With My Little Ukulele in My Hand
The ukulele (Hawaiian for "jumping flea") was a 19th century Polynesian modification of the Portuguese cavaquinho, a guitar-like object of modest proportions introduced to the inhabitants of the Hawaiian archipelago by immigrants from the North Atlantic island of Madeira. Mainland North America's first mass exposure to both the ukulele and the lap steel guitar occurred at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, where George E.K. Awai's Royal Hawaiian Quartette attracted a lot of attention performing week after week at the exposition's Hawaiian Pavilion. This little group has been credited with inadvertently triggering a nationwide trend as dozens of Tin Pan Alley songwriters and millions of curious citizens quickly developed a lively interest in both authentic and pseudo-Hawaiian music that lasted throughout the 1920s. In 2008 the ever-resourceful Proper label brought out Properbox 140, a 104-track compilation entitled With My Little Ukulele in My Hand. This excellent and entertaining survey of ethnic and popular music covers a healthy span of years (1916-1957) and includes examples of the ukulele's active role in genuine Hawaiian, vaudeville, country, pop, and jazz music. Most of the early ukulele and steel guitar luminaries heard on this compilation were born in the Hawaiian Islands, as were Frank Ferara (1885-1951); "Hawaiian Jazz King" John Avery, "Johnny" Noble (1892-1944); King Bennie Nawahi (1899-1985); Sol Hoopii (1902-1953); Andrew "Andy" Iona Lona (1902-1966); Lani McIntire (1904-1951); Sam Ku West (1907-1930), and Andrew Kealoha "Andy" Cummings (1913-1995). Additional Hawaiians who are audible on the first disc of this box set are ukulele master William Kalama, steel guitarists Tau Savea Moe and Mike Hanapi; harp guitarist Bob Nawahine, and six-string guitarist Dave Kaleipua Munson. The ukulele's rise in popularity through comedic vaudeville is wonderfully represented here with 18 performances by Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards (1895-1971), a man best remembered as having provided the voice of Walt Disney's Jiminy Cricket; then with seven selections performed by Oklahoma-born Johnny Marvin, who also recorded under the name of Honey Duke & His Uke. Further examples from this lighthearted realm are credited to the Knickerbockers, a normally banjo-driven dance band here fortified with conspicuously strummed ukuleles; Illinois-born early vocal star Vaughn DeLeath (1894-1943), and England's George Formby, Jr., an ex-racehorse jockey whose father was a legendary British music hall comedian. Following in dad's footsteps, Formby cooked up all kinds of topical mischief, and managed to get some of his songs banned by the BBC, including the genitally inspired title track and its apparent cousin, "With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock." Reading, PA's Roy Smeck (1900-1994) made lots of records during the '20s and '30s, even playing steel guitar and harmonica with King Oliver. Smeck's ukulele technique as demonstrated on this collection is really marvelous, and like Johnny Marvin he's since had an entire line of ukuleles named after him. The anthology closes with examples from Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), Jimmie Davis (1899-2000), Louis Armstrong, who in August 1936 recorded a couple of Hawaiian tunes for Decca with Andy Iona, string bassist Joe Nawahi, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and a group billed as the Polynesians; Bing Crosby, whose Hawaiian routine would have benefited from a cameo appearance by Dorothy Lamour, and Cleveland's own Lyle Ritz, a legendary L.A. session man whose "Ritz Cracker" and "Playmates" come from his 1957 Verve album How About Uke?