HE MAY not appear on anyone’s list of great ukulele players, but Arthur Godfrey certainly deserves his place in the KAMUKE Hall of Fame.
Born in 1903 in New York City, the ginger-haired entertainer got his start in show business as ‘Red Godfrey, the Warbling Banjoist’ on a radio program in Baltimore in 1929. Over the next two decades, Godfrey built up a loyal national audience, thanks largely to his laidback personality and an easygoing broadcasting style that was in stark contrast to that of his prim and proper contemporaries.
In 1948, Godfrey made his television debut and went on to become the most popular and powerful American media personality of the 1950s. Throughout his stellar career, there was one constant: the ukulele. Godfrey learnt to play while serving in the navy and would often sing and strum on his daily radio program and two weekly TV shows. He even hosted televised uke lessons in 1950.
Affectionately known as ‘The Old Redhead’, Godfrey was one of the first masters of on-air advertising and preferred to spruik products he actually used. When he promoted Mario Macaferri’s new plastic Islander ukulele, literally millions were sold, sparking the Second Wave of Uke. And, although it can’t be verified, Godfrey may well be the father of the baritone ukulele. There is no record of the largest uke size until the late 1940s, when Godfrey asked Eddie Connors to design one for him.
The one product ‘The Old Redhead’ regretted endorsing was Chesterfield cigarettes. He developed lung cancer in the late 50s and died of emphysema on March 16, 1983.
This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store