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