There have been people through the course of musical history who have made a career for themselves playing a simple four-stringed instrument called the Ukulele. Some of these musicians have become superstars and are known still to this day, were superstars of their time or are surprising in their championing of this instrument when looking at the fame they had gained in other incarnations or the genres they were previously known for.
First, where else to start but with the superstar of the Uke and Banjouke but George Formby. Sitting in a Pub on quiz night with a question asking who was one the most highly paid film stars in Britain known for playing the Uke who else would come to mind? George Formby was not just massively popular in his own country, but a superstar around the world because of the success of his films. Then, of course, there are the songs. George started in Music Hall and some of the most iconic songs of the 1930s and 1940s are the often-comedic tunes that the Lancastrian born singer thrilled his audiences with both on stage and then on film. Some of his better-known songs are: ‘Leaning On A Lamp Post’, ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ and ‘Bless Them All’. Who does not know these famous little ditties?
Then, there is the American star Cliff Edwards. Cliff is one of those performers who we all know, but over the course of time has been forgotten. He will be known for all time because of a character and a song he sang in a certain film even if we do not recognise his name. The song will stick in your mind once you know it as it is one of those types of songs. More on that in a bit. In the 1920s and 1930s Cliff was nicknamed ‘’Ukulele Ike’’ and had many hit recordings including the classics ‘Singing In The Rain, ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby and one of my all-time favourites ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’. Cliff it is claimed is responsible more than any other performer for the popularity of the Uke and millions were sold in the ’20s and ’30s and even sheet music published for the instrument. All down to ‘’Ukulele Ike’’ Oh, and the character, film and song you ask? Jiminy Cricket, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.
Next, is a person who in more recent times has done quite a lot to promote the ukulele sometimes in performance, but very often by giving the instrument to his fellow friends and musicians insisting that they give it a go and once doing so, would wonder why they had not done so earlier. This fellow is one of the most famous musicians of the 1960’s and probably beyond. Mr George Harrison of The Beatles fame. Harrison belonged to The George Formby Society and was known to turn up unannounced at meetings to play along with fellow Formby fans and Uke admirers. It is said that when the ‘Quiet Beatle had friends over for dinner after the repast he would hand everyone around the table a Ukulele. Tom Petty a good friend of Harrison’s and a co-member of the Traveling Wilburys claimed that the former Beatle travelled around with a boot full of the instruments that he would give away. One of my favourite Harrison numbers is him performing ‘Devil In The Deep Blue Sea’ on the Uke which was first recorded by Cab Calloway in 1931.
Another, Uke hero is someone who could also perhaps be considered a national treasure is Joe Brown. Having met initially 1962 while on a package tour, Brown was later to become a great friend of George Harrison’s years later bonding over the Ukulele. So close did the two become that Harrison was best man at Joe Brown’s second marriage in 2000. Joe also credits the Ukulele with helping his daughter Sam Brown through a difficult time when her singing career ended abruptly. Sam, who in her own right was a popular singer in the 1980’s and 90’s lost her voice after throat surgery in 2007. She now performs around the UK with a Uke Orchestra and her famous father can oft times be seen sitting in. In 2012 Joe Brown released ‘The Ukulele Album’ alongside a successful tour with him and his Uke. 2002 saw Brown closing ‘The Concert For George’ with and him and his trusty Uke which was a concert celebrating Harrison’s life after his passing in 2001.
Lastly, and a big surprise as this person might be one the last who you would associate with the Ukulele is Eddie Vedder front man of the Seattle, Washington Band Pearl Jam. Formed in 1990 the band gained prominence with the rise of what was to be termed ‘grunge’ into the popular music charts. Who would have thought that the singer known for such songs as ‘Alive’, ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Jeremy’ would be a proponent of the simple four stringed Uke? Released in 2011, ‘Ukulele Songs’ featured 16 tracks of originals and standards. The album proved a success in the States and peaked at number four on the American Billboard charts. Vedder toured the US, UK and Europe and released a DVD to commemorate his Washington D.C. shows.
There you have it Some known, possibly forgotten and surprising Uke Stars. From George Formby superstar Uke player to forgotten heroes like Cliff Edwards and surprise endorsements like Eddie Veddar the Ukulele instrument has maintained a strong cult following through the years. And to paraphrase Sir Paul McCartney when discussing Julia, John Lennon’s Mother ‘Who Could You Not Like Who Plays The Ukulele?’
© Wallace The Waffle Whiffer 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file