. It is remarkable.
What is the ukulele’s appeal in Japan.
Japan fell in love with all things Hawaiian, to the point that there are more hula schools in Japan than there are in Hawaii. We were first invited to go to Japan for the 40th anniversary of NUA (the Nihon Ukulele Association) in 2000. Imagine that this association had been going since 1960. That shows you how deep and long this love affair had been going on. And, like so many things in Japan -- even clubs -- ukulele events are formal affairs. We gave a talk on the great players and it was translated. It was a very formal affair in the Ginza district (of Tokyo), at a top music store. Afterwards, we all went to a Japanese beer garden; there must have been 150 people in this room. This is a memory I will never forget of 150 people, all Japanese except for Liz and myself, and we are all singing and playing “Five Foot Two Eyes Of Blue.” I thought, “This instrument is very powerful.”
[The Nihon Ukulele Association was established by Harry Haruhiko Haida as a non-profit organization for amateur ukulele players. Haida is credited for bringing Hawaiian music to Japan in the 1920s.]
Ukulele players no longer cringe if “Tip Toe Through the Tulips With Me” is brought up in conversation.
The most interesting thing is that the market seems to be driven a great deal by people who are in their late teens, and early ‘20s, who don’t even know who Tiny Tim was.
[“Tip Toe Through the Tulips (With Me)” by Tiny Tim reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968. A 1929 version by Nick Lucas reached #1. The same year, a version by Jean Goldkette reached #5. Written by Al Dubin and Joe Burke, the song debuted in the 1929 film “Goldiggers of Broadway,” the second all-color, all-talking feature length movie.]
When we first started in this business in 1992, it was like the association games. You would say, “Well, I picked up the ukulele.” The first thing that you’d hear was someone singing (in a falsetto voice) “Tip toe Thruuuuu The Tuuuu-lippps.” That went on for a long time. In fact, so much so that I decided to address it head on. When we would perform, I used to do this really jazzy version of “Tip Toes.” I really slowed it down, and sexed it up. Of course, everybody would ask, “Do you play that song?” I could say, “Yes, but I am not going to do it like Tiny Tim.”
Many people today don’t even know who Tiny Tim was.
In some ways, the ukulele doesn’t have any baggage. It has been so long out of favor that people who are in their late teens or young adults have no association with it. Or, maybe, their parents might say, "Well, I used to play that,” or “Your uncle Harry use to play that.” Or even, “Your grandfather used to play one of those.” But there aren’t any deep cultural associations today.
Elvis Costello, and Pete Townshend are ukulele fans.
Eddy Vedder also picked up the uke. He’s a big Pete Townshend fan (and a friend). Pete played the uke on “Blue, Red & Grey” (on “The Who by Numbers” in 1975). There are antecedents all over the place.
You taught Bette Midler how to play the uke.
I gave her lessons when we were living in L.A. She took over from Celine (Dion) in Vegas and she did this fabulous show, and she used one of our instruments, The Flea, but she had it covered in Swarovski Crystal. She’s from Hawaii originally, so it made sense for her to learn it. She learned enough to back herself up on a song, and she was terrific. It was fun getting to know her a bit. I have an enormous respect for her; she’s one of the great entertainers of all time.
George Harrison played the ukulele.
Did you know that George Harrison came to our house? Oh yeah.
He was a big ukulele fan.
A total ukulele fan. In 1999, George Harrison came to our house and hung out for a few hours; we played ukuleles together. George was there because he was good friends with the luthier to the stars, Danny Ferrington. Danny brought George to our house because George wanted to see our ukulele collection. It was the two of them, my wife Liz, and myself. So just four of us.
The highpoint was when I was working on this book that was going to be the first ukulele songbook that really had a lot of Beatle songs in it. The ukulele essentially died in the ‘50s before the Beatles even got here. So I said, “We’re doing this book. It is going to have a lot of Beatle songs. I’m putting two of your songs in, they sound so good on the uke.” And we started to play “All My Loving.” with George Harrison. It was amazing. We were in shock.
Not only that, but George wrote the forward to one of our most popular songbooks, “Jumpin' Jim's '60s Uke-In.” As he was leaving, I said, “I need you to do something for me. I need you to write why you, George Harrison, like the ukulele." I gave him a piece of company stationary, and he wrote the most charming paragraph. Then he did a little drawing and signed it at the bottom, “George Keoki Harrison.” Keoki is the Hawaiian name for George. He loved all things Hawaiian. He lived in Hawaii.
What two songs of his did you put in the song book?
“Something” and “Here Comes The Sun.”
Did George ever play a ukulele on record? Paul McCartney reportedly played ukulele on the Bonzo Dog Band’s 1968 hit “I’m the Urban Spaceman.” He also plays ukulele when he performs “Something” in tribute to George in his concerts.
George did play it on his last CD “Brainwashed” (2002). He did a really sweet version of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (written by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler and popularized by versions by Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and the Boswell Sisters in the 1930s).
[There’s a must-see clip of George Harrison playing ukulele and singing the 1927 hit “Ain’t She Sweet,” with Paul McCartney along with Ringo Starr clapping along at: YouTube Video].
You met George Harrison just after launching the Fluke.
Lizzy had worked in the movie business doing trailers and teasers and graphic design. I had been at Billboard. We both left to pursue this crazy thing. Then, we introduced this ukulele that my brother-in-law Dale Webb had designed, the Fluke. We had this booth at NAMM (the trade show for the association of the international music products industry) in 1999 with three prototypes of the Fluke, and my history book (“The Ukulele—A Visual History” published in 1997) was out on the counter. Danny Ferrington came over and said, “My friend George gave me a copy of that. He sent the book out to all of his friends for the holidays.” Then he said, “George would really like to come over to your house. That’s how it all started.
[Danny Ferrington has made custom guitars for musicians like Kurt Cobain, Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson, and Johnny Cash. The DVD of the Coen brothers’ 2004 film “The Ladykillers” has a long interview with Ferrington and a look at a mandolin he was building for actor Tom Hanks.]
What did people think when you and Liz quit your jobs to launch a ukulele business?
I think that if we had been in any other place other than Los Angeles, people might have looked at us cross-eyed. But, in Los Angeles, we came to understand that you never knock another person’s dream because you may be working for it a couple of months later. We went full-time in 1998; we left our jobs. We said, “This is it. We’re ready.” I had gone as far as I thought I could at Billboard, and Liz was working on movies that she no longer had a strong feeling for. They were becoming more violent; she just didn’t feel comfortable with them.
What did Liz do in film?
Her best credits are that she designed the Tri-star logo. The white horse (Pegasus, the winged horse sired by Poseidon in Greek mythology) that sprouts wings and jumps. She also designed the opening for movies like “Home Alone” (1990), the animated sequence. She would put together trailers, coming attractions. She specialized in graphic designs. She would turn her story boards over to people who would make (the film sequence). She built her world around working in film and doing graphic design.
[Jim Beloff and Elizabeth Maihock married in 1987. From Stamford, Connecticut, Maihock graduated from Mount Holyoke College, and is an alumna of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She was a graphic designer with R/Greenberg Associates, a film production company in New York.]
How did you two meet?
We met in New York City at a party. I was working for Ziff-Davis (Ziff-Davis Publishing Company) in ad sales, but, I loved music. John Babcock was my boss at Ziff-Davis, then he left to go to Billboard (as publisher and later president/CEO of Billboard’s parent company, BPI Communications). Before he left, he said, “I know that you love music. I’d love to get you at Billboard some day, somehow.” The idea of working for Billboard was like a kid working in the candy store. To be able to work in the music business was too incredible. Eventually, it worked out.
So, I started with Billboard in New York. We had a great loft in the fur district. I had majored in writing musicals. I was hoping that one day, I might write a musical. I suppose I still do. I was there for about two or three years. Howard Lander was still the publisher of Billboard. He needed a sales presence in the L.A. office. He knew that Liz worked in films, and he knew that I had always enjoyed visiting L.A. He said, “I would really love it if you guys could move there.” It wasn’t an easy decision. We moved there in 1991.
Just before we leave, my father-in-law, who had been a Seabee in the Navy, sees an old ukulele that was in my parents’ house that I had never thought about for 10 seconds. He takes it down off the wall, tunes it up, and he strums some really sweet little cute tunes on it, and, it’s harmonically interesting. All this time I thought, like everybody else, that the ukulele was a toy. He played it well enough—because he had played when he was a Seabee -- that I thought, “If I ever found a nice uke, I just might get it just for fun.”
So, we moved to L.A. My wife and I love flea markets; we learned pretty much immediately that the best flea market in Los Angeles is the Pasadena Rose Bowl Flea Market. We had been in L.A. for about two weeks, and we go there. We’re walking down an aisle and there is a Martin tenor ukulele on a blanket. On a whim, I bought it and I became obsessed with it. Of course, I go to music stores thinking that there is going to be a huge variety of songbooks and things. But, I discovered that the ukulele was deader than a door nail. It had been so off the pop culture radar at that point, that there were no song books, no method books, nothing.
I can recall the Cliff Edward’s "Ukulele Ike's Comic Song Books” from the 1920s.
Oh yeah, but nothing current. I quickly figured out how to play ukulele because it is very similar to the guitar. I think that is why the uke has taken off so quickly because if you play the guitar, it takes you about 10 minutes to orient yourself and then you are a uke player.
But, we found a music store in East L.A. that had been around for something like 60 years, and the owner was the original owner. He still had stock (of ukulele books) from the time when the uke was popular a million years ago. He dragged out about 15 books from the old days. We bought them all, and I went through these arrangements. One was more beautiful than the next.
Fortunately, my wife, who had grown up with Lawrence Welk, knew “Deep Purple” and all of these beautiful old standards. I was thinking that this instrument was good for about three chords and campfires and here are all these songs that have these 6/9, minor 7ths, minor 9ths, 11ths and 13ths chords. There are all these nuanced, pretty beautiful chords. I’m going crazy. I am thinking, “This, in some ways, is as satisfying as my guitar which has two more strings.” It was harmonically richer than I ever imagined that it could be.
Those books would have had the original fingerings. Song books have been simplified over the years.
It was somebody who had taken the piano arrangements—that, of course, was the dominant instrument back then—and figured how to make it on the uke. So you are right, it’s all there. There was no dumbing down.
You became smitten?
For me, it felt a little like Fred Astaire meeting Ginger Rogers. Not that I didn’t love the guitar, and I loved writing songs, and I loved writing shows. I really loved being a songwriter and I had never thought that there was another instrument for me. When I started to play the uke, I realized that this was my Ginger Rogers. That this instrument, even though it had two fewer strings, somehow or another was a better reflection of the kind of songs that I wanted to write. It seemed to be a more natural fit with my Tin Pan Alley roots. It just became my go-to instrument. I effectively stopped playing the guitar.
You then decided to tell the whole world of your love of the ukulele.
I thought, “If people knew how expressive and harmonically rich this instrument really was, then they might give it a second thought. Also, after I thought how much pleasure I was getting from this instrument, from writing songs on it and learning it, I thought, “I can’t be the only person out there who has an uninformed opinion about this instrument.” There was an entire generation of people that I sort of focused on. What I called lapsed guitarists— basically, everyone I knew in college and high school. Because we all played guitar.
Everybody played guitar in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They stopped playing because their life got complicated or they had kids. While the guitar may still have been central in their lives, once you get married and have to deal with a career and children and all of those pressures, it can’t be as central in your life as it might have been when you were in college.
So I was thinking that if all of these people could see how much pleasure they could have with the ukulele they just might want to pick it up. Here’s an instrument that will take you about 10 minutes to figure out if you have had any fretted instrument experience. And it’s kid-sized.
Suddenly, you have this instrument that isn’t so popular and is small. You can take it with you anywhere. And being kid-sized you can share the joy of playing it with your children. It became a really nice alternative for folks who were looking to bring music back into their lives. I think the (popularity of the ukulele) was also a reaction to an overly technical, overly busy lifestyle.
With a ukulele, you don’t need a lot of equipment.
No. it is low tech. It is low-fi. When I was traveling for Billboard, I would have my briefcase, my suitcase, and a laptop, I suppose. There were nights I would go to Nashville from L.A. and I would think “It’d be nice to have my guitar with me.” Suddenly, I had this uke that I put in the baggage compartment above me.
A ukulele would not be loud in a hotel.
No, it’s soft and sweet. And it was the un-guitar for a long time. I think that the guitar became intimidating. As it matured there were just so many extraordinary players that you had to be extraordinary yourself or you were just a hacker. Suddenly, there was this instrument which you could instantly play and there weren’t a thousand other players in your town. It had very low expectations, and you could impress very easily.
Is the ukulele really that easy to play?
Certainly. In the early days, we’d go to the ukulele festivals which started to take off in the ‘90s and are all over the world today—and we’d meet people. Some would say, “I’m here because my spouse plays, but I don’t play. I’m one of those people who will never learn to play an musical instrument.” We would say, “What if we taught you how to play a song in one minute?” Most people would give the minute. I could teach them how to play (Laurie London’s 1958 #1) “He’s Got The Whole World (in His Hands)” in one minute. It’s two chords. You can teach anyone to play it. It was wonderful watching what were all of these defense mechanisms in the brain starting to come undone. To watch people think, “My gosh, maybe, I can play.
There are four sizes of the ukulele?
The most popular by far is the Soprano. That is the one that Tiny Tim played. There is one size a little bit larger called Concert size, tuned exactly the same way, but it’s a scale length. So it means that your frets are just that much wider. Our Fluke was built on the Concert scale. Next is the Tenor, which is typically tuned the same way. The credit for the Baritone often goes to Arthur Godfrey. Part of the (appeal) with the baritone is because it is tuned exactly like the top four strings of a guitar. It allowed guitarists to transition into this instrument without really learning anything. Just drop the two lower strings, and you’ve got a baritone uke.
Ukulele owners become instrument junkies?
How many ukuleles do you own?
Oh, gosh. I probably own about 70. They call it “UAS.” Ukulele acquisition syndrome. We found a lot of ukuleles at flea markets. Nowadays, of course, thanks to eBay it is much harder. We both play our family’s instruments. I play a Fluke; and Liz plays a Flea.
Why develop the Fluke and the Flea?
As we began publishing our books, and while we were still in Los Angeles, people would say, “Well, you have half-convinced me (to play), that if I ever find a uke, maybe, I will give it a spin.” The next question naturally was, “Where do I find one?” Ukuleles weren’t nearly as available then as now. There might have been a couple of cheap imports that weren’t very good then. We would say, “The best chance of finding a good uke is to go to a flea market.”
There were days when you would go to the Rosebowl Flea Market in the mid-90s, and you could find three or four Martin ukuleles for $100 each. Of course, those days are long, long gone. That was pre-eBay, and it was before this renewed wave of interest. Beyond that, you’d say, “Check your attic, your grandmother might have played one.” There were some fine ukes still being made in Hawaii, especially by Kamaka (Kamaka Hawaii), which still makes them. They are magnificent. But they weren’t turning them out thousands at a clip. There simply were not a lot of good ukes available.
[Martin, the venerable guitar company, was one of the main ukulele manufacturers during the ukulele craze of the 1920s and 1930s. Vintage Martins are now highly sought after and highly priced.]
How did the Fluke come about?
My brother-in-law (Dale Webb) is an engineer. Although he had never made a musical instrument, he had worked in molding, and he had worked in wood. During Thanksgiving, 1998 he showed us this unusual non-traditional instrument with a rounded back that could stand up on its end. Sure enough, it sounded pretty good. He tinkered with it some more. A few months later, we introduced it at the NAMM show. We got some interest in the United States, but there were Japanese buyers at NAMM who came by. They told us that the uke was starting to take off in Japan. We sold a big order to Japan. Then, Liz and I went to Japan the next year. Suddenly, the Fluke took off there; we caught the wave there at just the right moment.
The ukulele originated in Portugal.
It is very much a Portuguese story. For a long time, and even today, a lot of people think that the ukulele was a Hawaiian invention. It originated in Madeira, an island that belongs to Portugal, (which granted political autonomy to Madeira in 1976). Then, of course, it got named in Hawaii. It is important to pronounce it as “oo-koo-le-le” when you go to Hawaii. There are a lot of theories how it got its name. The most dominant one is that ukulele translates to “jumping flea,” which is how a lot of people thought it looked when a good player in the early days was playing the instrument, with his fingers jumping up and down on the fret board like tiny little fleas.
The instrument is sometimes known as the braguinha or machete.
There are two (Portuguese) instruments that historians believe gave birth to the modern day uke. One is the machete, and the other is the rajao, a five-string instrument that was tuned very much like the contemporary “My Dog Has Fleas” ukulele. Both of those Madeira instruments ended up in Hawaii in 1879. The Hawaiians don’t really have any instruments quite like it; and they fell in love with it, especially the King at the time. King Kalakaua just went crazy for it. He learned how to play and gave it his seal of approval. It spread like wildfire there.
If it wasn’t for Tiny Tim (aka Herbert B. Khaury) and Arthur Godfrey, many North Americans today wouldn’t know about the ukulele.
Tiny Tim was a far more nuanced artist and entertainer than the cartoon character most people think of. However, he didn’t do the ukulele many favors.
Why do you say that? Because the cartoon took over in the media?
That’s right. He was such an outlandish character that it transferred to the instrument. The instrument became a cartoon instrument because he was sort of a cartoon character.
I met Tiny Tim and he was quite a serious historian of popular music.
That is exactly right. We saw him in concert. He wasn’t a terribly great player, actually. But, to his credit, he was committed to teaching his audience everything that he could tell them about a particular song. If you saw him, it was like, “This next song was written by “Mr. So & So and Mr. So & So. It was recorded by Mr. Bing Crosby in nineteen hundred and forty-seven at the RCA Studios at three o’clock in the afternoon. And, it was the A-side. And, it was recorded with so & so and so & so. And, it rose to number four on the charts.” My gawd, he was a nerd. He was a record nerd of the stuff that he loved.
The ukulele has been popular at different times in America.
We’re officially in what I call the third wave of popularity. The first wave culminated with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. It was kind of like a world’s fair at the time. Hawaii had an exhibition there. There was a fair amount of Hawaiian music traveling (in the U.S.) from metropolitan area to metropolitan area, thanks to Hawaiian musicians that were gigging across the country prior to 1915; and there was a musical called “Bird of Paradise” that gained a fair amount of attention. So, ukes were on the upswing, and people were playing them. But 1915 in San Francisco at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was kind of the capper. That led to a big love affair with ukes that lasted almost to the Depression.
During that first heyday, the sales of ukes were just unbelievable; tfoohey were through the roof. There were all sorts of manufacturers. Chicago, the city, was responsible for making millions of ukuleles, thanks to two companies, Regal and Harmony. There were novelty instruments. The book I wrote (“The Ukulele -- A Visual History”) featured a lot of pictures.
There were unusually shaped ukuleles like Lyon and Healey Shrine, and Bell
The Shrine and the Bell ukes were incredible. There were all these pictures of ukase, the football uke, the Betty Boop, and ukes with wonderful colors and graphic designs.
What killed the ukulele? The guitar?
The ukulele didn’t go away, but it just died down. There was a change in music, there always is . There’s cycles. The music shifted away from that lighter material. But it didn’t go away. It just wasn’t as popular.
The next big thing for the ukulele was Arthur Godfrey.
Arthur Godfrey was the king of all media during the whole ‘50s. He was playing a baritone uke for the most part. (In the early ‘50s), he got an early version of the (Maccaferri) Islander Ukulele, the first major plastic uke and he played it on the air. He said, “Boy, this isn’t too bad.” Nine million plastic ukuleles later, the second wave had come. I think it sold for $2.95 at the time.
[No television personality of the 1950s enjoyed more clout or fame than Arthur Godfrey. He hosted two CBS-TV weekly series, and a daily 90-minute television mid-morning show through most of the decade. Godfrey had been a popular radio personality as well throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s for CBS. In addition to announcing, Godfrey sang and played the ukulele; frequently singing random verses during the "talk" portions of his programs.
Godfrey also had a string of hit records, including the novelty "Too Fat Polka (I Don’t Want Her -- You Can Have Her -- She's Too Fat For Me)," which reached #2 in 1947. It was followed by such Top 10 hits as: “Slap ‘Er Down Again Paw (1948), “Go To Sleep, Go To Sleep, Go To Sleep” (1950), and “Dance Me Loose (1951). In retirement, Godfrey appeared on the track "Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot" on Moby Grape’s second album “Wow/Grape Jam,” playing ukulele and reading the spoken word introduction.]
But, like the hula hoop, the ukulele was considered a novelty in the 1950s.
Still a novelty. It was still a novelty, yep. Then, by the end of the ‘50s, Godfrey’s influence had waned, and we had gone through another musical cycle. In the ‘60s, especially thanks to the guitar, the ukulele was again pushed back. Again, it didn’t disappear, but interest in it waned, dramatically. Every kid in the world didn’t want to pick up a ukulele, they wanted to pick up a guitar. So when Tiny Tim has his hit (Tip Toe Through the Tulips) in 1968, it is more of an aberration. Mostly due to his outlandishness, (his success) probably didn’t encourage sales.
Many people today have never heard a quality ukulele. All they’ve heard have been plastic versions.
That’s probably true. That’s not to say that (ukulele music) wasn’t there. It didn’t cross your desk, and it certainly didn’t get on the air much. But, all through our record buying years, there were artists making really quite wonderful ukulele music. I would say that probably the best virtuoso through the ‘60s and ‘70s was Herb Ohta. I eventually became very good friends with him, and we’ve written about 60 songs together. I have collaborated with him in many ways. We published the book of his arrangements (“Jumpin' Jim's Ukulele Masters: Herb Ohta”); and I did a record (“The Finer Things” in 2004) of songs that we had written together. Herb lives in Hawaii and he is known as "Ohta-San" in Japan, because he was so revered, and beloved there. For a very long time, he was the reigning instrumentalist ukulele virtuoso. I bet he has made probably 80 albums.
You put together the album "Legends Of Ukulele" for Rhino Records in 1997 featuring legendary players like Herb Ohta, and Lyle Ritz.
It was the era of the CD. That era was both lucrative, and very creative. It was the era of the musicphile. You had labels like Rhino and many others who were packaging musical memories in very creative ways. It was a fun time. Of course, I knew the guys at Rhino. They saw my book and said, “We’ve done legends of accordion, we might as well do legends of ukulele.” So I was the producer on that.
You’re from Connecticut?
Yep. From Meriden. It’s right off the highway (691). I went to Choate School (a private, college-preparatory boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut) for the last two years of high school. Then I went to Hampshire College (in Amherst, Massachusetts,) which is an alternative college. I majored in writing musicals. I did a bunch of shows while I was there. My division three -- essentially my thesis -- was a musical. Then, when I got to New York that is what I did. I wrote three or four kids’ musicals. I really wanted to (write musicals). I still haven’t entirely shaken that. I grew up loving James Taylor, Todd Rundgren, and Jimmy Webb and also worshipping Richard Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim.
[In 1988, the film "Jacknife” with Robert DeNiro, Ed Harris and Kathy Bates was filmed in Meriden.
Before his retirement in 1990, Jim’s father Marvin ran the family's clothing business, Stylex Co., which later became Beloff's Woman's World. In 1994, Marvin, also a wood sculptor, invented the wooden bow tie that has a worldwide following today. The International Wooden Bow Tie Club, a tongue-in-cheek organization, was formed by those who had purchased one of his bow ties.]
While in your third year at Hampshire in 1976, you interned with Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner on “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” a musical famous for closing after only seven performances on Broadway.
Truly, one of the most remarkable experiences, it was great. I was a production assistant.
You were a go-fer.
I was a go-fer. But I was assigned to work for the musical department for the conductor and the arranger. So I would run and do errands for them. I was at every rehearsal when it was in New York. When the show went out of town to Philadelphia where it played the Forrest Theater, I was assigned to take notes for Mr. Bernstein.
One of my great memories was watching his musical—the first performance of it ever in front of a paying audience—and sitting with him on the marble steps of the Forrest Theatre for the entire show, which lasted about 3 1/2 hours. By the time, (the show) was over, probably two-thirds of the audience had walked out. But to sit with him and watch the entire show, and have him whisper in my ear, giving me notes about performances, about the volume of the strings in the pit, and all of these reactions and thoughts and notes that he wanted to give out at the end of the (performance) was an amazing experience.
The reviews for “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” were harsh in Philadelphia.
It was a very difficult musical to sell. It was sort of an upstairs/downstairs history of the White House, and the relationships between the white presidents and their families and the black servants who worked below. It was very heavy in its history. The score is magnificent. For people who don’t know (the musical), it is worth seeking out. There are some magnificent numbers in it, gorgeous melodies. Lerner’s lyrics are just brilliant,. Some of the most brilliant, clever, Sondheimian kind of lyrics writing that he did were in that show.
[The Leonard Bernstein estate refuses to allow the performance, recording, or publication of the original musical. Deutsche Grammophon, however, has released a choral version entitled “A White House Cantata.”].
To watch Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner struggling to give birth to this show—changing directors, changing directions, changing the book endlessly, and a new book, was quite an experience. I think Bernstein had lost confidence in the show. Lerner carried on. I ended up working for Lerner while (the show) was in Washington, and I watched him struggle. Again, these were two of the greatest in the world.
Seven performances on Broadway.
Seven performances at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, and they tried desperately, everybody worked so hard. It was an original script, and making an original play work is generally a tough go. But, they really wanted to tell this story about democracy, and the story of the changing relationship between blacks and whites in America, and how it evolved over the years. It was a story that, I think, was near and dear to both of them. To watch the effort that went into it. If I had seen them succeed, it would have been wonderful and exciting. But, in a way, to watch it not work was even more instructive. And, to realize that for two of the very best in the world still….it is very hard to make it all work.
After college, you then went to New York and wrote musicals. What a competitive world.
It actually is a really bad business. It’s a bad career to pursue. You have to be slightly out of your mind to want to be a musical theatre writer. Everybody, I think, goes thinking, “All I need is one (success like) “The Fantasticks” (the 1960 musical by Harvey Schmidt & Tom Jones). That’s what keep you going. I still love the form. I wrote a bunch of kids’ musicals that got done. Some with well known childrens’ theatres including TADA! Youth Theatre which is still very successful.
You were then writing on the guitar?
This whole uke thing actually started because I had played guitar pretty much my whole life. When I was at Hampshire, although I was a musical theatre major, my principal instrument was the guitar. So I was writing on the guitar.
Are you worried about the ukulele becoming so popular that it becomes a novelty fad again?
I guess. You can’t control that. It probably will. It’s just the way it works. I don’t think there’s anything you can do but enjoy it while the spotlight is on.
Kara DioGuardi worked for you at Billboard?
She did. First she was assistant to (editor-in-chief) Tim (White) and (publisher) Howard (Landers). I think that Howard recognized that she was special, and remarkable. He wanted her to have other experiences while she was at Billboard. He wanted her to have some experience in sales. He believed, I think, she would do well at it, and she was terrific. I really enjoyed the time when she worked for me. As I recall, she was quite successful.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. He was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
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