• Review: FIFTY/50 By Christopher Davis-Shannon & Jacques Pellarin

    Honestly, I didn’t realise I needed a ukulele/accordion album until I heard FIFTY/50 in all its glory.

    I’ve been a fan of Philadelphia-based uker Christopher Davis-Shannon for a few years now, so I was intrigued when I heard he was teaming up with French accordionist Jacques Pellarin. The result is something quite extraordinary and delightfully surprising.

    The two instruments combine beautifully and neither is more dominant than the other. From the pre-war frivolity of Summer 1925 to the more introspective Media Luna and classic-sounding Lady Josephine, there’s plenty to enjoy here. The only non-instrumental track, Willow, features lovely vocals from Charlotte Pelgen, herself an excellent uke player from Germany.

    Davis-Shannon displays an impeccable sense of rhythm throughout and throws in a few flashy strokes where required, as well as some nifty picking. I don’t know a whole lot about accordion music, but it’s clear Pellarin is a master of his craft.

    Jacques and Christopher: serious musicians

    I think what I like most about this album is its authenticity. It reminds me of the stuff people were doing with the ukulele back in the ’90s and early 2000s, before the instrument was universally popular and social media algorithms were part of the consciousness. In short, it’s a little weird, in the best possible way.

    FIFTY/50 is available at Bandcamp

  • Ukulele Stories: Miss Elm

    Erin Harrington, aka Miss Elm, is a singer-songwriter and music educator from Brisbane, Australia. We met at a festival a few years ago and I was immediately impressed with her passion and enthusiasm for the ukulele and its potential.

    Erin and I had a great conversation about her musical journey and ambitions and I’m sure you’ll also enjoy it!

    Cameron

    misselm.bandcamp.com

    instagram.com/misselmmusic

    facebook.com/misselmmusic

    theukulelerockers.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

  • Ukulele Stories: Brittni Paiva

    As it says on her website, Brittni and her ukulele are a brilliant match: Both are humble in nature, small in size, and very powerful with proper delivery.

    We first met in Hawaii in the mid-2000s and I was blown away by her passion and creativity. A multi award-winning instrumentalist, she’s always pushing the envelope musically and is on the verge of releasing her sixth album.

    Brittni and I had a really fun chat and I hope you enjoy it!

    Cameron

    brittnipaiva.com

  • Hall Of Fame: Tessie O’Shea

    WHEN people see or hear a ukulele-banjo (or banjo-uke or banjolele), they almost invariably think of George Formby, the English comedian with the naughty songs and the dynamite right hand. But there was another British entertainer treading the boards and strumming up a storm during the same period as George – the magnificent Tessie O’Shea.

    Born in Cardiff, Wales on March 13, 1913, Tessie was something of a child prodigy. She reportedly started working at the age of six and was booked for a solo appearance at the Bristol Hippodrome in England when she was 12. At 15, while starring in a revue in Blackpool, she first performed the song Two-Ton Tessie From Tennessee, which quickly became her signature tune.

    By the mid-1940s, Tessie was topping the bill at the London Palladium, a bona fide music hall star. Movie roles and hit records followed and, in 1963, Noël Coward created a part specifically for her in his Broadway musical The Girl Who Came To Supper. Tessie’s turn as Cockney fish’n’chips seller Ada Cockle garnered her a Tony Award and an American audience. She was a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 and proved so popular that she was invited back the following year to share the stage with The Beatles.

    “Tessie was a powerful player,” says Chris Jameson, the owner of O’Shea’s Gibson UB5 uke-banjo. “You probably wouldn’t have lent her your favourite ukulele, if not because of her enthusiastic fan stroke, then maybe for her habit of throwing her uke in the air at the end of a song and not always catching it.”

    As Tessie’s career wound down, she moved to Florida, USA, where she lived with her friend Ernest Wampola, a well-known pianist and composer she had met during World War II, when they were both entertaining the troops. Ernest became Tessie’s musical director and manager and welcomed her into his family.

    In 1995, Tessie died of congestive heart failure at the age of 82. A fantastic player with an infectious lust for life, she deserves to be remembered as a ukulele legend.

    By Cameron Murray

    This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store

  • Cinematic Strumming: The Jerk

    THE JERK (1979)

    Director: Carl Reiner

    Stars: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams

    WIDELY regarded as one of the funniest films of all time, The Jerk tells the sorry story of Navin R. Johnson (Martin), the adopted son of a poor black family from Mississippi who decides to strike out on his own. 

    The only trouble is Navin is incredibly naïve and the laughs come thick and fast as he stumbles from one ridiculous situation to the next, until one day he learns that an outlandish invention has made him a millionaire, albeit temporarily.

    Along the way, Navin falls in love with a beautiful woman named Marie (Peters) and they do a sweet duet of the 1926 classic Tonight You Belong To Me, with Navin supposedly strumming a soprano ukulele. In reality, the tune was recorded by jazz uke legend Lyle Ritz and overdubbed. 

    On the excellent ‘26th Anniversary Edition’ DVD of the movie, Californian ukulele chanteuse Janet Klein (billed as ‘Ukulele Gal’) teaches a simplified version of the song, while a more complex Ritz arrangement can be found in the songbook Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Masters: Lyle Ritz – Jazz (2000).

    As a result of the success of The Jerk, Tonight You Belong To Me has become synonymous with the ukulele and has been covered by a number of artists, including Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie (daughters of Willie Nelson and Arlo Guthrie, respectively) on 2005’s Folk Uke and Eddie Vedder and Cat Power on Vedder’s 2011 album Ukulele Songs.

    This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the STORE

  • UKULELE STORIES: TOM FREUND

    American singer-songwriter Tom Freund is a fairly recent convert to the uke, but he’s making up for lost time. As soon as I heard his single Happy Uke, I thought it’d be fun to have a chat with him about it, and I was right!

    Over the years, Tom has collaborated with Ben Harper, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, KT Tunstall, Dave Matthews, Diana Krall and many others. He’s also done a lot of work on TV shows such as One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, Parenthood, Las Vegas and Pete The Cat, and he performed with Graham Parker in the 2012 Judd Apatow comedy This Is 40.

    Happy listening!

    Cameron

    tomfreund.com

  • Dhani Harrison: Ukulele Tuner

    Being Beatle George’s son has its advantages, but also great responsibilities as a ukulele custodian. Interview by Michael Dwyer

    Dhani Harrison is on a mission. Yes, he’s here to promote his new Fender signature ukulele: a sleek, ovangkol tenor that comes in two shades of blue with inbuilt tuner/pick-up and mystical fretboard inlays. But he’s more concerned about the billion other ukuleles languishing out there in lesser states of repair.

    “Whenever I see a uke in a room, I always tune it,” he says. “I went in a house the other day and I saw there was a ukulele on the side. And I picked it up and I strummed the strings, and it was in tune perfectly, which is rare… I was like, ‘That person actually plays the ukulele’.

    “You can tell a lot about a person by how they leave their uke.”

    It’s fair to guess that Dhani Harrison had to leave home to find his first neglected uke. His father George, as the whole world knows, was a flag-flying devotee of the instrument in his post-Beatles years. “It used to make him happy. I think it reminded him of his childhood,” his son says.

    “I think it started as kind of a childhood obsession with George Formby and wartime music, and how it was a happy thing. And then he started trying to be able to master all the stuff that Formby could do. And he got it. And he then became a legit, really good ukulele player.”

    Young Dhani’s first instrument was a Wendell Hall Ludwig banjolele with a white whalebone headstock. He remembers learning a lot of Formby songs — Auntie Maggie’s Remedy, Hitting the High Spots Now, Home Guard Blues — “because that’s all you can play on those things”.

    “I wasn’t approaching it from a Hawaiian mellow perspective. It was from a very rack and raucous, sort of vaudeville perspective.”

    The Hawaiian connection came later, as the Harrison family increasingly spent time in Maui in the 1980s and ’90s. As a teenager, Dhani fell for Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Gabby Pahinui and Bennie Nawahi, and so began his own journey as a musician.

    Dhani’s Fender Artist Signature ukes

    As well as family friends Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, he’s since collaborated with artists as diverse as Wu-Tang Clan, UNKLE and Pearl Jam — a connection his father helped facilitate back in 1993, backstage at a massive Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden.

    “Dad had to go and rehearse with Booker T and the MGs and he left me with Pearl Jam for the afternoon, with Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder,” he remembers. “They were super nice and my dad thought that was funny because he knew how much I loved them.”

    Years later, Dhani was touring Seattle with Fistful of Mercy, his trio with Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur, and decided to visit Vedder — by now one of the rock world’s foremost ukulele aficionados and ambassadors. He wound up playing with Pearl Jam at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and at their 20th anniversary shows in Wisconsin.

    “I think the only time we’ve ever played ukes together was [when Vedder] was playing a solo show at Brixton Academy. I came on and we covered Should I Stay Or Should I Go by The Clash on steel-string ukuleles. I remember really cutting my fingers on the strings because I always play with my fingers. 

    “He has some kind of metal ukuleles with metal strings and all kinds of fun stuff. He’s in his own ukulele world, I’m in my own ukulele world, but our mutual love for Hawaii, surfing and ukuleles is kind of the heart of our lives.”

    So far, the uke has been a modest presence on Dhani’s Harrison’s records. Check out his soundtrack to the 2013 movie Beautiful Creatures, and the occasional track by his band, thenewno2. But “I’m sitting in the middle of tons of them right now,” he says. “So the chances of them ending up on a piece of music is pretty high.”

    Meanwhile, his advice to uke players — and not coincidentally, one of Fender’s obvious strengths — begins with good machine heads. The old tuning pegs are charming enough if they hold, but too many new players are put off by the fact that they won’t stay in tune. “If you’ve got crap ones, it’s no fun to play whatsoever.”

    And after the hardware is sorted?   

    “It’s really in the right hand where you can soar in ukulele, you know what I mean? When you lock it in the right hand, and you know you’ve got some tricks, like scissors and all that kind of stuff… [then] it’s just practice, all the time. Play as much as you can. Take one with you, wherever you go, then you play it everywhere… And if you take two, then you can play with someone else.”

    Funny. His dad used to say much the same thing. Maybe the evangelistic fervour is a tiny bit contagious. 

    “Absolutely,” he says. “It brings smiles, joy, heals, unites. They’re powerful little things. In the right hands they’re also very disarming. I think that’s why they help unite, because people tend to be disarmed by them. You can’t hate on a ukulele. Simple as that.”

    Dhani Harrison’s signature Fender ukulele retails in Australia for $549.

    Michael Dwyer is a Melbourne journalist and tenor ukulele player with The Thin White Ukes, who launch their second album, A Better Future, at Brunswick Ballroom on Sunday, August 29.

  • Review: Breezin’ Along With The Breeze By The Ukulele Uff Trio

    I TRY not to be too effusive when it comes to reviews, but this album is a rare gem! Thoughtful arrangements, impressive musicianship and great production combine to create a foot-tapping listening experience. 

    Based in Liverpool, England, The Ukulele Uff Trio has been wowing audiences since 2014. Breezin’ Along With The Breeze is their second album and they’ve put together a diverse selection of 15 excellent tunes, most of them dating from the 1920s. Anyone who’s already a fan of Janet Klein & Her Parlor Boys, the Sweet Hollywaiians and Ukulelezaza will find a lot to like here. 

    While the vintage Martin soprano of Chris ‘Ukulele Uff’ Hough shines through on almost every track, he’s accompanied superbly by Dave Searson on guitar and Bill Leach on Hawaiian steel guitar. Singing duties are shared throughout and special mention must go to John Lewis, who adds some lovely, lyrical clarinet on Oh How She Could Play A Ukulele

    Highlights include the jumpy Red Lips, Kiss My Blues Away, a pacy version of the English folk classic The Leaving Of Liverpool and Singin’ In The Rain, which may as well be retitled Swingin’ In The Rain, such is its inherent grooviness. 

    For uke purists, it’s hard to go past the two marches from 1893, Under The Double Eagle and The Liberty Bell, and the final tune on the record, Uke Medley, gives Chris a chance to show off his solo skills. 

    Make yourself a cup of tea (or a dry martini), put your feet up and prepare to be carried away with the breeze. I guarantee you won’t regret it. 

    Breezin’ Along With The Breeze is available on CD at ukuleleufftrio.co.uk or digitally at https://ukulele-uff-lonesome-dave.bandcamp.com

  • Ukulele Stories: Daniel Ho

    Daniel Ho & Cameron Murray at the 2019 NAMM Show in Los Angeles

    Born in Hawaii and based in California, Daniel Ho is a one-man industry. The talented singer-songwriter, producer, arranger, composer and audio engineer has won six Grammy Awards and shows no signs of slowing down…even during a global pandemic!

    In our wide-ranging chat, Daniel talks about the future of the music industry, gives us an insight into co-designing Romero Creations instruments, and tells us exactly what the ukulele means to him. And you won’t want to miss his fantastic tips for players and songwriters.

    Enjoy!

    Cameron

    danielho.com

    Daniel on Apple Music

    Daniel’s uke course at Musician’s Creativity Lab