While he’s not an international star, Charles Altmann is an integral part of the ukulele scene in Sydney, Australia. At the age of 91, he’s still extremely active and an inspiration to many. And he has a fascinating story to tell!
Welcome to Episode 2 of Ukulele Stories! In this instalment, I chat with the brilliant Mic Conway, an Australian music legend and a great fan of all things uke. Enjoy!
HE WASN’T the greatest player by a long shot, but Tiny Tim is as important in the history of the ukulele as anyone else who ever picked up the instrument.
Born Herbert Khaury in New York City on April 12, 1932, he was fascinated with music from an early age. Herbie absorbed popular tunes from the 1890s to the 1930s like a sponge and, after dropping out of high school, turned his attention to becoming a star.
In the 1950s, American media personality Arthur Godfrey championed the ukulele, and like nine million others Herbie bought himself a plastic Maccaferri Islander after Godfrey gave it a ringing endorsement on the air. It was the second uke Herbie owned, but it wouldn’t be the last. For most of his career, he played a Martin soprano, although towards the end of his life he also strummed a concert resonator that was given to him by his third wife on his 64th birthday.
Following a lot of ups and downs (mostly downs) in the ’50s, the artist now known as Tiny Tim started to make an impact in the thriving Greenwich Village music scene of the early ’60s. Towards the end of the decade, everything was going right for Tiny. In 1968, he released God Bless Tiny Tim, the album that included his biggest hit, Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me, and he played a once-in-a-lifetime show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. On December 17, 1969, Tiny married Victoria Budinger aka Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in front of 40 million viewers, cementing him as one of the best-known men in the world.
Over the succeeding decades, Tiny’s fame waned and society’s perception of him changed. Still craving the spotlight, he was happy to be thought of as nothing more than an oddity – anything to keep him in the public consciousness.
With the Third Wave of Uke came fresh opportunities for Tiny. He started appearing at festivals, but his health was on the decline. At the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum’s Ukulele Expo ’96 in Massachusetts, Tiny had a minor heart attack and collapsed on stage. On November 30, 1996, following a gig at The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis and still holding his Martin, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, the name Tiny Tim was synonymous with the ukulele, much in the way George Formby had been in the 1940s and Jake Shimabukuro is now. At a time when the instrument was taking a back seat to the guitar and electronic music, Tiny was proudly flying the four-string flag. No matter what you think of his music, he was the bridge between the Second and Third Waves, and for that KAMUKE thanks him. God bless Tiny Tim.
BORN George Hoy Booth on May 26, 1904 in Wigan, England, one of the greatest ukulele players who ever lived almost didn’t pick up the instrument.
The son of an Edwardian music hall star who never wanted any of his family to enter show business, George was forced to become an apprentice jockey at age seven and rode in his first professional race when he was 10.
Following his father’s unexpected death in 1921, George was encouraged by his mother to perform his dad’s old material, so he took to the stage. Spectacularly unsuccessful at first, he bought a banjo-ukulele from a fellow actor and accepted a bet that he wouldn’t play it in his act. Naturally, the audience loved the uke and George was soon topping the bill all over the country.
By 1932, he had adopted his father’s stage name of ‘Formby’ and had his first hit record with a funny song called Chinese Laundry Blues. In 1934, George starred in a high-grossing comedy called Boots! Boots! and subsequently signed a contract worth an incredible £100,000 to make a further 11 films with Associated Talking Pictures. He later agreed to make another seven movies for US studio Columbia for the mind-blowing sum of £500,000.
With the help of his shrewd wife Beryl, George Formby became the top comedian in Britain between 1934 and 1945, and also found considerable fame in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In 1946, he received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his tireless work entertaining Allied forces in Europe and North Africa during World War II. In fact, he was one of the first entertainers to enter Normandy after the D-Day invasion, where he was personally invited by General Montgomery to play for the frontline troops.
In 1951, while starring in a critically acclaimed West End musical called Zip Goes a Million, Formby suffered a heart attack and was forced to leave the show. He went back to work 18 months later, but it didn’t last as long as it should have. After another heart attack, George Formby died on March 6, 1961, aged 56.
But even though the great man is gone, he’ll never be forgotten. Songs such as Leaning On A Lamp Post and The Window Cleaner have become timeless classics, and ukulele players everywhere have been trying to emulate his legendary ‘split stroke’ for more than 70 years. To quote his much-loved catchphrase, “It’s turned out nice again!”
Every year, people in the music industry gather at the Anaheim Convention Center in California, USA, for The NAMM Show. Over the past few years, the ukulele presence has grown and grown. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited by Romero Creations to play at their booth. I met a lot of old friends, such as jazz uke legend Benny Chong, and made many new ones, such as Hawaiian uke and slack-key guitar artist Garrett Probst. Special thanks to Pepe Romero Jr and Daniel Ho for their friendship and inspiration…
Welcome to a brand-new podcast in which I plan to investigate people’s connections with the ukulele. You should know from the outset that this is not a podcast that will teach you how to play the ukulele and nor is it a podcast that will teach you about the ukulele. This project is about people and about music and the intersection at which they meet.
June 1, 1949 – a young man named Robert Fernandez left the Hawaiian islands for the first time, on his way to New York to accept his appointment at the United States Military Academy West Point. Not yet 19, Robert left with big dreams in his head, love for Hawaii in his heart and a Kamaka ukulele in his hand. Throughout his 30-year military career, Robert carried that little soprano ukulele with him. Upon his retirement in May 1978, Colonel Fernandez could focus on other endeavors, including pursuing a master’s degree, performing in the theater and spending time with his family. Parties, “kanikapila” (impromptu jam sessions) and smiles seemed to follow Robert wherever he went. All the while, his ukulele by his side.
On June 9, 2018, Col. Robert Nolasco Fernandez passed away surrounded by his loving family, including four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The precious ukulele was passed down to Col. Fernandez’s son, Robbie, who happens to be my best friend. That’s where I come in.
Knowing that I’m a luthier, Robbie asked me if I could refurbish his dad’s ukulele, and maybe upgrade it with some inlays as a tribute to his dad. I was honored to be asked to work on this very special instrument. Up until then, I had only seen it in pictures, Robert smiling brightly as he strummed it at a party. As I held the instrument in my hand, I was surprised by just how small this thing actually was. I’m used to making jumbo-bodied acoustic guitars, so a ukulele that tops out at 18” (46cm) long is a bit of a novelty. I also noticed that this instrument was well loved. The years of playing had worn the koa top thin, the constant warmth and sweat had started to separate the top from the sides and the wood was dry and brittle. I could tell I had my work cut out for me.
I started off with a full disassembly, every part came off. I steamed the top and back to separate it from the sides (the bridge had fallen off some time ago), the neck was removed, all the internal bracing was removed and the tuners and hardware was stripped. For the first time since it was assembled in Hawaii in the ’40s, this ukulele was back to its basic elements. As I carefully removed and catalogued the pieces, I noticed the Kamaka tag was in very bad shape, pieces flaking off at the slightest movement. This was concerning, as I wanted the instrument to remain original. Once I had the uke apart, it was time to clean up and condition the wood. Years of travel and several vastly different climates had taken their toll on every piece.
As I worked on restoring the core of this instrument, I met with the family to design the tribute aspects of the piece. It was clear that the family wanted to focus on Robert’s distinguished military career. Several meetings later, it was decided: a mother-of-pearl Colonel insignia was to adorn the fretboard, a tribute to his Hawaiian roots on the headstock and a large inlay of the West Point crest on the back. Knowing what this would take, and knowing I was to present this to the family at the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in a few short months, it was time to dive in and get to it.
Having already cleaned up and sanded every wooden part, I now had a beautiful hardwood canvas from which to work. I drew up what I wanted to inlay and cut out the pieces, 53 in all. I smiled at that because Col. Fernandez graduated from West Point in 1953. With all my inlay cut, it was time to route and glue the pieces in to the body. Then came the sanding and final detailing, which was the most time consuming and tedious part. I don’t use CNC machines or laser engravers in my shop, all my work is by hand. As I detailed the crest on the back, I began to see what I envisioned from the start: a beautifully restored instrument and inlay tributes that are worthy of the man they honor.
Through the process, I encountered issues with one part or another. The butt joint, where the sides meet, was separating and was a bit unsightly. Also, the top was badly worn away from constant play. If a particular area didn’t meet my standards, I had to come up with a solution, one that not only fixed the problem, but also kept with the original look of the instrument. I was able to inlay some beautiful pāua abalone to fill in where needed. As I previously mentioned, the Kamaka label was in bad shape and I was heartbroken I couldn’t save it. I did, however, come up with an acceptable alternative. I contacted the Kamaka ukulele company in Honolulu, Hawaii and told them about my project and the man it was honoring. I was overwhelmed by their willingness to help, providing me with an original ’40s “gold label”, inscribed with “Col. Robert N. Fernandez” and signed by both Samuel Kamaka and his brother Fred Kamaka, the latter a retired Lt. Col. who also wrote an amazing letter recounting fond memories spent with Robert and his family, playing ukulele on the beach and “sharing aloha”.
As anybody who knows me will tell you, I don’t do anything halfway. I tend to jump into anything I do with both feet and this was no exception. I already had an authentic 1940s Kamaka label and a wonderful letter from the Kamakas themselves. I wanted to do more. Having obtained permission to use the West Point crest from the Licensing and Trademark office, the ukulele’s story made its way to the office of Hawaii’s governor, David Ige. I was honored by a call from his office and offered a beautifully written memoriam from his office. Add to that a special Congressional Recognition from US Senator Mazie Hirono’s office and I had the makings of a pretty special presentation come October.
I flew out to Washington DC with the family. I made a special walnut presentation box fashioned after a military ammunition crate and carried it on the flight the whole way. The family hadn’t seen any progress on the instrument, a standard practice for my shop. Nobody sees the instrument until it’s meant to be unveiled. The morning of the memorial, I secured the ukulele in Patton Hall, where we were to gather after the service. It was then that I let my buddy Robbie see the restored ukulele for the first time. I’ve done a few memorable reveals, but this one will always have a special place in my heart. The sheer awe and emotion that Robbie expressed was all I needed to assure me that expectations were exceeded.
We gathered in the Old Post Chapel for the service, after which we all walked behind the caisson, slowly, making our way to the gravesite. All the while, the United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own” played out strong. After the beautiful ceremony, we made our way to Patton Hall, where I was pleased to unveil and present the ukulele to the family, all of whom know the instrument well. I was humbled to hear all the compliments and praise for my work and was proud to know I accomplished what I set out to do – honor a great Hawaiian man, a soldier, a family man and a musician. It is my hope that the aloha spirit Robert spread throughout this world will forever live on through this instrument.
Oak Creek Guitars
TO CELEBRATE the release of his fantastic new tab book 12 Days Of Christmas, our friend Christopher Davis-Shannon shot this video exclusively for us and has kindly offered the music as a FREE PDF to all KAMUKE readers (see below). You can get Christopher’s book here: thetinman.co
By Dan “Cool Hand Uke” Scanlan
Among other things, the ukulele is a strum drum. A single tone — say one produced by clicking two rocks together — when played over and over in a rhythmic pattern is music. Perhaps the most rudimentary music.
It behooves the ukulele player to visit this basic truth from time to time. Although there are many, many rhythms and time chunks, in this article I will stick with plain old 4/4. But the concepts we will look at can be applied to any time signature. Have a tuned ukulele in your hand and play along.
Play the one-finger C chord (ring finger on the third fret of the A string). Strum down with your index finger and count out loud: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Play this as evenly as you can for as long as you feel like it. This may seem like a silly step, but it’s actually very important. Play it long enough to feel you are laying down a nice, smooth, unruffled carpet of sound.
Now we’re going to mess with it.
Each time you play the 1 beat (the first beat of every measure), whip your finger energetically so the 1 beat stands out from the others: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Play this one-chord riff until you feel the drive of the syncopation. Might even help to shrug a shoulder or stomp a foot on the first beat. Do it until you own it.
Cool. Now do the same thing with the second beat: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… When you own that one, move on to the third beat, then the fourth.
You’re not done with this part yet. Put the same energy — accent — onto beats one and three: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Remember to count out loud. Continue playing it until you feel it in your heart and soul.
Finally, do the same exercise but accent beats two and four — Hey! Hey! Rock and Roll!
What we have just done is demonstrate to ourselves that we have control over the accents in our playing. We get to determine the personality of our strum.
But there’s much more we can do.
In our meanderings above, we accented certain beats by simply strumming harder and louder. But check this out — instead of striking the accented beat with an energetic index finger, try accenting it with a gentle sweep of your thumb. To really get a sense of this dynamic, start simply with an unaccented 1-2-3-4; after you’ve got it rolling, accent the first beat with a gentle thumb stroke. Though the accent is on the same beat(s) as before with the energetic index finger, the music now has an entirely different feeling or attitude. Even though it’s not brash like before, it is still an accent, a syncopation. The fat, fleshy thumb spreads out the notes, whereas the index finger sounds the strings almost in unison. It’s like the difference between a wall and a picket fence — there’s air.
Now here’s the thing, the basic truth about ukulele rhythm — it’s up to the player to decide what beats to accent when, and what to use to do it. In this lesson, we only looked at two accent strokes — the strong index finger and the thumb. There are numerous strokes a player can use to get the feeling he or she wants, but the job is always the same: to express one’s unique self and feelings by accenting pulses on the beat.
BLUE HAWAII (1961)
Director: Norman Taurog
Stars: Elvis Presley, Joan Blackman, Angela Lansbury, Nancy Walters
NOTHING illustrates the popularity of Hawaiiana in the early 1960s better than Blue Hawaii. The first of three Elvis movies to be filmed in the islands, it was one of his most successful, and the soundtrack spent 20 weeks at number one on the Billboard chart.
Presley plays Chadwick Gates, the heir to a pineapple fortune who returns to Honolulu after a stint in the US Army. While he’s happy surfing, singing and playing uke with his beach-boy buddies, Chad’s snooty parents don’t like it one bit and pressure him to join the family business. He refuses and instead becomes a tour guide, which leads to him working with a visiting high school teacher (Walters) and her four female students. Chad’s girlfriend Maile (Blackman) gets jealous of his relationship with the pretty teacher and some fairly predictable miscommunications form the basis of the comedy.
While it’s not high art by any means, Blue Hawaii is undeniably entertaining and the scenery is stunning. Much of the film was shot on location at the Coco Palms Resort on the east coast of the island of Kauai. Sadly, the resort, which was once a playground for the rich and famous, has been abandoned since it was hit by Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
The soundtrack was recorded at Radio Recorders in Hollywood before filming began, with Fred Tavares and Bernie Lewis playing the ukuleles. Elvis later gave a Martin uke used in the flick as a gift to famous session guitarist Hank ‘Sugarfoot’ Garland. Aside from the title track, notable songs include Rock-A-Hula Baby, Ku-u-ipo (Hawaiian Sweetheart) and Aloha ’Oe.
Surely a movie that features the King of Rock ’n’ Roll strumming four strings instead of six deserves a spot in any uke fan’s collection.