Jazz ukulele pioneer and “Wrecking Crew” bassist Lyle Ritz was born January 10, 1930, and died March 3, 2017.
From the Fall 2015 issue of Ukulele | BY JIM TRANQUADA
In 1950, while studying tuba at the University of Southern California, Lyle Ritz held a part-time job behind the small-goods counter at Southern California Music Co., on South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. This was at the height of the Arthur Godfrey-fueled ukulele phenomenon, and part of Ritz’s job was demonstrating ukes to prospective customers—everything from the $4.95 special to the $60 Martins. One day, he picked up a Gibson tenor, “and that’s when the light when on,” he said in a 2004 interview. “It was the right size, the right sound, and I was gone.”
Those were the four strings that launched a career that would help redefine the ukulele musically, even as Ritz became one of the most sought-after LA session musicians of the 1960s, playing bass as a member of what came to be known as the Wrecking Crew. But the key to making it all happen was the draft notice that arrived in his mail in the fall of 1952. The two years the Ohio native spent in the Army “were really the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. Stationed at Fort Ord near Monterey, California, and assigned to band duty, Ritz learned how to play upright bass under the tutelage of Lennie Niehaus, Stan Kenton’s top alto sax player. Back in Los Angeles on leave, Ritz visited his old workplace and was persuaded to play a few tunes on the uke—unaware that jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, West Coast A&R man for Verve Records, was listening in. Kessel gave him his card and asked him to look him up after he got out of the Army.
Still unsure about a musical career, Ritz returned to Southern California after his discharge and enrolled at the Art Center College of Design to study automotive design. But a summer playing bass in a jazz trio at a Lake Arrowhead resort finally convinced him that he wanted to try to make it as a full-time musician.
Years of playing in LA clubs, piano bars, and lounges followed; he continued to noodle on his Gibson uke during the slower periods. Remembering Kessel’s offer, Ritz cut a couple of demos that were good enough to secure a three-album contract. While not big sellers, Ritz’s two jazz albums for Verve, How About Uke? (1958) and 50th State Jazz (1959), were hugely influential among a whole generation of Hawaiian ukulele players. (Because Verve had no studio of its own, How About Uke? has the added distinction of being the first stereo record cut at Capitol Records in Hollywood.)
“All of a sudden, here comes Lyle with all these fantastic chord harmonies that just took music to a whole new level on the ukulele,” Roy Sakuma, famed teacher and founder of the Ukulele Festival Hawaii, told National Public Radio.
As it happens, Ritz lost interest in the uke after the release of the second album. “The second one, I didn’t like it at all, and I still don’t like it,” he says. “After that, I got very interested in the bass, and I was getting busy [with session work], and I thought, ‘The uke is going nowhere.’” What he considered his big break came early in 1965, in a session with a then-unknown duo called Sonny & Cher. “I really grabbed the brass ring with ‘I Got You Babe,’” Ritz says. “After that, I could make a living in the studios and not have to play in the nightclubs anymore.”
Following that initial success, Ritz proceeded to play on thousands of recording sessions with a range of big-time artists, including Frank Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt, Herb Alpert, the Righteous Brothers, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, and Johnny Mathis.
He never completely abandoned the uke, though. Ritz played ukulele (as well as bass) on the Beach Boys’ legendary Pet Sounds album, and his musical prowess carried him into session work for television and movie soundtracks as well. (Yes, that’s the sound of Lyle Ritz playing the uke on “Tonight You Belong to Me” in Steve Martin’s 1979 comedy The Jerk.)
Ritz was reborn as a ukulele artist in 1985, when Sakuma tracked him down and invited him to play in Honolulu at the Ukulele Festival. “I said I’d come if they really wanted me,” says Ritz, who had no idea of his legendary status in the Islands. Since then, he has released six new CDs, published three songbooks of jazz arrangements, and was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2007—on the 50th anniversary of the release of How About Uke? “His contribution continues to grow,” ukulele virtuoso and historian John King said at the time. “He represents the past, the present, and the future of the ukulele in a way that no one else does, or can.”
For Ritz, it’s pretty simple. “Anything you want, you can express on the uke,” he says. “It’s an honest-to-goodness musical instrument, and it’ll do anything.”