Happy International Ukulele Day! Such a versatile instrument. Wish I knew how to play one.
In 1984 (the actual year, kids, not an Orwellian metaphor), I was invited to contribute to the “U” edition of Op Magazine; well, that is, after pestering the editor, John Foster, to do so almost since the magazine’s inception in 1979, showcasing subjects according to an alphabetical order.
“How’d you like to do a piece on the ukulele?” he asked.
So, I started doing some research (no Internet), and eventually turned in an article covering some of what I’d learned. You know, what freelance writers do.
Of course, the library was my first source of information. Sitting on the shelf there (using the card catalog and Dewey Decimal System, you can look it up) I found a book entitled, The Ukulele – A Portuguese Gift to Hawaii, by John Henry Felix, Leslie Nunes and Peter F. Senecal. Author Nunes’ great-grandfather, Manuel Nunes, was among a handful of Portuguese craftsmen linked to the introduction of the ukulele – originally known as the cavaquinho or braguinha – to Hawaii, shortly after arriving with 400 other settlers in the summer of 1879.
At the time I managed to reach out to and speak with Leslie Nunes – not quite sure how that was arranged, perhaps through the publishing company – who shared with me some memories of his great-grandfather’s legacy regarding the ukulele.
In 1981, when Japan organized its own celebration of the ukulele, Nunes told me he was taken aback by Japanese fans who “wanted me to write my name on the soundboards of their ukuleles. That was something I was not used to.” Nunes also was deservedly proud of the fact that ukulele instruction is available in Hawaiian schools for children who wish to learn how to play. “Hawaii still loves the instrument,” he said, “and I hope it will again become a more popular instrument on the mainland.”
Four decades later, he needn’t have worried about the ukulele’s staying power.
Sure, it’s had its ups and down. From its introduction in 1879, a full half-century would pass before the ukulele fell into the hands of an ambitious young entertainer by the name of Arthur Godfrey. Godfrey began his career in 1929 on WFBR in Baltimore as “Red Godfrey, the Warbling Banjoist,” and in the 1930s developed his easy-going style (and played the ukulele — which he correctly pronounced as ooh-kuh-lay-lee) on WTOP in Washington, D.C.
Starting in the fall of 1949 – and lasting for nearly a decade – Godfrey dominated with two TV programs, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts on Monday nights and Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on Wednesdays. He played ukulele, told jokes, and introduced acts drawn from a close-knit family of performers. Godfrey began losing popularity in October 1953 after he fired popular singer Julius La Rosa, and while he remained on the radio into the 1970s, never was able to rekindle an interest in the instrument he had revived from the Roaring Twenties, when the ukulele was as much a part of the youth uniform as raccoon coats and porkpie hats.
There was a time when Tiny Tim could have become a ukulele messiah. He was discovered by several diverse musical figures of the 1960s and 1970s, including The Doors (who had him open their shows at the Other End in New York), Tim Buckley, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. His breakthrough hit was “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” made famous through his appearance on NBC-TV’s Laugh-In.
At a party, Tiny Tim sang “Norwegian Wood” for George Harrison, and a version eventually made it to one of the Beatles’ fan club Christmas records. He once entertained Dylan (after comparing him to the opera star Caruso) with versions of Caruso lyrics sung in Dylan’s voice, and Dylan songs sung like Caruso. Dylan soon tired of this and sent Tiny Tim to bed.
George Harrison was an active member of the George Formby Society, a group of British ukulele enthusiasts, and famously taught European race car driver Gerhardt Berger how to play the instrument. His posthumously released album, Brainwashed, features a lovely song, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” with Harrison on ukulele and vocals.
Sir Paul McCartney often performs Harrison’s classic, “Something,” on ukulele, in tribute to the song’s author, who died in 2001.
And Harrison’s bandmate in the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty, recorded The Last DJ, an album that features the ukulele playing of both Petty and fellow Heartbreaker Scott Thurston.
Fans of the Disney film Pinocchio will recognize the song, “When You Wish Upon A Star,” as performed by Cliff Edwards, also known as Ukulele Ike. Edwards also was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the film. Another classic movie song, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” from The Wizard of Oz, gained new life in a popular TV advertisement as performed by “Bruddah Iz,” the late, great Israel Kamakawiwio’ole.
Founded in 1996, the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum has inducted ukulele pioneers from Edwards and Godfrey to Sam Kamaka, Jr., and Herb Ohta. Find all of the inductees here.
The first ukuleles from Hawaii were made from koa wood, and strung with gut strings. Coconut ukuleles also were popular at one point. A larger instrument known as the rajao, or taro patch fiddle, was also known at the time, as was the tipple, a 10-string ukulele.
There are numerous colorful tales about how the ukulele got its name, but it is generally agreed the name comes from the Hawaiian uke, which means “bug” or “flea,” and lele, which means “jumping.” The natives thought the motion of the ukulele player’s hand resembled nothing so much as a “jumping flea.”
How will you celebrate International Ukulele Day (February 2)?