By Eddie Scher
I bought my 1928 Gibson Style 0 soprano ukulele about 10 years ago at Real Guitars, a crowded little independent shop in San Francisco. I strummed a tune or two before realizing that the other players there had stopped playing to listen. That’s not me, that’s all vibe. I’ll take it.
I didn’t know much except it was my first great ukulele and the faded “The Gibson” stencil on the headstock meant that it was 1920s. I’ve always been most excited about old instruments. And as my musical tastes veered esoterically back to ragtime and vaudeville, so too has my taste for the instruments from those times. In the guitar world “vintage” mostly means instruments from 1950s and ’60s. “Prewar” means 1930s. So we’re starting to stretch into “antique” territory here.
The allure of antiques is the craftsmanship and materials, and also the patina that comes from unknown people enjoying the thing for many years before it came to you. The dings are hints at people and stories that you’ll never know. On this “The Gibson” there’s lot’s of honest wear from many many hours of playing, the finish is gone on the top from years of strumming, plus scratches, chips and edges worn round from players who truly loved this uke.
As I paid, the guy behind the counter fished out a dusty little black case with magenta fuzz interior. If the uke didn’t give away its age, the case certainly showed it. Fraying rubbery exterior, rust covered hinges and latches, and a mostly worn-through stitched leather handle. “The original,” he told me.
I carry this ukulele in a sturdy new case, so it wasn’t until the editor of this magazine, Greg Olwell, asked to photograph the uke with the old case that I took it out and gave it a good dusting. That’s when I first noticed the traces of block lettering on the lid, probably painted with stencils or from letters that were glued on. Whatever it was, all that remains are dark impressions where the letters once were. I couldn’t make them out, but under warm afternoon sunlight Greg could read, “LT. RUDOLPH BAILEY” stenciled on both sides of the case along with what appears to be a partially legible service number.
Google brought us to the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, library archive website and a digital copy of an old newsprint column from the Tuscaloosa News with the headline, “Rites are held for Lt. Bailey.” US Army Air Corps bombardier Lieutenant Rudolph Bailey, “was killed in a bomber crash over Lakeland, Florida, on April 23, 1943.” Two Martin B-26 Marauder bombers flying a low altitude training mission collided that day. One of the stories of this ukulele—concerning a musician and a very dangerous time during the second World War—instantly became very real.
I believe I can be relatively confident that this is the same Lt. Bailey… or at least that’s as far as Google will take me. I also found threads that led me to his widow, who passed in 2010, and a daughter named Rudy. I’ve reached out to the family, just to share this very small part of his story. I’m also pretty confident, even if I’ll never really know, that the reason this ukulele sounds so great is the many hours of ragtime, vaudeville, swing, and hot jazz tunes played by the Lieutenant and everyone else who has touched this ukulele over the past 90 years.