BY JIM BELOFF | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
“Jumpin’ Jim” Beloff is widely regarded as one of the driving forces behind the ukulele’s current “third wave” of popularity and probably the most important advocate for the instrument of all time—the perfect messenger for this modern age. Beloff’s highly entertaining, lavishly illustrated new 236-page memoir, UKEtopia! Adventures in the Ukulele World, published by Backbeat Books, traces his long and often amusing journey from aspiring (and productive) musical theater creator to ad salesman for various computer and music magazines (most notably Billboard) to pioneering ukulele mogul.
OK, “mogul” is a stretch. But the fact is, since he famously bought his first Martin ukulele at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena in 1992, he and his equally industrious wife, Liz, have worked practically nonstop to promote the ukulele in every way possible: through Jim’s albums, dozens of books and videos—most put out through the couple’s Flea Market Music company or partnerships with established entities—personal appearances, interviews, and collaborations with music and film luminaries. They also promoted the “Fluke” and ‘Flea” ukuleles designed and manufactured by Jim’s brother-in-law, Dale Webb.
The action in this short excerpt from the book takes place in 1998, as the third wave was still gaining momentum. His fun, colorful and informative book, The Ukulele—A Visual History (the first of its kind) had just been published, and was selling well and getting rave reviews. In the spring of that year he put out his For the Love of Uke album, Rhino Records released the wonderful and quite successful Beloff-curated CD Legends of Ukulele, and the mainstream press’ fascination with the little four-string was building month to month. —Blair Jackson
We’d done pretty well with publicity, but the one-two punch of the ukulele history book and the Rhino compilation took it to another level. On Saturday, July 4, my third NPR interview aired, this time with Scott Simon for Weekend Edition. The title of the interview was “The Immortal Ukulele” and the focus was the new Rhino compilation. Rhino’s promotion department set this up, but something else seemed to be at play. It turned out that the return of the ukulele was a good story. I’m not sure who coined the term “third wave” of ukulele popularity. But, between Iz’s global hit with “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” George Harrison’s and Paul McCartney’s public embrace of the instrument, and the books and CDs we were pumping out, there was this sense that interest in the ukulele was growing again. It was considered the third wave because of the two prior ones: the first during the late teens and 1920s when vaudeville met the Jazz Age, and the second during the postwar 1950s, fueled by the media saturation of uke lover Arthur Godfrey and returning servicemen who had sampled Hawaiian culture while in the Pacific.
I had yet another theory for this new interest. In the late 1990s, computers and the internet were taking up a growing percentage of work and personal time. It seemed as if we were living more and more in a digital, plugged-in world. In fact, I noticed some of the earliest and most enthusiastic advocates for the instrument were computer programmers. My gut was telling me that because of all the time spent logged on, an easy-to-learn, portable musical instrument that didn’t require electricity was suddenly a fresh idea. Plus, the music most associated with the instrument was delightfully retro, melodic, and especially fun to sing and play with others. With apologies to Club Med, the ukulele was becoming the musical antidote to civilization.
On August 2, the Los Angeles Times published a major story by Lynne Heffley on the reemergence of the ukulele, headlined, “Still Small, but Making a Big Comeback.” Until then, the press we received revolved around a particular book or CD release. This article, too, was in response to the Rhino compilation, but the story angle was much wider than any one product. First, the author bookended the piece with her own personal family history with the ukulele. She also covered the growth of internet-based uke sites, interviewed other players represented on the Rhino CD, and, finally, she drilled down a bit on “why” this might be happening now. Here was what I said:
“I think it’s connected to the fact that, at one time or another in the past, the uke was part of the musical center of some kind of occasion that was happy, when a bunch of people were all singing together. Maybe there’s some desire in us, in the uncertainty of life these days, to remember and re-create moments like that.”
Less than a week later, we celebrated the release of the Rhino CD with a sold-out concert at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, a historic, acoustic instrument music retailer and venue in Santa Monica. The idea behind the concert was to perform as many of the songs from the Rhino disc as possible. Liz and I were the hosts of the evening and some of the featured artists included Ian and Regina Whitcomb, Joel Eckhaus (who flew in from Portland, Maine), Fred Sokolow, Rick Cunha, Shep Stern, Janet Klein, and John Zehnder, the head of McCabe’s repair department, who had an especially deep affection for the uke. The show was a big success, so big, in fact, that the audience and players all wanted to know when the next concert was. I also noticed something else that I filed away for the future—many of the audience members had brought their ukuleles with them to the show.
Four days after the McCabe’s concert, another major article about the ukulele appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian titled “A Movement in Four Strings.” With the subtitle, “The Little Ukulele Is Back and Getting Bigger,” this was another wide-angle piece that covered the past, present, and future with quotes from me, Roy Sakuma, and David Hurd, a maker of high-end ukuleles on the Big Island of Hawaii. The article also paid tribute to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who had passed away the year before at the age of 38, and acknowledged the uke virtuosity of Troy Fernandez of the Ka’au Crater Boys as having inspired a new generation of Hawaiian players. Both Roy Sakuma and David Hurd reported that business was booming. In particular, Roy, said, “with all the kids playing today, there’s no telling how far this could go.” This is a bit of what I had to say:
“Like a lot of people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, I was a big fan of the guitar and played it for 30 years. But within two weeks [of discovering the Martin uke], I had stopped playing the guitar entirely. I was struck immediately by two things: The ukulele was far more portable, so if I traveled, I could take it with me. The second thing was that I wasn’t giving up anything by giving up two strings. In fact, it was more of a challenge to make out of four strings what I could out of six strings. I love my guitar, but it mostly collects dust.”
By now my Homespun video The Joy of Uke had been released and received good notices. Vintage Guitar ended their review with, “Who knows, we may be in the midst of a uke renaissance!” Homespun, like Flea Market Music, had distribution through Hal Leonard, and soon the video was available in music stores. One person who bought it was movie actor Sam Neill (of Jurassic Park fame). Sam’s assistant tracked me down in Los Angeles and asked if I gave private lessons. I didn’t—but for Sam, I did! At that point, he had been playing for three weeks and had been working through my video and Tips ’N’ Tunes method book.
His sudden interest was due to shooting a film in Hawaii titled Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, about the Belgian priest who worked at the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Sam came to our house in mid-August, and several times afterward, whenever he was in Los Angeles. Thoughtful and unpretentious, Sam was serious about improving his technique and took a real interest in our upcoming projects. He was especially keen on our publishing a songbook of more contemporary pop songs and Beatles tunes.
Rounding into the fall of 1998, it seemed like everything was happening at once. The Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum had booked me to perform at and emcee a four-stop “Ukulele Masters” tour in early October. Lyle Ritz, Byron Yasui, Led Kaapana, Bob Brozman, Joel Eckhaus, and I were packaged as an “opportunity to hear the finest expressions of ukulele music on the planet.” The tour would start at Symphony Space in New York City, then travel on to Sage Hall at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, Paine Hall at Harvard University in Cambridge, and finish at the State Street Church in Portland, Maine.
Before that, I flew to San Francisco for the weekend to do a radio interview at KALX in Berkeley and then play on the same bill with the ukulele punk duo Pineapple Princess at Club Cocodrie, a North Beach [SF] bar. Pineapple Princess was made up of Beth Allen and Pamela Schulting, who mixed screaming punk tunes with traditional Hawaiian songs. One of their songs was “We Suck,” and their motto was “Uke til ya puke.” Beth had invited me to perform with them and despite the big difference in our musical styles, she was a big supporter of our books and CDs. Steven Strauss, a wonderful local bass player and uke player I’d worked with before, backed me up for the gig, but the sound system was lacking, and nobody seemed to be listening. On the return flight to Burbank, I spoke with singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, who noticed I was wearing a uke-themed t-shirt and carrying a ukulele. I had read that her first instrument was a ukulele and I said I hoped it was true since I mentioned it in my history book. She said it was, and I gave her a copy.
We also had a couple of songbook irons in the fire. With the Ukulele Christmas book out and in stores for pre-holiday sales, we turned our attention to two new themed songbooks. One was a long-considered collection of ’60s pop songs that we would title Jumpin’ Jim’s ’60s Uke-In, and the other was a collection of well-known Hawaiian and hapa haole songs that would become Jumpin’ Jim’s Gone Hawaiian.
The comeback of the ukulele story kept spreading. The Boston Globe did an article tied to the Ukulele Masters tour titled, “Nowhere to Go but Up: The New Golden Age of the Ukulele.” They interviewed Paul Syphers and me. When it was suggested that Paul’s ukulele obsession is odd, insane even, he laughs and says, “You can’t insult a ukulele player.” Later on, I came to his defense saying, “The expectations are so deliciously low for all of us that it’s only up from here.” When pressed on why the ukulele was getting popular now, Paul had a wonderful response, referring to it as “a kind of alternative portable radio. You can make your music on the go.” My response was, “Things have cycles, and I think people are once again appreciating the craft and joy of the songs from the Tin Pan Alley period in the ’20s and ’30s. People forget that for two periods in the 20th century, the uke wasn’t just popular, it was wildly popular. If you ask people over a certain age, it’s like, ‘Of course I had a uke—everyone had a uke.’”
Reprint courtesy of Backbeat Books © 2021