STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE SPRING 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Given the talent and notoriety of contemporary uke-playing celebrities such as Jake Shimabukuro, Dhani Harrison, Grace VanderWaal, Taimane, and Cynthia Lin, it’s no wonder that uke manufacturers Kamaka, Fender, Enya, and Ohana have honored them by producing their own signature model ukuleles. But the idea of tying the fame and success of a performing artist with a special-edition instrument isn’t exactly new—so-called “signature editions” have been around for at least 100 years. No doubt they first came into existence thanks to some clever marketing person who realized that an instrument maker could capitalize on the success of a well-known performer by creating a special instrument line featuring their name.
The list of 1920s and ’30s American celebrities who had their own signature model production ukuleles is considerable, including (but certainly not limited to) the ones featured here: Bobby Breen, Ray Canfield, the Duncan Sisters, Cliff Edwards, Wendell Hall, Bobby Henshaw, Al Jolson, Johnny Marvin, and Roy Smeck.
Most of the celebrities presented here (in alphabetical order) were born between 1886 and 1900 and represent the first wave of ukulele performers that introduced the American public to the songs, strums, and satisfactions that ukulele playing could bring. (Al Jolson is the exception here, as we’ll see). Given their considerable talents, it’s natural that each of these early stars were honored with their own signature ukuleles, and in some cases, several different signature models.
This Canadian-born actor and singing prodigy reached the peak of his popularity as a child star in the 1930s. After a professional debut at age four in Toronto, Breen played in vaudeville before going to Hollywood in 1935. He became RKO’s biggest child star through a string of films including Let’s Sing Again (1936), Hawaii Calls (1938), and Escape to Paradise (1939).
Unfortunately, Breen’s movie career ended in the early ’40s after his voice changed upon reaching puberty. He continued working in nightclubs and as a musical performer in stock theater, later serving as a guest pianist for the NBC Symphony Orchestra on radio, as well as hosting a local TV show in New York. Fun fact: Breen’s profile is on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, appearing right behind George Harrison’s shoulder.
Although Breen was a vocalist and pianist, his singing performance of “Song of the Islands” in Hawaii Calls, as well as his recording of the Harry Owens song “Down Where the Trade Winds Blow,” earned him enough of an association with the Hawaiian Islands that Regal issued a Bobby Breen signature ukulele in the 1930s. Made from whitewood (likely birch or poplar), the soprano-size uke was entirely painted a dark green metallic color with white painted bindings and stenciled Art Deco decorations atop the body and headstock. Breen’s signature appears on the lower bout and, uniquely, an actual printed paper photo of his face is pasted atop the headstock.
Composer, arranger, and musician Ray Canfield wrote many popular songs in the 1920s and ’30s, including “Sailin’ On” and “Aloha Beloved.” A talented instrumentalist and vaudeville performer, Canfield was once called the “Paderewski of the uke” (after the famous Polish pianist). He was also known for his “symphonic” ukulele arrangements, which appeared in both book form and in popular sheet music, identified by a ukulele-shaped logo that read: “This copy contains a Ray Canfield Symphonic uke arrangement.”
In performance, Canfield promoted Gibson ukes and usually played a Style 3 Gibson soprano. Around 1930, Los Angeles music store owners Jack and Nathan Schireson (best known for their “Hollywood” line of ukuleles) produced a Ray Canfield signature model. The soprano-sized uke featured a mahogany body with a colorful arabesque decal surrounding a pin-style bridge and a gold/brown pearloid-covered fingerboard and headstock.
THE DUNCAN SISTERS
Sisters Vivian and Rosetta Duncan were born in in the 1890s in Los Angeles. From an early age, the duo sang, danced, and displayed other talents: Rosetta was a natural comic and Vivian played the piano and ukulele. An early stage career had Rosetta yodeling songs to Vivian’s piano accompaniment. They also had a comedy act with Rosetta playing a brash, gruff-voiced comedienne opposite Vivian’s straight role as a “dumb blonde.” They quickly became seasoned vaudevillians who were in high demand. After a string of engagements in night clubs and on stages across the country and abroad, “the Dunks,” as the sisters were called, moved to New York in 1917 and regularly performed in Broadway shows.
The Dunks went on to appear in several motion pictures, including It’s a Great Life, a film based on the sisters’ own rise to stardom.
In 1924, Rosetta was stopped by a Chicago police officer who suspected her of driving drunk. An ensuing altercation left her severely injured and requiring hospitalization. The incident and her subsequent convalescence were prominently reported by the Chicago Daily News.
To capitalize on the press coverage, the sisters recorded “Mean Cicero Blues,” a song whose lyrics explicitly described the entire ugly affair. Soon thereafter, Chicago instrument manufacturer Richter created a special Duncan Sisters “Cicero Blues” soprano ukulele. The uke came in two models, one with a blond birch body, and the other with a dark-stained mahogany body, both with their sides stained dark “eggplant” purple. Black celluloid bindings trimmed the tops and backs, with a single ring around their soundholes. The uke’s headstocks are stenciled with “Cicero Blues” in gold letters, and there’s a “Duncan Sisters” decal between the bridge and soundhole.
One of the most talented and best-known of all vaudevillian performers is Cliff Edwards. Born in Hannibal, Missouri, Edwards left school at age 14 and moved to St. Louis, where he started working as a singer in saloons that were often run-down, with pianos that were poorly maintained. In order to accompany himself while he performed, Edwards bought a cheap ukulele in a local music shop and taught himself to play. One story has it that Edwards got his well-known nickname, “Ukulele Ike,” from a club owner who simply couldn’t remember his name.
Edwards toured as a vaudeville performer and was ultimately featured as a regular at the Palace Theatre in New York City. He went on to frequently appear on Broadway, including performances in the Ziegfeld Follies and in George and Ira Gershwin’s 1924 Broadway musical Lady Be Good, alongside Fred and Adele Astaire. After signing with Pathé Records, Edwards recorded jazzy renditions of many pop standards and novelty tunes, including “Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home” and “Hard Hearted Hannah.” Thanks to his colorful style of singing and ukulele playing, MGM studios hired Edwards to perform in many early “talkies,” including The Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which he sang “Singin’ in the Rain” on screen for the first time.
Sometime around 1925, P’mico (the brand name of the Progressive Musical Instrument Corp.) produced a “Cliff Edwards Ukulele Ike” soprano uke. Although it’s said to have been offered in two different models, the only one I’ve ever seen is a rather plain instrument made of birch and stained mahogany brown, with its fingerboard painted black and a narrow white/black ring around the soundhole. An orange, white, and black decal on the headstock bears Edward’s name and likeness.
Few ukulele players of the vaudeville era were as prolific or as well known in their time as Wendell Hall. A man of many talents, Hall was not only a country singer and multi-instrumentalist, but also a recording artist, composer, author, and a pioneering early radio performer. His career began in the early 1920s, when he worked for Forster Music as a “song plugger,” traveling around the country promoting the sale of Forster’s songs in music stores, theaters, and on local radio stations. In vaudeville, Hall initially accompanied himself on xylophone, but soon switched to the much-more-portable ukulele, which he quickly mastered.
Hall wrote more than 1,500 songs, including many obscure tunes, such as “Spank it Frank,” “Whoop De Dooden Do” and “Elevator Man’s Ball.” His biggest hit, released in 1923, was “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’,” which sold over three million copies.
Hall performed on countless radio programs throughout the U.S. and around the world and served as broadcasting director for the CBS Majestic Theatre of the Air in 1929. His success—and his full head of flaming red hair—earned Hall the nickname “Red-Headed Music Maker.”
Hall was a big fan of C.F. Martin & Company ukuleles, often performing with a Martin taropatch, but he was unsuccessful in obtaining an endorsement deal with Martin. The Regal Musical Instrument Company was much more responsive, producing a line of Wendell Hall signature ukes in the mid-1920s. Their “Red Head” soprano and banjolele had red-painted headstocks and rosewood tuning pegs. The soprano was a quality instrument built from beautifully figured Cuban mahogany with a multicolor wood rosette around the soundhole. Its yellow headstock decal featured Hall’s face and signature. Regal also produced a “Wendell Hall Master Ukulele” with a reddish-stained birch body and a spruce top. This concert-size instrument featured white and black bindings around the top and a simple white binding around the back of the body. Its most unique attribute was its crown-shaped three-peaked soundhole.
In 1951, at age 55, Hall came out of retirement to host a show on Chicago’s WBKB television station. Drawing from his extensive catalog of past songs, Hall sang and played with what was described as “a voice right out of the razzmatazz, ragtime worshiping days of the ’20s.” Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of that show, Regal created a pair of new ukuleles: the Wendell Hall “TV” and “Teeviola” models. Both of these concert-sized ukes had spruce tops, whitewood bodies stained dark red, and Brazilian rosewood fingerboards. The difference between models is the shape of their soundholes: The TV’s is a rounded triangle, the Teeviola’s is round.
Bobby “Uke” Henshaw was a noted vaudeville entertainer of the 1920s that Variety magazine once said was “known for his prowess on the ukulele.” The New York Clipper entertainment newspaper dubbed him “The Human Ukulele.” Starting in the 1930s, Henshaw traveled the world, performing in Greenland, England, and throughout Europe. He eventually spent more than a dozen years in Australia. He was credited for helping spread the ukulele’s popularity in England when he performed comedy songs on early BBC Television programs. During WWII, Henshaw and his troupe of USO performers toured far-flung military outposts. In a letter published in 1943, he wrote, “Sometimes we play where they [GIs] are isolated for six and eight months, and it is a pleasure to hear them laugh.” Henshaw also appeared in a number of obscure Hollywood films between 1935 and 1950. Later in his career, he began using the nickname “Uncle Ukie” when performing with his wife Deane in musical shows.
Henshaw endorsed a line of soprano and baritone ukuleles and tenor guitars that bore his name. The all-mahogany “Bobby Henshaw” soprano had a rosewood fingerboard and a delicate parquet rosette around the soundhole (the box it came in claimed that the uke was made of “violin toned woods”). In lieu of binding, both the front and back edges of the body were lightly rounded over where they meet the sides, making the uke quite comfortable to hold. While it’s unclear whether these instruments were made by Harmony or Vega, it is known that they were sourced through the Sorkin music store in Philadelphia. Baritone ukes came with a “Hints by Bobby ‘Uke’ Henshaw for the Baritone Ukulele” booklet. The booklet stated: “If any artist is qualified to say what a good instrument should be, it can only be Bobby—and his choice is the Henshaw Uke. He knows it’s made of the finest quality woods and is true in every respect.”
Perhaps the most famous and recognizable name among the celebrities presented in this article, American singer, comedian, and film actor Al Jolson was the highest paid performer of the 1920s, often billed as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” Born Asa Yoelson, Jolson is perhaps best remembered as the star of the first feature-length “talking motion picture,” The Jazz Singer (1927). However, his career started well before that, in the early 1900s working as a singer in burlesque and vaudeville shows and theater. Between 1911 and 1928, Jolson had nine sell-out shows in a row on Broadway, recorded more than 80 hit records, and had 16 national and international tours.
Despite Jolson’s brash and extroverted performing style, which was melodramatic and shamelessly sentimental, he’s considered to be the first popular singer to make a spectacular “event” out of singing. He was known for running across the stage and up and down its runway while teasing, cajoling, and thrilling the audience. Quoting from the Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, “Jolson was to jazz, blues, and ragtime what Elvis Presley was to rock ’n’ roll.” Modern day singers who acknowledge Jolson’s influence include Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan.
Although it’s unlikely that Jolson was much of a ukulele player, an “Al Jolson” model soprano uke was produced by the J.R. Stewart company of Chicago sometime in the mid-1920s. The uke’s whitewood body and neck are painted black, with white bindings around the top, back, and soundhole. Its extended ebonized maple fingerboard features a celluloid stripe down the center and three double pairs of pearl dot position markers.
The top is adorned with a shield-shaped white celluloid ornament attached just beneath the bridge. A decal on the headstock and paper label inside the body both display a black-and-white image of Jolson.
During the ukulele’s great heyday in the “Roaring ’20s,” one of the instrument’s premier players was Johnny Marvin. Born in the Oklahoma Territory, Marvin’s smooth voice and stylish ukulele accompaniment were unsurpassed as he performed on vaudeville stages throughout America. Marvin was an accomplished early recording artist who cut dozens of 78s between 1924 and 1930, including many songs he composed himself. Marvin performed and recorded both under his own name and under various aliases, such as “Honey Duke and his Uke” and “The Ukulele Ace.” His many hits included “Oh How She Could Play the Ukulele,” “Show Me the Way to Go Home” and “My Sweet Baby.” These records featured not only his smooth crooning and complex uke strumming, but jazzy vocal effects that often imitated other instruments.
Marvin signed with the Harmony Company of Chicago to promote a signature “Johnny Marvin Professional” tenor ukulele (which was actually concert-sized). Like Wendell Hall, Marvin’s endorsement was a result of being unable to work out a deal with C. F. Martin & Company. Premiering in 1932, the Marvin Professional had a body built from fiddleback figured mahogany with white-black-white bindings on top and white-only binding around the back. The uke features an airplane-shape pin-style bridge said to have been inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. The headstock is topped with off-white pearloid and a silver and red decal bearing Marvin’s signature.
To promote Marvin’s 1928 performance engagement in London, Harmony supplied 10,000 miniature ukuleles to give away as souvenirs. While in England, Marvin met Edward, the Prince of Wales (later to be crowned King Edward VIII) and presented him with a specially made Johnny Marvin ukulele. And to commemorate the occasion, Harmony came out with a Johnny Marvin “Prince of Wales” model! While the mahogany Harmony G-340 “standard” Professional uke sold for $1, their G-350 “Prince of Wales” model, made of figured Hawaiian koa and fitted with deluxe gold-plated tuners, went for the princely sum of $25 (the equivalent of $436 today).
Earning the moniker “The Wizard of the Strings” for being an ace performer and a true virtuoso, Roy Smeck was an author, teacher, and film, radio, and TV star, as well as a top recording artist who made more than 500 records.
Instead of singing when he performed, Smeck mesmerized audiences in the 1920s and beyond by playing his ukulele like no one else could, not only plucking and strumming it with astonishing speed, but putting the instrument through a series of showy acrobatics—twirling and spinning it, playing it upside down or with his teeth, and more.
A respected performer who shared the vaudeville stage with the brightest stars of the time, Smeck’s career took a giant leap in 1926 with his landmark ukulele performance in the Warner Vitaphone movie short “His Pastimes,” one of the first to feature synchronized sound. Smeck’s film inspired the president of the Harmony Company (at the time, the world’s largest producer of musical instruments) to ask Smeck to endorse a new line of instruments—including ukuleles, guitars, and mandolins, all of which he played— featuring his name. The line was branded “Vita,” which was coined by Harmony because Warner refused to let them use the Vitaphone name.
First sold in 1927, the “Roy Smeck Vita-Uke” sold for about $12. Its sides and back were made from flame-figured Cuban mahogany and its top made of spruce, with twin soundholes shaped like circus seals. The body had an unusual shape that was more like a mandolin than a traditional ukulele.
Its size and scale length were somewhere between a soprano and a concert ukulele. It was a high-end instrument, similar in quality to the ukes made by Martin. By the time production of Vita-series instruments ended in the mid-to-late 1930s, Harmony had sold tens of thousands of Vita-Ukes.
Owing to the success of the Vita-Uke, Harmony produced a new Smeck signature uke in the 1940s. The “Roy Smeck Concert Uke” was another well-built instrument with a spruce top and solid mahogany back and sides. The entire uke was finished in a brown shaded sunburst finish and featured double white bindings around both the top and back, and six pairs of position marker dots along its rosewood fingerboard.
Despite its concert designation, this uke was actually soprano-sized, with a scale length just under 13 inches.
Yet another Harmony uke, the “Roy Smeck Uke No. 555,” was produced in the 1950s and built entirely from mahogany with an eggshell (dull luster) lacquer finish. Part of Harmony’s lower-priced line of ukes, it featured an “accurately molded” polystyrene fingerboard, complete with its frets molded in place. In the late ’50s, it sold for an affordable $13.50.