BY BYRON YASUI | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Here’s how to play “Tea for Two” on ukulele. With music by Vincent Youmans and words by Irving Caesar, it is the most famous song from the 1924 musical No, No, Nanette. While the lyrics imply two people sharing tea, the title might reference 18th-century London, where street hawkers would entice customers to buy a pot of tea for two pence (or tuppence), rather than three.
The song has often been used to accompany soft-shoe tap dancers, especially when played in stop time, as in my arrangement for solo ukulele. On the surface, the music may appear to stop and go throughout, but the underlying tempo remains rock steady. Improvised rhythmic patterns by the dancer(s) fill in the silent spots whenever the ukulele stops. The song has been recorded and performed by many singers and musicians, including such stylistically diverse notables as Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Christian, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Django Reinhardt, and, in the ukulele world, A.J. Leonard and Kimo Hussey.
The jazzy chords—and there are many of them—are the trickiest part of the arrangement. Use the suggested fingerings for switching between the shapes efficiently. In measures 15–16, if the Emaj7 chord is too hard to play as written, try the shape 9 11 11 11 (lowest string to highest), with your index finger on the fourth string and your third finger barring strings 1–3 at the 11th fret.
Whenever there is a single note preceding a chord, be sure to let that note ring through the chord. For example, in bar 1, form the G9 on the “and” of beat 2. Pick the fourth-string A, then, keeping the G9 shape depressed—and without reiterating the A—play the other notes of the chord on beat 3. Stop the chord from sounding on the “and” of beat 4, so that the dance rhythms, real or imaginary, can be heard during the rest.
As for the right hand, the simplest approach is to use only downstrokes with the thumb for each chord throughout. And keep in mind that the tempo indication of 120 bpm is only a suggestion. It’s most important to remain ever steady.
Byron Yasui, who was profiled in depth in the Summer 2019 issue of Ukulele, is a well-known multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, educator (professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa), and occasional contributor to the magazine.