Whoo-hoo! Hurrah for another pluckin’ music craze! And this one has gone global. From Bondai Beach to Bognor, Mississippi to Margate, the humble, once derided ukulele (don’t mention George Formby) is pluckin’ up a storm.
It is being strummed and twanged worldwide in clubs, pubs, schools and, I must confess, in my own living-room where I twang away for hours on end practising my fretting and finger-rolls.
Although I say it myself, Bob Dylan would probably punch the air and rasp ‘Cool, babe’ if he could but hear my rendering of Blowin’ In The Wind. So you can certainly take it from me that the inspirational Ukulele Handbook is destined to become the official new ukulele Bible.
Brilliantly compiled by two uke-playing fanatics, it incorporates how-to-play instructions for beginners, chord charts, handy fingering tips, a medley of easy-to-learn songs, and the absolutely gripping history of the small, adorable four-string mini guitar which was born in Hawaii in 1879 and which you can now buy for as little as £15 in your High Street music shop.
Here, lavishly illustrated, are details of the great uke pioneers – Honolulu’s Manuel Nunes who crafted the first official uke in 1880, acclaimed groups of uke-twanging Hawaiian lovelies in grass skirts and hibiscus garlands, King ‘Happy Dave’ Kalakaua (1836-91) at his lavish palace, flanked by his uke-picking Singing Boys as he entertains Scottish author and uke fan, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917) prolific songwriter who famous love-song Aloha Oe was immortalised in 1961 by uke-playing Elvis Presley in the Blue Hawaii movie.
Ukelele King: George Formby
Fast forward to the 1920s, when the uke captivated America. There followed an explosion of teach-yourself manuals. U.S. instrument makers jumped onto the bandwagon producing thousands of fancy ukes, and everyone was singing along to songs with titles like Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.
When the craze hit Britain, Nancy Mitford strummed and even Edward, Prince of Wales, enraptured by a trip to Hawaii, took uke lessons (and, no doubt, crooned Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo to the long-suffering Wallis Simpson).
But as authors Prater-Pinney and Hodgkinson explain, the uke took a spectacular dive in the 1930s. It began to be seen as a joke. Hawaiian imagery became the stuff of comedy. Enter Laurel and Hardy, with bowler hats, hibiscus garlands and pineapples, twanging their ukes in Sons Of The Desert.
P.G. Wodehouse, in his 1934 novel Thank You, Jeeves had the titular manservant threatening to quit his job rather than listen to the ‘infernal din’ of Bertie Wooster playing his uke and warbling ‘I Want an Automobile With a Horn that Goes Toot Toot’. One anti-uke wag at the time remarked that ‘a gentleman is a man who knows how to play the ukulele – but doesn’t’.
Which brings us to George Formby (1904-61). Let us not sneer. It is a fact that Lancashire-born Formby was a ukulele great, a dazzling uke player, and his own life story is worth several volumes.
His formidable wife and business partner, Beryl, was certainly the major force behind his success, but she made him wretched by not sleeping with him and, at the height of his popularity when he was earning the equivalent of £5 million a year, allowing him only five shillings a day pocket-money.
Formby’s innuendo-laden ditties were huge hits. Remember With My Little Ukulele In My Hand and his Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock? Typical of the Formby format is Chinese Laundry Blues, about the activities of Mr Wu. A sample couplet goes: Now Mr Wu, he’s got a naughty eye that flickers/You ought to see it wobble when he’s ironing ladies’ blouses’.
By 1939 Formby had become Britain’s highest-paid entertainer. His song When I’m Cleaning Windows – a great favourite of the late Queen Mother, incidentally – sold 150,000 copies in a month.
After it was banned by the BBC, Lord Reith describing it as a ‘disgusting little ditty’, bossy Beryl marched into his office, gave him what for and made him broadcast an apology. But he still didn’t lift the ban.
Packing them in: The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain can fill the Albert Hall
A boom began again in the 1950s onwards. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Tiny Tim, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Joan Baez were all avid pluckers. One outstanding uke hero was Hawaiian-born Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1959-97) – morbidly obese, addicted to food, booze and drugs – who made the uke cool again. After becoming a born-again Christian and renouncing ‘substances’, his album Facing Future sold two million copies in 1993.
Current British uke stars are the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain, who can fill the Albert Hall and play to 170,000 people in Hyde Park, and who play anything from Bach and Handel to the Sex Pistols and the Kinks.
People may scoff at the uke, but to strum in a room packed full of fellow pluckers all singing along to Honolulu Baby, for example, is as good as it gets for uke enthusiasts. Just check the web for the clubs springing up – The Grand Old Ukes Of York, The Herne Bay City Ukers, hundreds of ’em… – and see, also, how tuition and sheet music are just a click away.
As the authors point out, you can master four chords in as many hours, and with just four chords you are able to play hundreds of songs. OK, it’s true that my ex-neighbour used to bang on the wall when I was practising. He once quipped: ‘If music be the food of love, then ukulele music is the syrup of figs.’ Miserable git.
No matter. Until recently I played in a ukulele band – The Funky Pluckers (as seen on CCTV), our coast-to-coast tour of the Isle of Sheppey being the stuff of myth. The Pluckers’ version of Freight Train, incorporating spoons, kazoos, washboard and whistles, was a triumph.
Alas, we disbanded after two gigs, as is the way with bands. But the legend lives on. Better to quit while you’re at the top. As the authors promise, ‘We can all become music-makers’, and their fab book helpfully tells you how.
Yay! Uke can play too. Anybody can. Just think Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo and get pluckin’.
MailOnline By Val Hennessy