Some of the Great Ukulele Players...
Ernest Kaai was the first Hawaiian-born virtuoso ukulele player and was a formidable figure in the Hawaiian music world in the first quarter of this century. Besides being adept at the ukulele, Kaai was also a superb violin, guitar and steel guitar player. By the age of 19, he was playing in and organizing ensembles. At one time, he had as many as 12 bands playing in the Islands. He not only promoted Hawaiian music in Hawaii, but on the mainland as well. But it was as a ukulele player that most remember Kaai. It was Johnny Noble, Hawaii's greatest composer, who said Kaai was "Hawaii's greatest ukulele player". Due to his musical ability, he is credited with making the ukulele into a featured instrument in Hawaiian groups. He also published the first ukulele instruction book, "The Ukulele, A Hawaiian Guitar", published in 1916. This book presented the ukulele as a sophisticated musical instrument and included exotic chords and and complicated strums. In 1940, Kaai retired to Miami, Florida, where he opened a music store and performed off and on. He died in 1962.
"King" Benny Nawahi was born in Honolulu on July 3rd, 1899. By the age of 20 he was a full time ukulele, steel and mandolin player for Matson Lines and was playing with his brother Joe's group, The Hawaiian Novelty Five. After a few years playing aboard ships, King Benny, as he was known, left to pursue a career in vaudeville as a ukulele virtuoso. He amazed audiences across the mainland with his unique style, including playing ukulele with one hand and even behind his head! He became totally blind in 1935, but even this didn't stop him.
Blind from the age of 10, John Kameaaloha Almeida was a composer (over 300 songs), vocalist, instrumentalist, teacher, bandleader, recording artist, and recording executive. He was truly one of the outstanding figures in Hawaiian music history and was known as the "Dean of Hawaiian Music". Songs that he composed include Green Rose Hula, Roselani Blossoms, and perhaps his most famous, Pua Tuberose. He had the reputation as a Casanova, and legend has it that "Pua Tuberose" was inspired by a flower in the hair of a pretty lady. He was an accomplished ukulele player and performed with such great artists as Genoa Keawe, Julia Nui, Joe Keawe and Alvin Isaacs. In fact, many outstanding musicians of today give credit to Almeida for launching their careers, including Genoa Keawe, Bill Lincoln, Billy Hew Len and David Kelii. Almeida also served as chief musician for the Matson Navigation Company from 1924-1927. At the end of World War II, George K. Ching started "49th State Hawaii Records" (at the time, many business people thought Hawaii was to be the 49th state, but Alaska beat them to it) and hired Almeida as the label's musical director. The musical catalogue of 49th State Records includes some of the greatest Hawaiian music ever recorded.
Jesse Kaleihia Andre Kalima was born in Honolulu on October 31, 1920. His mother often performed with Hawaiian songbird, Lena Mechado, so at the age of 6 Jesse was taught to dance the hula and play ukulele. At the age of 15, he burst onto the public scene when he entered and won "The Hawaii Amateur Championship" in 1935. He won this contest with his incredible version on "Stars and Stripes Forever", which was to become his signature tune. Soon, Jesse joined up with his brother, Honey, and his cousin, Junior, and The Kalima Brothers were born. As the Kalima Brothers grew older and gained weight, they became affectionately known as "1000 Pounds of Melody".
Another notable island musician was Andy Cummings. In 1938, he was nearing the end of an eight month U.S. mainland and Canada tour, when he arrived in Lansing, Michigan. The temperature was 5 degrees above zero, quite cold for an islander, as you can imagine. Walking back to his hotel after their show, Andy thought of the white sandy beach of Waikiki, with it's rolling surf, palm trees and warm sunshine. He went immediately to his room, picked up his ukulele, and composed one of the classic songs in the history of Hawaiian music, "Waikiki". Later, Andy would combine his talents with another of Hawaii's all time greatest, Gabby "Pops" Pahinui.
Eddie Kamae was 14 years old when his brother brought home a ukulele he had found on a Honolulu city bus. He knew no chords and had no idea how to play it, but he loved the sound it made. He learned whatever he could from his brother, other musicians, and from books. Within a short time he was one of Hawaii's great players and experimented with new ukulele techniques, stretching the ukulele to it's full potential. In the late 50s and early 60s, Kamae became immersed in his own culture, studying the old ways of Hawaiian music. He founded "The Sons of Hawaii", with fellow Hawaiian musicians Gabby Pahinui, David "Feet" Rogers and Joe Marshall. Above is Hawaiian living legend Eddie Kamae, along with Bradda Smitty.
In 1944, a small boy came to the KGMB studios in downtown Honolulu to play his ukulele for the "Amateur Hour". He took home first prize-$10, along with a comb and brush set. He returned the following week and again he won first prize. When he came back a third time, they sent him home. He was just too good and it wasn't fair to the other contestants. The boy was Herb Ohta, later to be known as Ohta-San. Two years later he met Eddie Kamae, who taught the young Ohta-San a number of sophisticated techniques and told him to practice hard. Now, over 50 years later and after some 30 albums, Ohta-San is recognized as one of the world's top ukulele players.
Kahauanu Lake has been an influence on Hawaiian music and ukulele for over 50 years. For many of those years he and his band, the Kahauanu Lake Trio, were a fixture at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. There is a real "Kahauanu Lake Style", where he uses very interesting strums and chord changes.
Bill Tapia...the innovator of 'ukulele jazz and the proverbial "hardest working man in show business, this Honolulu native has performed with such famed Hawaiian musicians as King Bennie Nawahi, Sol Ho'opi'i, and Andy Iona, and crossed paths with a sparkling list of entertainers, from Mary Pickford and Clark Gable, to Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, to Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Temple, and even to Elvis Presley! The list reads like who's-who of 20th- century pop-culture icons. Bill, with his incredible memory and dramatic flare for storytelling, still vividly recreates with ease these often mischievous and always entertaining encounters.
This is the man more responsible than any other for getting me into ukulele music, the one and only Bradda IZ Kamakawiwo'ole, da Hawaiian Supah-man! For more on Bradda IZ's life and times, go here.
Uncle Moe Keale; Waikiki Beach Boy, TV star (Hawaii 5-0), and one of the great Hawaiian ukulele players. Uncle Moe plays a beautiful 5 string CK Young tenor ukulele
Jake Shimabukuro is the hottest 'ukulele player to come along in a LONG time. His speed of light playing and his great stage presence have propelled him to the top of the 'ukulele hierarchy in just a few short years. He has several solo albums out and they are fun to listen to. Shimabukuro's appearance dramatically altered traditional perceptions of 'ukulele music. Playing with incredible technique and great feeling, he covers all types of music from Hawaiian to classical, jazz, rock, blues, funk and of course, improvisation that comes naturally to the 'ukulele, Shimabukuro continues to be a source of inspiration to the Hawaiian music scene.
David Kamakahi (son of legendary slack key player and composer, Dennis Kamakahi) picked up the ukulele at the age of 15. Just a few years later, he was recording with his dad on albums such as 'Ohana, Hui Aloha, and Na Oiwi. David has learned to play the ukulele under the legendary Eddie Kamae.
Troy Fernandez (on the left), formerly of the group Ka'au Crater Boys and now of the group Palolo, is one of the best and fastest uke players of today's generation...
Ukulele music is not only Hawaiian music. Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike, sang and recorded hundreds of songs in the 20s, 30s and 40s, some which are still in print. Cliff was born in Hannibal, Missouri in 1895. When he was a young boy he started out in his musical career by singing in the local bars for a free lunch. He eventually found his way to St. Louis, where he learned to play the ukulele, the instrument that would become his trademark. He rarely had any accompaniment, so he had to learn to improvise. This he did by cupping his hands and imitating a trumpet, his famous "scat" singing. In the mid 20s, Cliff played in many acts, including playing with George Gershwin, followed by a Ziegfeld Broadway musical. It was during this time that he earned the nickname, "Ukulele Ike", which stuck with him throughout his career.
Over the next two decades, Cliff appeared in over 100 films. But by far his most famous performance was in the Walt Disney cartoon, "Pinocchio", where he sang "When You Wish Upon A Star". It is this song that people remember him most by.
But by the late 40s the jobs ran dry and Cliff never had another good job. He passed away in a California nursing home in 1971, destitute and almost forgotten. A newspaperwoman stumbled on the story and started a fund raising campaign for a proper funeral for the once famous "Ukulele Ike".
Roy Smeck, known as "The Wizard of the Strings", was not only a virtuoso ukulele player, but also played guitar, banjo and Hawaiian steel guitar. But it was the ukulele that was his favorite and he made famous on the uke songs like "Five Foot Two", "Ain't She Sweet", The 12th Street Rag", and "Stars and Stripes Forever". Harmony made several ukuleles under his name, the most unusual being the Vita Uke, a pear shaped soprano uke with seal shaped soundholes. For more on Roy Smeck, check this out...
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