• Uke-In-Focus: Dead Mans Uke

    BASED in the UK, excellent father-and-son duo Dead Mans Uke – aka Tim and Jake Smithies – have a secret weapon in their musical arsenal: Tiny Tim’s Beltona resonator! We chat with Tim about the famous instrument and his connection with it.

    Whose idea was it to name your band after the ukulele?

    The name came from Jake. We were at a gig and I was talking between songs (like I often do!) and Jake said to me, “Why don’t you shut up and play the dead man’s uke?” We decided there and then it would be a cool name.

    Tell us a bit about the band…

    Dead Mans Uke are a two-man band playing old blues tunes, hokum, dirt swing and anything else we fancy on a double bass and resonator ukulele. We play shows in music venues, theatres, bars, festivals and much crazier places, from factories to boats, even a bay window in someone’s front room.

    How and when did you acquire the uke?

    I got the instrument around 2004, I think – I bought it online from a lovely guy in the US who was selling a lot of Tiny Tim things that he’d got direct from the family. I also have some of Tiny’s handwritten notebooks with old songs in them from when he used to go to the library to research old tunes.

    Amazing! How does it feel to own a piece of uke history?

    I love the fact instruments have a life of their own; they aren’t made to be kept in cupboards. Although this is a famous uke, it’s out there playing shows, too. I keep coming across stories of when people met Tiny and the uke and it’s fascinating to put all the pieces together. Whether it’s stories from the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain (Peter Brooke-Turner lent Tiny a uke of the same model, which is how he discovered Beltona) or the nice email we had from the lady who rescued the uke at the fateful gig where Tiny collapsed and took it to his hospital room. It’s just hanging out with us for a while is how I see it.

    What’s your opinion of Tiny Tim?

    I love him. He was an encyclopaedia of those Tin Pan Alley tunes and a true eccentric. Maybe when I grow up, I’ll be as eccentric as him…

    Did either of you ever meet Tiny?

    No. Mel, our harmonica player, did. He was a compere at a club in Sheffield where Tiny was playing for a week and he worked with him. Says he was fun but also knew exactly what he was doing with his act.

    How does the uke sound?

    It’s got a great tone. It was made by Steve Evans of Beltona Resonator Instruments and has a low action and a bit of grunt for the bluesy stuff. The cone I have in it at the moment is by Delta Resonator Cones and I string it with Aquilas and let rip! 

    How do people react when you tell them it was Tiny’s uke?

    It’s interesting. Some people come and chat and tell stories. A lot of people know him from Tiptoe Through The Tulips being featured in recent movies.

    If you could meet Tiny, what would you say to him?

    I’d love to talk to him about the old singers he admired…plus that first album of his – it’s crazy!

    Get to know the lads at deadmansuke.com

  • Uke-In-Focus: Tiny Tim’s Martin Soprano

    Renowned music publisher and uke collector Jim Beloff (above, with Tiny Tim) puts the spotlight on one of his prized instruments

    SOON after finding a Martin tenor ukulele at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, California in 1991, I was struck with ukulele acquisition syndrome or UAS. I don’t believe this particular disorder had a name in those early pre-Third Wave days but, nonetheless, I had it bad. 

    Suddenly, my heart would race if I happened to come upon any vintage uke or uke ephemera. In fact, anything seen from a distance that looked uke-ish at a flea market was likely to send me sprinting, even if it turned out to be a salad bowl or wall barometer. I was literally seeing ukuleles everywhere, even where they weren’t.

    By 1993, my wife Liz and I had published our first Jumpin’ Jim’s ukulele songbook and my collection of vintage ukes was growing. In addition to area flea markets, Liz and I began to frequent antique malls as well. 

    It was at the Santa Monica Antique Market that we walked by a glass case with a weird-looking Martin soprano in it. At first, it was hard to make sense of the paint on it, but when I read the description, I began to get excited. The story was that the dealer, Wes Parker, a former Los Angeles Dodger, was given the uke in 1970 by Tiny Tim after a game and in exchange for a baseball bat (Tiny was a huge baseball fan, especially of the Dodgers). 

    The uke had splotches of paint on the soundboard, the words ‘Miss Vicki’ finger-painted on the sides and a koala bear sticker on the bottom. The price was US$295, which was less than a vintage Martin soprano without a celebrity connection. I had to buy it, but realised I wouldn’t be absolutely convinced of the provenance until Tiny Tim himself confirmed the story.

    Later in 1993, I learnt that Tiny would be performing in a small Los Angeles club. Here was my chance to know with certainty that the uke had belonged to him. After the show, he stayed to greet fans and sign merchandise. When my turn came, I pulled the uke from its case and recounted the story. He looked the uke over and said the story was just as I said. Then he signed it.

    By the way, it sounds great.

    Jim’s excellent new book, UKEtopia! Adventures in the Ukulele World, is available now at Flea Market Music: fleamarketmusic.com

  • UKE-IN-FOCUS: Martin Taropatch

    SUPPOSEDLY derived from a guitar-like instrument brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors, the taropatch is similar in size to a concert ukulele and has eight strings, arranged in four pairs. 

    Although manufacturers such as Nunes, Kumalae and Oscar Schmidt produced the taropatch during the early-mid 1900s, it’s generally accepted that the finest examples were built by C.F. Martin & Co in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, USA.

    The first recorded sale of a Martin taropatch was on August 9, 1916, and it first appeared in the company’s price lists in 1918. Available in three styles of mahogany and koa, it didn’t sell as well as Martin’s easier-to-play, four-stringed ukes, particularly after the company released its own concert size in 1925. The taropatch was dropped from the Martin line in 1932.

    Pictured here is a Martin 1K (koa) taropatch dating from around 1929. The instrument was purchased in England in 1977 by Richard Maingôt and the case was made for it in 2004 by Cedar Creek Custom Case Shoppe (cedarcreekcases.com) in Oilville, Virginia, USA. 

    “I acquired my lovely taropatch while I was living in Richmond, Surrey,” says Mr Maingot. “I purchased it on the spot; an eight-stringed beauty without a scratch or blemish on her body. And what a tone! You are immediately transported to Hawaii when you hear this instrument.”

    Some contemporary manufacturers, such as Kamaka, Lanikai and Kala, make eight-string ukulele variants, but none are quite up to the standard of the vintage Martins. At least not yet…

  • Uke-In-Focus: Abbott Super De Luxe

    English ukulele-banjo enthusiast Richard Maingôt tells KAMUKE the story behind his beautiful, custom-made Abbott Super De Luxe.

    Photos: Alastair Murray

    TIME seems to have slipped by almost unobtrusively since my introduction to the ukulele some 65 years ago, when I heard George Formby on a Saturday night entertainment program on the radio.

    I was captivated, and motivated the next day to respond to an advertisement in the Daily Express by a firm called W. Davis offering a “genuine ukulele-banjo” for the sum of 18 shillings and sixpence, payable at three shillings and sixpence a month. By no stretch of imagination could this instrument be called a “genuine ukulele-banjo”. It was very basic, but to me it represented the real thing.

    My uke-banjo collection progressed over the years in direct proportion to my income; a Melody and whole stable of Dallas instruments. Most of my ukuleles were obtained from a little shop in Croydon, Surrey, where I lived. The owner of this musical emporium was a small, red-nosed alcoholic who always welcomed me because my purchases enabled him to shut up shop and retire to the sanctuary of the pub next door.

    In the early 1960s, my wife and I moved to a village just south of Manchester and it was there that I was introduced to Harold Fallows. Harold was an interesting man, who, through his work in the theatre, had got to know George Formby very well. Through Harold, I became a member of The George Formby Society. Some of the virtuosos I met there were nothing less than brilliant. Ray Bernard was such a player. He had a wonderful personality and was one of the most generous and helpful men I ever met. From Ray, I learnt to do the Formby ‘split stroke’ and some of his other excellent techniques.

    It was in Burslem, now part of Stoke-on-Trent, that I met Jack Abbott Jr and established a friendship with him which lasted until his death. In the mid-1970s, I commissioned Jack to make me the best ukulele-banjo he had ever made. This, I believe, he did.