• 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


    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.