BY AUDREY COLEMAN
In 1931 she took on the New York Musicians’ Union, threatening legal action if the organization would not include the ukulele in its list of musical instruments. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, she wrote more ukulele arrangements for piano sheet music than any other arranger. And she created a ukulele teaching method for enthusiasts on the mainland. Who is she? She’s May Singhi Breen, inductee in the Ukulele Hall of Fame and a Goddess of Uke.
Born in New York City in 1895, Breen was the daughter of an Italian builder and a pianist. She was educated in private schools, learned to play piano at a young age, and traveled extensively in Europe while still in her teens. She received her first ukulele as a Christmas gift but since she didn’t know how to play the instrument, she tried to return it to a department store in exchange for a bathrobe. The store wouldn’t take back the uke, so Breen learned to play it, soon blossoming into a gifted and ambitious ukulele enthusiast.
Photos of Breen with bobbed hair and long strands of pearls hanging over her chest show her to be a modern woman of the Roaring ’20s. At the start of the decade, she performed on the radio in a female group known as the Syncopators. But when she met songwriter Peter DeRose in 1923, love bloomed and new career opportunities beckoned. Breen abandoned the Syncopators and created a radio show with DeRose called Sweethearts of the Air, which ran from 1923 to 1939. The couple married in 1929, but she retained the last name of her first husband, an attorney named Breen.
Educated in music theory and harmony, Breen had the expertise to write arrangements for the ukulele. Dozens of examples of piano sheet music can be found in the Ukulele Hall of Fame collection with these or similar words on the cover sheet: “Ukulele Arrangement by May Singhi Breen.” She pursued publishers with a mission to convince them that including ukulele arrangements was a sound commercial decision. In 1924 she scored a coup when the Irving Berlin Corporation recruited her to do all the ukulele arrangements for its sheet-music publications.
A picture of Breen, then known as “The Ukulele Lady,” strumming a banjo-ukulele on the cover of Frets magazine in April 1925 attests to her popularity, as well as her musical sense of adventure. A 1926 issue of The Music Trades shows Breen’s face between two crossed banjo ukes in an ad from Progressive Musical Instrument Corporation that includes the slogan, “The Girl Who Made the Banjo Ukulele Famous!”
Breen’s association with the C. F. Martin Company is part of the guitar giant’s survival saga that included production of ukuleles. She embraced the new top-of-the-line koa wood Martin 5K and posed with it on sheet-music covers and method books that featured close-ups of chord positions on the 5K’s fretboard. Breen’s endorsement helped Martin promote the 5K as the finest ukulele in the world. Her custom instrument had “Ukulele Lady” inlaid on the fingerboard.
Correspondence between Martin and publisher William Smith, however, reveals a personality quirk in Breen—she was not good at paying her bills. Smith, who obtained instruments for Breen, was distressed that Martin had not let him send a ukulele to her C.O.D.: “I am sorry that you shipped this directly to her. She owes us $200 or $300, which has been on our books for more than two years, and she’s a pretty hard customer to get any money from.”
Stinginess notwithstanding, Breen published numerous method books between the 1920s and the 1950s. Her Kiddy Ukes introduced the instrument to tots. And the Ukulele Hall of Fame has sound files of a two-sided instructional 78 rpm she recorded. Breen’s contention that the ukulele was not merely meant for accompaniment emerged in an expression she coined and used in her instruction: “Uke can play the melody.” The solos she published for the ukulele demonstrate this. She also promoted the ukulele in schools and taught it at some private schools in New York City.
Breen formed a number of ukulele clubs in the New York area because she believed the fellowship in a club atmosphere enhanced learning. She hoped the club concept would spread. Given the explosion of uke clubs today in the United States alone, it’s fair to say say Breen would be thrilled.