Gods of Uke: How Arthur Godfrey Helped Spark the 1950s Uke Craze

By Karen Peterson

For those of a certain age, somewhere in the memory banks is the image of a smiling, freckle-faced, red-headed guy—not the marionette Howdy Doody—wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt and plucking a ukulele. It was Arthur Godfrey, and in the baby days of television, the early 1950s, the “Ole Redhead,” as he called himself, was the undisputed king. To say he ruled the airwaves is not hyperbole: At the height of his career, he had two TV shows and a radio talk show, all three on CBS, with a combined fan base of an estimated 40 million.

It was an impressive number of followers; thanks to Godfrey, CBS was bringing in $5 million a year in advertising, 12 percent of the broadcaster’s annual ad revenue. His Monday night show, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, was the America’s Got Talent of its era, introducing American viewers to up-and-coming stars—all handpicked by Godfrey—including Tony Bennett, Patsy Cline, Rosemary Clooney (actor George Clooney’s aunt), and Italian crooner Julius La Rosa, a popular cast member. (Godfrey had good taste, to a point—he rejected appearances by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.)

His other TV show was Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, which aired on Tuesdays, though the Monday night Talent Scouts was not only the bigger hit, it aired 30 minutes before another all-time American favorite, I Love Lucy.

In the beginning, critics loved Godfrey for his all-American persona. He was the Huck Finn of entertainment, “apple pie likable,” said one, with a “small-boy mischievousness” about him, effused another. The man was on fire, until his career took a nosedive following a bad-karma public firing of La Rosa for what Godfrey considered high treason—striking out on his own, and with his own handpicked manager to boot. But that’s show biz. In one day, out the next. Controversy aside, Godfrey will forever remain a star in the annals of TV history—for his incredible talent in entertaining the masses and for his proficiency as a huckster. In those days, TV personalities delivered the ads for their sponsors, and Godfrey was a genius on-air salesman.


As Seen on TV

Godfrey did more to popularize the ukulele in the United States than even the Hawaiian Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Introduced to the ukulele by a Hawaiian shipmate during his stint in the Navy, Godfrey loved the uke, played it incessantly, and promoted it and its players. He even talked CBS into sponsoring a 15-minute TV show that taught people how to play it. The show was short-lived, but it put the ukulele in the spotlight and helped catapult Godfrey into the ukulele history books.

Inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum in 2001, he was honored for single-handedly initiating “the second great wave of ukulele popularity in the United States” (the first followed the Panama-Pacific Expo) and for being the primary sales force behind the ukulele-buying mania that swept the country in the early 1950s. Godfrey’s general endorsement of ukuleles sold millions; his endorsement of the new plastic Islander ukes from Mastro Plastics created a buying frenzy. Developed by Mario Maccaferri, in conjunction with engineers at Dow Chemical Co., the Styron ukes sold for $5.95, and, with Godfrey’s blessing, nine million Islanders were snatched up over the next two decades.

Some say that Godfrey was the inspiration behind the development of the baritone ukulele, though that fine point of music history is still debated. (He’s credited as such by the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum.) Others, including David Hodge, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Ukulele, suggest that the honor goes to John Favilla of Favilla Guitars, a once-thriving stringed-instrument company in New York City. According to Hodge, Favilla built the baritone at the urging of his son, Herk, who wanted to use it as a guitar-teaching tool. Godfrey’s baritone model was built by banjo player Eddie Connors—who recorded with such big-band greats as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and also worked as a musician at CBS—at Godfrey’s request. Manufactured by the Vega Co. of Boston, it went by the name Arthur Godfrey Baritone Ukulele De Luxe.

It doesn’t really matter, in hindsight, which came first, the Favilla or Connors version. The fact that it exists at all is a crowning achievement, and without hesitation, you can give Godfrey a standing ovation for his dogged devotion to the little “OO-KOO-lele,” as he correctly coos it in his signature tune, “Makin’ Love Ukulele Style.”

 This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.
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Ukulele Spring 2015