BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE WINTER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
It’s 1972, and the “second wave” of ukulele novelty is rapidly receding from the shores of popularity. The peculiar antics of Tiny Tim during this time would secure the public opinion that the ukulele was a toy; an inconsequential aside to “real” musical instruments. So who in their right mind during this period would open a music store in the wilds of southeast Michigan that included ukuleles? The answer is Stan Werbin and Sharon McInturff, founders of the now-iconic Elderly Instruments in the state’s capital of Lansing. In June 2022, the store celebrated its 50th anniversary with a street party in front of its North Washington Avenue location. Hundreds of revelers celebrated the half-century anniversary of a music store that shepherded the ukulele through more than two decades of relative obscurity and into its “third wave” of popularity.
According to Werbin, “When we started in 1972, the ukulele to virtually everyone in the country meant Tiny Tim. There was some residual interest left over from Arthur Godfrey’s time, so there were a lot of ukuleles around. People would bring us ukuleles, but we’d tell them we couldn’t give them much for them.” But soon, the store had an excellent selection of vintage ukuleles. Werbin says, “The main ukulele I play, which I think we got in the late ’70s, is a 1920s Martin Style 3, a very primo vintage ukulele. It was all original, and it sounded and played great. I loved it, so I kept it. I paid $25, and I thought that was a fair price to offer at the time.”
Ukulele master Gerald Ross worked at Elderly from 1978 to 1982. Ross, a guitar player at the time, remembers his early thoughts about the ukulele: “I didn’t belittle it or see it as an inferior instrument. I thought it was a great instrument with a different sound.”
During Ross’ employment, Elderly was one of the world’s biggest retailers of Martin guitars. “Every Saturday, people would drive from hundreds of miles away to buy a Martin D-18 or D-28 at Elderly. They often would want to trade in an old Martin ukulele from the ’20s or a Rickenbacker steel guitar
from the ’30s. I was such a fool for letting those instruments slip through my hands!”
Regardless of the ukulele’s diminished musical and social status in the late ’70s, Werbin became a staunch advocate for the instrument. And, acting as some musical Nostradamus, Werbin proudly proclaimed in the store’s mail-order catalog that the ukulele would be “the instrument of the ’80s!” “People thought we were out of our minds,” he laughs. “It was fun.”
Once the ’80s passed, Elderly admitted the ukulele wasn’t the instrument of the ’80s; it was the instrument of the ’90s! Werbin finishes the thought by saying, “We just started calling it the instrument of the 21st century.”
And that optimistic prophecy pretty much came true. “By the end of the ’90s,” Werbin says, “the third ukulele wave was the real thing nationally and internationally. People started figuring out this was a fun, inexpensive little instrument.” A decade later, in 2010, worldwide ukulele sales reached over 500,000, and kept climbing. Werbin adds that southeast Michigan is now a hotbed of ukulele activity. “I’d say within a four-hour drive of Lansing there are at least 15 to 20 ukulele clubs.” The state’s flagship ukulele group happens to be located in Elderly’s city—The Lansing Area Ukulele Group, which they abbreviate as LAUGH.
Guiding Elderly forward are Werbin and his daughter Lillian, now a co-owner in the business. So what kind of prediction can Werbin make as Elderly Instruments enters its second half-century? Sage Werbin speaks: “It’s 2022, and some people think that interest in the ukulele is starting to go down. I don’t think so. I think it’s just peaked.”
After building such a legacy as one of the nation’s great purveyors of stringed instruments, the only regret Stan Werbin probably has is that he didn’t buy ten Martin Style 3s when they cost $25!