Gods of Uke: Jesse Kalima’s Inspired and Innovative Playing Pushed the Boundaries of Solo Ukulele

By Marcy Marxer | From the Fall 2013 issue of Ukulele

Many years ago a friend gave me a cassette tape of a bunch of old recordings of 78-rpm records he had collected. There was no written information on the cassette, but it was full of fantastic music of many musical genres, including a magnificent solo ukulele version of the John Philip Sousa march “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The ukulele playing was inspired: the notes flew by at blistering speed, and the player harnessed the excitement and enthusiasm of an entire brass band all on a small ukulele.

This ukulele player was clearly special. He was the best of the best, but who in the world was he? How could I find him? That was back before the Internet, when the best way to search was to knock on doors, ask questions, or look in record stores. I asked record collectors, radio DJs, and other folks in the know, but they didn’t know who had played that glorious ukulele solo.

Fast-forward to the present, and when I was asked to write an article for Ukulele, that wonderful version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” came to mind. This time I searched the Internet and YouTube looking for the original recording, but it did not appear. My last resort was to write to my friends the Hula Honeys—Ginger Johnson and Robyn Kneubuhl. The Hula Honeys are great musicians who play ukulele, baritone ukulele, and tenor guitar. They live on Maui, where they perform and host a radio show of music from the islands. I got notes back from each of them within minutes with the original performer’s name: Jesse Kalima. Finally, the source of the original recording was uncovered.

Marcy Marxer’s lesson on “Stars and Stripes Forever”

Behind “Stars and Stripes”

With Jesse Kalima’s name in my grasp I was able to find more information on his life and career. He made several records, some with Herb Ohta, Lyle Ritz, and other ukulele virtuosos, and some with his family. All are fantastic!

Hoping to find out more about him I searched the White Pages. Several Kalimas showed up in and around Honolulu, including one very special name, Jesse Kalima Jr. I picked up the phone and called. Jesse Kalima Jr. was indeed the son of the ukulele virtuoso Jesse Kalima and was happy to talk about his father, his playing, and the children he raised and inspired.

“Music was always a part of our family life,” Jesse Jr. recalled. “All of my brothers and sisters—six of us—grew to become accomplished musicians, singers, and dancers in their own right. I was fortunate to play professionally in my dad’s band when I was 17 and recorded with him in succeeding years as well as on a few movie gigs. My brother Dana Kalima played the drums.”


Uke Innovations

Jesse Kalima was born in 1920 in Honolulu. He attended Farrington High School where he played in the orchestra and school band. Kalima loved all the marches he learned in the band. As soon as he learned a march on the tenor saxophone and clarinet, he went home and figured it out on the ukulele.

At the age of 17, Kalima entered Arthur Godfrey’s Amateur Hour at the band shell in Honolulu, dressed in a white suit with black pants and wearing a flower lei. Kalima won the contest playing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and ukulele playing changed forever. He single-handedly pushed solo ukulele playing further than it had ever gone before. Kalima’s version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” quickly became a hit recording and a goal for ukulele players to try to play.

Kalima also pushed the boundaries of the ukulele by experimenting with the tuning of the strings. He moved from the soprano ukulele to his favorite uke, a Martin 14-fret tenor that he outfitted with a pickup of his own invention. (Kalima may have been one of the first people to amplify a ukulele.) He was also the first known player to change the tuning of the ukulele from re-entrant or high G C E A to low G C E A, lowering the pitch of the fourth string one octave. Dropping the G string down an octave gave the ukulele a warmer sound, especially on the Martin tenor, and allowed lead lines to include lower notes.

Family and Friends

In 1938 Jesse founded the Kalima Brothers Band and gave the band the nickname “One Thousand Pounds of Melody.” With the band, Jesse continued to bring new kinds of music to the ukulele repertoire. The band performed songs like “Jealousy,” “Dark Eyes,” and “Under the Double Eagle.” The Kalima Brothers also played with Richard Kauhi, who was 14 years old when he met Jesse. They played together for life. The band did many variety shows with other great musicians and comedians, including Little Joe Kekaoha and Johnny Waikiki.

Kalima also struck up a friendship with actor Richard Boone (Have Gun—Will Travel). They were known for their humor and mischief when together. One day on a whim they bought a bunch of ukuleles and took them to the local school in Nanakuli, Hawaii, and passed them out to the kids just for fun.

There was always music and merriment in the Kalima family garage. Friends and even celebrities would stop by any time of the day or night to see if there was a party going on, and there usually was. The Beach Boys were regular visitors to the family home. Once while visiting the Kalima family, the Beach Boys carried the piano from the garage all the way to the large banyan tree in Waikiki to play for passers-by and pass the hat for change.

Jesse Kalima Ukulele Store Flyer

Kalima also ran a small ukulele shop and snack stand across from the Waikiki pier and across the street from the Honolulu Zoo. He sold children’s size ukuleles for $5, soprano ukuleles for $8.50, and tenor ukuleles for $25, as well as hot dogs, candy, and other snacks.


Kalima passed away of a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 60. That day he played a company party with Little Joe, friends, and family and went to see a Don Ho show in the evening. His son Jesse Jr. says, “He died doing what he loved.”

I hope you enjoy my arrangement of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which was inspired by Jesse Kalima’s. Thank you to Jesse Kalima Jr. for his time and generosity of information as well as the joy with which he spoke of his father, family, and friends.

Marcy Marxer is a multiple Grammy winner, multi-instrumentalist, session musician, teacher, and producer/engineer, who studied ukulele with Roy Smeck in the early 1980s.