Music Reviews

Legends of the Ukulele

Various Artists

Rhino

Let’s play ukulele trivia.

How do you pronounce “ukulele”? Wrong. It’s pronounced, “oo-koo-le-le.” Where did the ukulele come from? Well, duh, it’s Hawaii, but before that, the instrument essentially came to those islands from immigrants on a ship from the Portuguese island of Madeira way back in 1879. How popular is the ukulele? So popular that it’s undergone its share of revivals, including a wave of Tin Pan Alley songs in the early 1900s, the ’40s and ’50s, as Hawaiian culture was carried by U.S. servicemen and other personnel in the postwar era, and briefly in the late ’60s, thanks to Tiny Tim’s classic cover of “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips With Me.”

But the real question may be, is the ukulele deserving of respect as a legitimate musical instrument, or is just a punchline to a kitschy musical joke? Decide for yourself on this Rhino comp, which certainly challenges you to like an instrument that literally looks and sounds like it got shrunk in the wash. A serious listen to this 18-track offering is an eye-opener of sorts, not just because of the aforementioned trivia to be learned, but also from the surprising mellifluousness of the instrument. The “uke” works in a ragtime style, as heard on the opening track, “12th Street Rag” by Johnny Marvin with William Carola, and as a flamenco piece such as Eddie Kamae’s “Granada.” The instrument obviously got the lounge treatment in the ’50s/’60s, as evidenced by Johnny Ukulele’s very unwarlike “Hawaiian War Chant” in 1960. And yes, of course, there’s Tiny Tim’s classic, which compiler/producer/liner note author/contributor Jim Beloff gets out of the way in the second track.

The only true weak link in the package is a woeful cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. While this may an honorable attempt to lend dignity to the ukulele, let’s keep it away from rock `n’ roll, shall we? No sense in getting crushed.

But is it worth it? Well, I do have this sudden urge to go to Wal-Mart, but it could be just a phase.


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