BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE FALL 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
George Harrison may be one of the most famous musicians to ever harbor a deep love for the ukulele. But this fact was little known until later in his life, and though he played it constantly in his private life and with friends, it wasn’t until after his death that an album showcasing his ukulele and banjo ukulele playing was finally released. This is the story of how George Harrison and the ukulele became lifelong companions, and how it may have inspired some of his songs with The Beatles, the Traveling Wilburys, and his solo albums and other collaborations.
He was one of the most popular and successful musicians and celebrities to ever emerge from northwest England. He began his show business ascent while still a teenager, and over time became a major star on radio, television, and in films. He was admired by British royalty and honored for his service to the Empire. When he died, too young, in his late 50s, there was a huge outpouring of grief among his legions of fans. I’m talking, of course, about… George Formby?
The fact is, there can be no “George Harrison and the Ukulele” story without recognizing right at the top the enormous influence of entertainer George Formby, who is almost solely responsible for popularizing the ukulele in England, beginning in 1923, when he first started playing it on music hall stages. He played both wooden Hawaiian-style ukes (made in America by Martin and others) and, most famously, the banjo ukulele (or banjolele). Beginning in 1934, Formby appeared in more than 20 feature films, all of them broad comedies that took advantage of his rubbery facial features, his quick timing, his working-class “Northern” (Lancashire) accent, his self-mocking innocence—and his considerable musical skills. Though Formby’s singing voice was often described as nasally, it was perfectly suited to the mostly comic tunes he sang (and occasionally co-wrote). And there was his ukulele playing, which was sublime: He was a terrific strummer whose innovative techniques still challenge and flummox great players today, but he was also capable of putting across a simple, melodic love song.
During World War II, Formby augmented his film and concert appearances with a tireless dedication to boosting the morale of British troops far and wide—risking life, limb, and uke in such hotspots as Normandy, Italy, Burma, and North Africa, for an estimated audience of 3 million people. For his efforts he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. He was the highest-paid performer in England for a period, his popularity in films matched by tremendous record sales throughout the UK among nearly every demographic group. He was inescapable. A few of his silly songs contained risqué double-entendres or veiled sexual references—enough that he was banned by the BBC on more than one occasion. But most of his tunes were harmless, goofy fun, which is why so many children adored him, along with their parents.
All four of The Beatles were born in Liverpool—about 20 miles southwest of Wigan, where Formby was born—during the Second World War: Ringo Starr and John Lennon in 1940, Paul McCartney in 1942, and George Harrison in 1943. All four were exposed to Formby’s madcap antics and rambunctious strumming on records, cinema, and radio when they were young, and at least one of the four grew up in a household were there was an ukulele—not surprising given the UK uke boom Formby precipitated.
John Lennon spent much of his youth in the care of his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George, and was also close to his other aunts and his cousins. One of those cousins, Stanley Parkes, told writer Bill Harry in his Mersey Beat blog:
“Formby was a big influence on John’s mother, Judy—often called Julia—and myself. It was our grandfather, George Stanley, that could play the banjo and the ukulele. It was he that taught Judy the basic chords of the two instruments.
“When George Formby came on the scene, with his stage acts and then his comedy films, we were all thrilled because members of the family were able to play the same instruments. John would come out of the Formby films saying, ‘My mother can play the banjo and ukulele just like him!’
“Before I went to live in Fleetwood, I used to travel from Preston to Fleetwood by a Ribble double-decker bus. John often traveled with me on the top deck, and we used to pass by George Formby’s house. He and his wife [and manager], Beryl, would be sitting in deck chairs in their garden at the front of the house, and they would wave to us on the bus and we would wave back at them.
“Of course, John, Liela [another cousin], and I went to all [Formby’s] shows in Blackpool whenever we got the chance. We felt we knew him personally.”
Lennon reconnected with his mother in his mid-teens and from her learned the rudiments of ukulele, banjo, and guitar. According to Douglas Rae, who produced a 2009 biographical drama about Lennon’s adolescence called Nowhere Boy, “A 15-year-old John Lennon sitting in the front room with his mother teaching him to play the ukulele and singing George Formby—that was the forerunner of John Lennon the Beatle.”
Paul McCartney on Julia Lennon, in the Beatles Anthology (1994): “John really loved his mother, idol-worshipped her. I loved her, too. She was great: gorgeous with beautiful long red hair. She played the ukulele and to this day, if I ever meet grown-ups who play ukuleles, I love them.”
There does not appear to have been an ukulele in the Harrison household, but as a lad he, too, was transfixed by local hero Formby. In John Croft’s definitive 2018 book All About the Banjo Uke, the one-time president of the George Formby Society, who befriended Harrison in November 1990, writes: “In our first meeting, George told me that he’d always been a huge fan of George Formby. To earn some extra money as a teenager he delivered meat on a bicycle for the local butcher in Wavertree (Liverpool) where he lived. After getting paid at around 1:30 p.m. he would walk a couple of streets to the local cinema, where they nearly always played a few clips, or a few songs, or a whole George Formby film. [He] told me that he couldn’t wait to watch Formby play his banjo uke and vowed that one day he wanted to teach himself to play like that. Many years later he had decided to act upon one of his lifetime ambitions and he had contacted me to set this process in motion by coming to look at my banjo ukes and learn about what I considered to be the best banjo ukes to buy.”
ALL TOGETHER NOW
I won’t sugarcoat the disturbing fact that The Beatles really did not embrace the ukulele in their group. Imagine how “I Am the Walrus” could have been improved with a little uke shuffling behind that trippy descending string line in the opening! However, at the height of Beatlemania in the mid-’60s, there were a million different products (licensed and not) that sought to cash in on the Fab Four’s fame—including brightly colored plastic ukuleles marketed by (among others) Mastro Industries in the U.S., Selco in the UK, as “Jr. Guitars” or “Four Pop Guitars,” each featuring headshots and autographs of the four lads. Mastro even had a uke-sized Beatles plastic banjo. You do not want to know what these instruments sounded like; they were toys, really. But a bunch of folks, including The Beatles, made a few quid off of them.
I can find only one confirmed instance of ukulele making it onto a Beatles track. On May 11, 1967, at EMI Abbey Road Studios, The Beatles got together to a record a song for the soundtrack of their animated film Yellow Submarine, which was still in production. The previous day they had recorded the sardonic, Indian-influenced Lennon-McCartney tune “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” which became the B-side of the single “All You Need Is Love” a month later. On this day, they tackled Paul’s “All Together Now,” which he explained was a combination of a children’s rhyming song, skiffle, and a British music-hall sing-along. It’s a catchy little number, and its appearance at the end of the film, sung by the live-action Beatles rather than their animated counterparts, was a nice treat for Beatle fans. Well, in the song’s long, chaotic outro, which includes sound effects, handclaps, and a whole bunch of folks singing “All together now!” over and over, a bit of ukulele and banjo (banjolele?) can be heard, courtesy of overdubs by John Lennon. It’s amazing what one could find in the instrument rooms at Abbey Road!
One final Beatles-related ukulele anecdote, from the same period. In the summer of 1967, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and a large retinue of folks connected to the band went on a whirlwind vacation sailing around the Greek islands with an eye toward possibly relocating their operation to an island and living in utopian compounds with families and friends, far from the hustle, bustle, and inclement weather of London. (Hey, it was the ’60s!) In The Beatles Anthology Harrison related this episode: “It was a great trip. John and I were on acid all the time, sitting on the front of the ship playing ukuleles. Greece was on the left, a big island on the right. The sun was shining and we sang ‘Hare Krishna’ for hours and hours.” In another telling of the story, in a Krishna Consciousness movement magazine in 1982, Harrison specified, “We sang ‘Hare Krishna’ for days, John and I, with ukulele banjos… Like six hours we sang, because we couldn’t stop once we got going.”
The first Beatle to use an ukulele on a solo project was not Harrison or Lennon, but Paul McCartney, on his second album, Ram, which was recorded over a few months at a pair of New York studios in the fall of 1970 and the winter of 1971. Unlike his homegrown first album, McCartney, on which he played all the instruments, this time he put a band together and worked in a more conventional way. However, his song “Ram On” came together differently. As recording engineer Dixon Van Winkle remembered in an interview in Mix magazine in 2004, “Each day Paul and Linda [his wife], along with their baby, Mary, would be led up to Studio A in a back elevator. We’d set up a playpen for Mary and go to work… Paul liked to develop ideas in the studio… and one day he was standing around strumming on a ukulele, rocking from side to side, singing ‘Ram On.’ I ran out and put a mic on the ukulele, one on his face, and a pair of mics down by his feet. The tapping you hear comes from the mics on his feet.”
That percussive tapping is quite prominent throughout the song, which starts with some rudimentary plinking uke (he’s no George Formby) before falling into what sounds like it could be a love song from the 1920s, eventually incorporating whistling, Linda’s vocals, and various other overdubbed instruments into a ragged and quite unusual pop construction. Even stranger is the short “Ram On (Reprise)” on side two of the album, which once again includes rhythmic uke and a bizarre little freeform uke ending.
As shown by the 1967 story from the Greek islands, Harrison was already fond of the banjo-uke by the time he moved into Friar Park, a sprawling, 30-room Victorian-era mansion set on more than 60 acres in the idyllic town of Henley-on-Thames, a veritable playground for the well-heeled about 40 miles west of London. Harrison purchased the property in January 1970, and immediately set to refurbishing the castle-like interior space, and planting and tending to the massive surrounding gardens and groves, doing much of the work on the grounds himself. The cover photo of his first song-oriented solo album, the masterful All Things Must Pass, released in the fall of 1970, depicts Harrison sitting on a stool in the middle of an enormous lawn at Friar Park, wearing his ubiquitous gardening boots, surrounded by gnome figures. By 1972, he’d installed a home recording studio (known as FPSHOT, for “Friar Park Studio, Henley-on-Thames”), and beginning with the 1973 album Living in the Material World, used that facility as his main recording space for many of his projects. Friar Park would be Harrison’s primary residence for the rest of his life, and it’s where his love of the ukulele really began to kick in, most likely in the early ’80s.
Though Harrison was often described as being “reclusive,” because of his intense desire to mostly stay out of the public eye (being a Beatle can do that to a person), the fact is he could be quite social, and at Friar Park he frequently entertained a wide variety of friends, including many well-known musicians who lived nearby and loved to jam, such as Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord, Ten Years After guitarist Alvin Lee, bassist Herbie Flowers, and Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore.
And then there was Joe Brown, who became Harrison’s close friend, musical companion, and fellow traveler in the world of ukuleles. Brown is not well-known in the U.S. but he was a very big deal in England, beginning around the same time The Beatles got going. In fact, The Beatles opened a few shows for him in 1962. The Londoner had already scored his first hit single with “A Picture of You,” and was at the beginning of a long career as a musician (guitar, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, fidldle, bouzouki), singer, actor in several films, and British TV personality. He told me during a phone interview from England a few weeks before his 80th birthday that during The Beatles’ meteoric rise, “I had seen them quite a bit in various discos and nightclubs we all used to go to. I saw quite a lot of John and Paul and a bit of Ringo, but never George. He kind of kept to himself.”
Their careers took very different paths after that period, but as Brown recounts, “One day [in the early ’80s] I got a phone call and a voice said [he drops into a perfect impersonation of Harrison], ‘Is this Joe Brown?’ I had just moved near Henley-on-Thames. He said, ‘I don’t think you’ll remember me; it’s George Harrison. Why don’t you come ’round and play guitars?’ So of course I go over. It was the most gorgeous place, Friar Park, and he took me around and showed me the grounds, the canal, the caves, the secret passages in the house… George was very proud of it.
“We got on great, and I learned that George had quite recently developed a strong interest in the ukulele. He said, ‘You play the ukulele, don’t you, Joe?’ When I first went ’round I knew he played the uke a bit, but he wasn’t particularly proficient. But like me, he was a big fan of George Formby’s, so I taught him to play this Formby scissor-rhythm movement a guy had taught me back in 1964. The scissor is a bit tricky. You have to practice it for hours, but once you’ve got it, it’s pretty cool.”
It was around this time, too, that Harrison started collecting ukuleles in earnest, first banjo ukes mainly, but later branching out to other styles. Over time he collected a fair number of rare and valuable Martins and Gibsons and instruments by other early 20th century makers.
On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered by a deranged gunman in New York City, a tragedy that still resonates strongly more than 40 years later. Not surprisingly, it shook Harrison to the core. He already was somewhat paranoid about appearing in public, which is one reason his secluded Friar Park estate felt like such a secure retreat for him. After Lennon’s death, however, Harrison greatly increased security around the property and also went looking for someplace even more isolated and protected that he could escape to from time to time.
He found it on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where in 1981 he bought a secluded 63-acre site on a rugged cliff along the northeastern coast of the island, near the village of Nahiku, many twisting miles off the famously serpentine Hana Highway. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite attain the peace-of-mind he had sought, as there was a steady stream of folks who would cross his property on paths (which he tried to stop through legal means), and, once word was out that he was there, many curious tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of him. That said, he and his second wife, Olivia (they married in 1978, the same year their son, Dhani, was born), did love their Hawaiian hideaway, which Harrison again had a major hand in landscaping with both native plants and ones shipped from Friar Park.
Not surprisingly, living in Hawaii part-time fueled his ever-growing love of the ukulele. There are quite a few stories—some maybe true, perhaps overblown or apocryphal—about Harrison supposedly buying out entire stocks of ukuleles from Maui (and other islands’) music stores, and then giving them away to friends. He definitely did give away who-knows-how-many ukuleles through the years. We also know that he developed a fondness for Hawaiian-made Kamaka ukes, purchasing many as gifts and for himself.
Joe Brown says he was able to visit the Harrisons’ “beautiful house out there right on the cliff on a few occasions, and believe me, we were playing ukes all the time when we were there.
“Every now and again in England,” Brown continues, “he’d phone me up: ‘What are you doing, Joe? Are you on tour? Come to the house tomorrow and bring a suitcase.’ And off we’d go all over the world. He’d say, ‘I brought the ukuleles.’ And we’d play all over.”
In 1986, Jeff Lynne, the multi-instrumentalist Beatles-influenced frontman for the mega-popular band ELO (Electric Light Orchestra), got a call from Harrison asking him to produce a new album he was working on, Cloud Nine. The two didn’t know each other except by reputation, but they hit it off immediately and went on to make a classic album that fully restored Harrison’s reputation and popularity after a couple of so-so efforts. Though there ended up being no ukulele on that wonderful album, the instrument served as a bonding agent between the two musicians during the sessions. As Lynne told me in an email interview, “The first time I met George was in his garden at his lovely house. About two hours later, he’d given me this old Wendell Hall ukulele; it was actually a banjolele. We became quite good at strumming together. We’d strum every day—we’d have at least a half-hour or 15 minutes on the uke or banjolele. And then other people would come over to Friar Park and they’d want to join in and have a go, and sometimes we’d have four people playing ukes in sync. It was like a ukulele orchestra!”
Lynne said Harrison schooled him in the ways of Formby. “We mainly used to jam on George Formby records. There was one that was my favorite called ‘Grandad’s Flannelette Nightshirt’—proper songs like that, you know? Silly ones.” Joe Brown taught Lynne the Formby “scissor stroke,” too: “For weeks you can’t do it, and then one day you’ve got it and you don’t know why, and you can never forget it,” he said. “Joe was a wonderful player of the ukulele and a great guitarist, as well. I always enjoyed playing with Joe.”
Once Cloud Nine was out and a hit, Harrison and Lynne stumbled into one of the more intriguing music projects of the 1980s, the Traveling Wilburys. Though they hated the word “supergroup” being attached to them, what other term could be used to describe a band that included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison? They fell together almost by chance when all of them were in Los Angeles at the same time, and on a lark decided to record a song together to be a B-side for one of the singles on Cloud Nine. Working from a skeletal version of a tune Harrison had written, they wrote and recorded “Handle with Care” in just one day in April 1988 (with Harrison and Lynne cutting overdubs later at Friar Park). It was instantly clear to both the musicians and Warner Bros. Records that the song was way too good to be relegated to a B-side; in fact, the quintet was so jazzed by the results that they got together at Dylan’s home studio for nine days in May ’88 and managed to crank out a full album’s worth of great tunes.
They worked collaboratively every step of the way on the music and lyrics—five heavyweights sitting in a circle with acoustic guitars, tossing words and riffs around, loose and free as could be.
And yes, there were ukuleles present (though not on the album). By that time, Petty had already been uke-doctrinated by Harrison, noting in an interview, “He showed up [at my house] one day and gave one to me. ‘You gotta play this thing; it’s great! Let’s jam!’ I had no idea how to play a ukulele. ‘Aw, it’s no problem, I’ll show ya!’ So we spent the rest of that day playing ukuleles. I’m strolling around the yard playing ukulele. My wrist hurt the next day. But he taught me how to play it; a lot of the chord positions.
“When he was leaving, I walked out to the car and he says, ‘Wait, I want to leave some ukuleles here!’ And he’d already given me one. ‘We may need more!’ He opened the trunk and he had a lot of ukuleles in the trunk. And I think he left four at my house, and he said, ‘Well, you never know when we might need ’em, because everyone doesn’t carry one around.”
Later, commenting about the loose atmosphere surrounding the Wilburys sessions, Petty commented, “There was just a lot of music in the air, a lot of fun going around, a lot of parties, a lot of ukuleles ’til dawn. It wouldn’t be unusual for Jeff and George to show up at my door with a case of beer and play ukuleles until dawn, with the children dropping like flies around us. They’d just be tucked in a chair and [saying], ‘Dad I want to go home!’ ‘No, son, just go to sleep. We’re playing ukuleles now.’”
Even Bob Dylan was subjected to Harrison’s uke obsession. As Beatles Anthology director Geoff Wonfor, said in Graeme Thomson’s George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door, “He sat Dylan down in his lounge and made him sit through [Formby’s] ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ six times. Dylan must have been thinking, ‘What the f’ing hell is this?’”
By 1990, Harrison had become so obsessed with George Formby that he actually joined the George Formby Society, which had started in 1960 in the seaside city of Blackpool, shortly after Formby’s death. As noted earlier, Harrison contacted GFS president John Croft in the fall of that year, hoping Croft could find him a certain banjo uke, and as he wrote in All About the Banjo Uke, “In December 1990 an excited George Harrison rang me to say that he had managed to purchase a gold-plated and engraved Ludwig banjo uke and its original case and badge, which he asked me to restore to pristine condition. When he came to my house to collect it from me in the spring of 1991, he was like a kid at Christmas and couldn’t contain his excitement at the lovely condition of his restored Ludwig, which he went on to treasure for the rest of his life.
“George Harrison was one of the kindest, thoughtful, and nicest people you could ever wish to meet, and despite fame and fortune he always retained his kind nature, his Liverpool accent, and a great sense of humor. He loved playing the ukulele and the banjo uke and had even entertained passengers on the Concorde [jet plane] playing his Ludwig Wendell Hall banjo uke. Unannounced, he and his wife and son attended a meeting of the George Formby Society at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in March 1991, and he told me afterwards that they had all enjoyed it tremendously. He went on to attend a meeting of the Ukulele Society of Great Britain and had a great time meeting its members and playing the uke.”
At that 1991 GFS meeting in Blackpool, Harrison gave an interview to the BBC’s Russell Davies, in which Harrison crowed, “It’s Formbymania! It’s sweeping the nation and that’s all there is to it. I haven’t slept for months. I’m having dreams about Ludwig banjos and these songs going through my head… The best thing about it for me is it’s just funny music. It’s very lighthearted. It’s hard to play a ukulele banjo without smiling. It tends to lighten your life a bit.”
Harrison also told Davies, “I think growing up, all them [Formby] songs were always in the back of my life. I’m seeing a lot of the old movies again and having déjà vu going on in my brain over certain songs, because I remember them either being played in the background or my mother singing them when I was maybe three or four. There are a lot of other songs I’m getting to learn now that I realize I’d heard as a kid. And I always wrote songs with those kinds of chords.”
Many years later, when Davies assembled a radio program about Formby (and Harrison’s connection to him), Davies observed of the ’91 convention, “That assembly marked the 30th anniversary of Formby’s death. The last I saw of George was when he and his son Dhani joined a chorus of 38 banjo ukulele players on a Formby-inspired rendition of ‘Anchors Away.’”
As for Dhani, “[When] I grew up, my dad had a very, very extensive collection of ukuleles, so there was a lot of George Formby going on in my house and there was a lot of slacky hula—Bennie Nawahi kind of Hawaiian vibes,” he recalled in a recent promotional video for his new Signature Fender uke. “I spent a lot of time in Hawaii when I was growing up; [that’s] when I got really into the ukulele. Ukuleles are supposed to bring joy [and] I guess that’s one of the things about it that my dad loved.”
FREE AS A BIRD
In the early ’90s, too, there was action on The Beatles front, too, as the three surviving members agreed to be part of The Beatles Anthology, a comprehensive, eight-part TV/video series (plus enormous hardcover book and CD releases) that traced the history of the group in great detail and included never-before-seen footage and new interviews with all the major principals in The Beatles’ story. The ukulele even made it into the Anthology in a very short film snippet shot in 1994 of Paul, George and Ringo lazing around the grounds of Friar Park, spontaneously playing and singing part of the old tune “Ain’t She Sweet.” Harrison strums a uke, McCartney handles the lead vocal. It’s little more than a cheery moment of three old mates getting together, yet that minute or so, seen by many millions of people, is often cited as being a big contributing factor in the current ukulele revival—the “third wave” as its commonly called. The Beatles had unwittingly made the little four-string cool again!
The uke also figured into one of the two “new” Beatles songs unveiled as part of the series. With Jeff Lynne producing, the surviving Beatles went into the studio and fleshed out an unreleased John Lennon demo for a song he wrote near the end of his life called “Free as a Bird.” It’s a lovely, moving song, and between the vocal harmonies and Harrison’s distinctive slide guitar work, it’s unmistakably Beatles. The uke figures in at the very end, with strumming bubbling up after the fade as a little coda of sorts. In the video for the song, which has been viewed more than 25 million times, the closing image shows a George Formby impersonator strumming away on and English music hall stage.
Lynne told me, “We all played on the very end where it fades out and John comes in saying, ‘Turned out nice again.’ That was George Formby’s catchphrase; that’s what he’d say at the end of all of his shows. We somehow managed to get reels of John speaking and I managed to pick out ‘Oooh, turned out nice again’ out of this old box of tapes. So that was the extra special little thing, only I put it in backwards, so nobody knew what it was until someone had the bright idea to turn it over and play it the other way around, and it was ‘turned out nice again.’ And it did for The Beatles—it was a great big hit.”
Jim Beloff is another reason the modern ukulele renaissance built steadily in the 1990s and into the 2000s. “Jumpin’ Jim” was the first person in the modern era to publish ukulele songbooks, instructional manuals and DVDs, the first to write a popular book about the instrument and the culture surrounding it (The Ukulele: A Visual History, 1997). He even developed his own line of ukes through his Flea Market Music company. And in 1999, he had a close encounter of the George kind!
He was at the NAMM musical instrument trade show in Los Angeles, where he lived, promoting his ukes and products, when the well-known and respected guitar maker Danny Ferrington wandered by Beloff’s booth. Jim picks up the story in this excerpt from his forthcoming autobiography, UKEtopia: Adventures in the Ukulele World:
“As [Danny] was walking by our booth, he recognized the ukulele history book and stopped in. It turned out that Danny had just received the book as a ‘Christmas gift from George.’ Liz [Beloff’s wife] and I were alone in the booth at that moment and we both asked Danny who ‘George’ was. Danny said, ‘You know, George, George Harrison.’ Wow. Then Danny told us that George was currently in Los Angeles and would like to stop by our house and see our ukulele collection, perhaps next week. Double wow! We gave Danny our contact information and, remarkably, said and thought little more about it. We told almost no one. In retrospect, I guess it was because in our hearts, we knew that Beatles don’t come to your house.
“Several days later, on February 2nd, we were still doubtful even as Danny kept calling with hourly updates on the stops he and George were making, as they were slowly heading our way. I couldn’t help humming George’s song, ‘Blue Jay Way,’ about waiting at home for friends that never seem to arrive. Then sometime in the early afternoon, Danny Ferrington and George Harrison walked into our living room. My first memory was that George grabbed a banjo uke resting on a stand and began to strum and sing the old George Formby classic, ‘Leaning on a Lamppost,’ which later became a hit for Herman’s Hermits.
“For the next three hours after that, we talked ukuleles and strummed songs. George shared several originals that eventually ended up on his posthumously released Brainwashed album. I even summoned up the nerve to play him a couple of my own songs. He also brought with him a new video camera, which he used to document our vintage uke collection. George was interested in collecting, as well. Amazingly, at the time of George’s visit, Liz and I were working on Jumpin’ Jim’s ’60s Uke-In songbook, which was to include many Beatles songs, two by George.”
Before he left Beloff’s house, Harrison also took the time to scrawl a little note on Flea Market Music stationery declaring his love for the ukulele. The note, which has been circulating on the internet for many years now and has been seen by untold thousands of people, read:
“Everybody should have and play a ‘UKE’ its so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh! It’s so sweet and also very old. Some are made of wood—some are made of armadillos. I love them—the more the merrier. Everyone I know who is into the ukulele is ‘crackers,’ so get yourself a few and enjoy yourselves—Love from George (Keoki) Harrison”
ALL THINGS MUST PASS
In the summer of 1997, Harrison was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent successful radiation therapy. A couple of years later, on the night of December 30, 1999, a paranoid schizophrenic broke into Friar Park and stabbed Harrison 40 times with a kitchen knife before Olivia Harrison managed to stop the assault by wailing on the attacker with a fireplace poker and a lamp. George was hospitalized for a period, had part of one lung removed, and later said he thought he was going die.
Miraculously, he survived and was able to resume work at his home studio on a new album he’d been developing with his son, Dhani—then in his early 20s and a fine musician himself—and Jeff Lynne. The project took on an added urgency when, in May 2001, George had to undergo surgery to remove a cancerous growth from one of his lungs. In July of that year, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent radiotherapy which was, alas, unsuccessful. He died on November 29, 2001, in Beverly Hills, and the world mourned.
A few months later, Dhani Harrison and Jeff Lynne went back into the studio to finish the album for George. “It was rough going at the beginning,” Lynne said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company, “but George was with us.” Dhani added in the same interview, “The album was very cathartic for me… It was a very positive thing to have done so soon after his death.”
“The songs were complete,” Lynne added. “Whatever George had sung was complete. All we did was enhance little bits with some vocal backing, Dhani and myself, [and added] acoustic guitars to some of the songs. They were basically demos and George had asked me before he was really ill to come and help and do it at his house.”
Harrison had the foresight to leave a very detailed blueprint for how he envisioned the album, speaking extensively with Dhani about specifics and making written notes. “He also left us string parts that he’d sung onto the tape for us to play,” Lynne said, “and Mark Mann wrote them into a concise piece of music from the singing on the tape.
“Musically, [Dhani and I] were very much on the same wavelength and whatever I didn’t think of, Dhani would know. So Dhani stopped me going overboard with anything. It was a great help to have Dhani there… We both wanted it to sound like George.” Dhani: “[We were] trying not to leave any footprints of us; any trace of Jeff or me.”
And faithful to George’s wishes, five of the songs on the album, Brainwashed (released in November 2002), contained ukulele parts—a first for a Harrison record. The album kicks off with the catchy and energetic “Any Road,” which dates back to the Cloud Nine days, and is driven by a propulsive banjo uke in part. “Regular” ukulele turns up on four other tracks, too, though not always readily distinguishable in Lynne’s layered mix of voices and electric and acoustic instruments: “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night),” “Pisces Fish,” the bluesy “Rocking Chair in Old Hawaii,” and—most prominently—“Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” That last tune, popularized in the early ’30s by Cab Calloway, derives from a performance at a George Formby Society convention in Blackpool in 1991, and finds Harrison strumming and soloing on a six-string tenor uke, accompanied by a small acoustic band that includes Joe Brown on guitar and Jools Holland on piano, among others. It’s a marvelously intimate performance—Harrison’s finest recorded uke work.
A year to the day after George Harrison died—November 29, 2002—the Royal Albert Hall in London was packed to the rafters for the “Concert for George,” a star-studded, two-and-a-half-hour celebration of the man and his music, spanning his entire career. It was put together by Olivia and Dhani Harrison, with George’s good friend Eric Clapton acting as musical director. Among those leading the large, spectacular house band (which included Dhani), orchestra, or their own groups were Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Billy Preston, Gary Brooker, Anoushka Shankar, and Joe Brown. It was all wonderfully captured for DVD and CD audio release (produced by Lynne), both very well received.
The ukulele is featured on two of the concert’s strongest numbers. For the first half of “Something,” McCartney accompanies himself on a Gibson uke that George had given him, playing the song almost as a light shuffle until Marc Mann comes in mimicking Harrison’s iconic electric guitar solo, before they’re joined by the full band and orchestra; it’s a stunning version. Then, at the very end of the concert, for the encore, Joe Brown, who had earlier played guitar and mandolin as he guided the band through “Here Comes the Sun” and “That’s the Way It Goes,” came out with a little Martin soprano uke and went into a beautiful but heartbreaking version of the 1920s standard “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” as thousands of pieces of large orange, yellow, and green confetti floated gracefully from the rafters of the Albert Hall like falling autumn leaves. There probably wasn’t a dry eye in the house after that one. It was the perfect ending to a magnificent tribute to George Harrison.
In our interview, Brown revealed that he had originally heard “I’ll See You in My Dreams” when Harrison had sent him an album by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards many years ago. “I knew the song really well because people used to sing it when I was growing up,” Brown said. “But I hadn’t heard it on the ukulele until George sent it to me, and I started putting it in my show after that, sometimes as the encore. George loved so many of those old songs, and they do sound great on the ukulele. When we did the ‘Concert for George,’ Olivia came to me and said ‘Would you do me a favor? Would you close the concert with “I’ll See You in My Dreams”?’ Because she and George would often come to my shows and she loved that song and George loved it. I was over the moon to be asked.”
In part because of the overwhelmingly positive reaction he received in the months and years following his “Concert for George” appearance, Brown decided to record The Ukulele Album (2011), which included “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” of course, but also an eclectic lineup of tunes including the Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” Sol Hoopii’s “Hula Girl,” and, naturally, a tip of the cap to George Formby, “When I’m Cleaning Windows.” Brown is not the only uke player on the album—he’s joined on several tracks by his daughter Sam Brown’s International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common. All in all, it’s a joyous ukulele party!
Paul McCartney also kept the uke flame burning following Harrison’s death. He incorporated the uke-driven version of “Something” into his sets, always setting up the tune with an introduction like this one from a concert in Albany, NY: “These days everyone is well into the ukulele. But George was a really good ukulele player and was doing it way before a lot of people. Let’s hear it for the ukulele!”
JAKE GENTLY WEEPS
It seems somehow appropriate to conclude our journey by bringing the story back to the ancestral home of the ukulele, and to one of its greatest modern players: Jake Shimabukuro. By the early 2000s, he was already one of the most famous ukulele players in Hawaii and Japan, selling a fair number of albums and slaying concertgoers at every stop with his dazzling pyrotechnics and ambitious cover song choices. In 2005, he flew to New York to audition at the annual Arts Presenters Conference, where he would be seen and heard by concert promoters, booking agents, and other show business shakers and movers. The hitch? Every performer gets one shot, no more than four minutes, to make a favorable impression.
That year, he decided to show off his version of Harrison’s Beatles classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “It’s always been one of my favorites,” Jake says. “When I was younger, I loved the way the transition from the minor key to the major key made me feel. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening musically, but I just loved it. I’ve always felt a connection with George’s music through the ukulele and often wondered if he wrote some of his songs on the ukulele—because they just work so well on the four-stringed instrument.
“I arranged ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ in a way that would showcase the various techniques on the ukulele, since I only had such a short time to perform. I worked on it for several weeks leading up to the trip. And when I arrived in New York, two days before the conference, I was asked to do an interview by a film crew for a show called Midnight Ukulele Disco. So, I performed the new arrangement of the song for the show.” It was a simple one-camera shoot filmed against the backdrop of some of Central Park’s enormous rocks. Jake introduces the song saying it’s by “one of my favorite songwriters,” and then unleashes a performance for the ages, overflowing with passion, showing the ukulele in a new light.
The shoot seemed to go well, and then his repeat performance at the conference went very well: He got bookings for summer festivals in Canada, and other shows in Europe and around the U.S. But he did not foresee what would happen the following year. In April 2006, the Central Park video was posted on YouTube and it immediately went viral, racking up views in the hundreds, then the thousands, and eventually the millions. As of the end of May 2021, it had been viewed more than 17.3 million times.
The success of that video “changed my life,” he says. Indeed, Shimabukuro’s career has been on an upward trajectory ever since and it is impossible to gauge how many aspiring ukulele players he has influenced. George Harrison would doubtless be proud. “Obviously I never expected this. I got a whole career out of it. Thank you, George!”
(Special thanks to John Taylor, Joe Brown, Matt Hurwitz, Emilie Fabiani and Jeff Lynne for their assistance, and to Jim Beloff for permission to run the excerpt from his book: UKEtopia: Adventures in the Ukulele World. [Backbeat Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot, the trade division of Rowman & Littlefield.] Release date: November 15, 2021.)
Play along with The Beatles with The Beatles for Ukulele! Unlike many books of this type, each arrangement in this book includes every measure of the song, as it was originally recorded—nothing is left out. And when you come to instrumental sections, the chords are provided so you can keep strumming your uke.