By Jim D’Ville / Photos by Cheryl Fallstead, unless noted
The transformation began on a freezing December night in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Craig McClelland, Grand Poobah of the Santa Fe Ukulele & Social Club, was passing the leadership mantle to this writer. After leading the twice-monthly meetings in a private room at The Bourbon Grill at El Gauncho for the past two years, Craig and his wife Amy were moving to the Midwest and the group needed a leader. The reason? In a mere four months this “hum-and-strum” group would be opening for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
Like most ukulele clubs, the Santa Fe Ukulele & Social Club was “hooked on the book.” The meetings consisted of playing and singing songs from a songbook, one after another, for two hours. The problem with that format is the group learns nothing about song structure, arranging, or performance skills. If the SFUSC was to perform in public before a crowd of several hundred, things would have to change.
I chose five songs for the group to learn for the concert—“Be My Baby,” “Happy Together,” “Little Rock Getaway (instrumental),” “Along The Santa Fe Trail,” and “Oh, How Happy.”
The first thing we did was listen to a recording of each song—multiple times. Learning a song by ear requires listening. Once we had the song in our collective ears, we strummed our way through the chord progressions one section at a time, i.e. verse, chorus, bridge, etc. Next, we added the lyrics and sang our way through the songs a line at a time. No paper.
After our January rehearsals, we dropped “Happy Together” and “Little Rock Getaway,” which took the performance time down to about ten minutes. The remaining three songs were the only ones we worked on in our February and March meetings. Once we had the lyrics and chord progressions memorized, it was time to begin arranging our three songs. The first step was to separate the men and women’s voices. Luckily, we had an equal number of male and female voices, about twelve each. When the group arrived for our first rehearsal in February, the women and men sat in their respective sections. We then determined which group would sing the verses to each song.
In arranging “Be My Baby,” I wanted to recreate the driving Phil Spector “wall of sound” rhythm. We did this by pounding out the famous Hal Blaine kick-drum-and-snare intro on the bodies of our ukuleles, followed by a 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and strum pattern, really beating on the & 4 &. The females sang the lead and the males sang the backing “ahhs” during the bridge. The chorus consisted of a female/male call-and-response.
The second song in our mini-set was “Along The Santa Fe Trail.” We used the recording by The Sons of the Pioneers as the guide to our arrangement. We began the song with half the group fingerpicking the simple melody intro while the others strummed the chords. The men sang the verses and the woman sang the chorus. When the chorus repeated, everyone sang. The most important arrangement aspect for “Along The Santa Fe Trail” was the well-placed rests we inserted between the IV and V7 chords of the verses, and between the II7 and V7 chords at the end of the chorus. Those areas were where the lyrics really needed to stand out.
Our last song was the 1966 blue-eyed soul classic “Oh, How Happy” as performed by The Shades of Blue. In place of the glockenspiel on the recording, about half of the group fingerpicked the ascending major scale intro. The key to arranging this song was to not over-strum. The chorus consisted of a wonderful IV–iii–ii–I descending line on the words “you have made me.” We made the downstrokes on those chords stand out.
With each rehearsal, more tweaks were added to the arrangements. For our final two rehearsals in March, we stood and worked on our stage presence. We were lucky in the fact that we also had a rhythm section consisting of U-Bass and a snare drum. Craig would also return from the Midwest for what was now affectionately referred to as “The Big Gig” and add tuba into the rhythm mix. One of the last, and most important, arrangement decisions came on the night of our final rehearsal. Things were sounding ukulele heavy, which was muddying up the vocal parts. We decided it sounded better if the people singing the verses didn’t strum the chords but rather muted their strings. That one change really cleaned up the sound of the vocals.
Finally, it was the night of The Big Gig—Sunday, March 24, at the beautiful Lensic Theater, located just off the plaza in old Santa Fe. The show was sold out and as we stood at the front of the stage during our sound check, we knew that soon all 812 seats would be occupied. So, how did the Santa Fe Ukulele & Social Club perform in opening for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain? I’ll let Craig McClelland tell you. “I was so pleased when I returned three months later for the show to see how our humble ‘strumalong’ group had been transformed into a true ukulele ensemble playing full-on arrangements by memory, complete with single-line picking and rhythm parts, as well as vocal ensemble singing and harmony. Wow!”
Preparing for The Big Gig changed the Santa Fe Ukulele & Social Club. Scott Geister, a three-year veteran of the club says, “I saw people really hunkering down and taking their practice seriously. Before this, we would just noodle along with the hum-and-strum approach. I think once we realized there was something at stake—we were going to perform at the Lensic, which is the Carnegie Hall of Santa Fe—people rose to the occasion and their musicality came through.”