BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Casey MacGill’s ukulele playing swings! That swing, that groove, that pulse has landed MacGill roles in major motion pictures and on Broadway, and even a tour de force appearance on The Gong Show. To discover this wellspring of swing we must enter the musical Wayback Machine. “I remember when I was about five or six, putting a 1950s honky-tonk piano record on the family stereo and just going absolutely cuckoo, dancing around until I got that holler from the kitchen to ‘stop jumping around in there!’” From that very early age it was apparent, at least to his mother, that little Casey MacGill had the rhythm in him. And over the course of the next six decades, aided by the humble ukulele, this rhythmic kid forged a swinging musical career. A steamship cruise from Los Angeles to Honolulu in 1957 would launch Casey on this epic journey.
In December 1917, Casey’s grandmother separated from her husband and moved from Los Angeles to Honolulu, taking her young daughter, Casey’s mother, with her. Forty years later, in December of 1957, seven-year-old Casey arrived in Hawaii with his parents aboard the S.S. Matsonia. Upon his arrival, his grandmother’s Christmas gift to him was a brand new Kamaka soprano ukulele. “My parents rented a car and a driver to take us sightseeing around the island,” Casey recalls. “The driver was a big Hawaiian guy. He saw my uke and asked me if I knew how to play. I said I didn’t, so he showed me a few chords and gave me a little bit of a start on it. I still have that ukulele.”
Casey MacGill was born July 2, 1950, and grew up in San Gabriel, California, a mid-century suburban paradise, east of the Los Angeles hubbub. From age six to eight, he was forced to take piano lessons, which he considered a form of punishment. He eventually returned to the piano at 17, teaching himself to play boogie-woogie and blues. But, for most of his formative years, the ukulele was his obsession.
“My original inspiration for playing the ukulele was watching a television show called Hootenanny around 1963. I was obsessed with learning folk songs like ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ and ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues.’ During my 8th-grade year we got an hour-long lunch break, and I remember racing home each day, jumping over fences, and inhaling my lunch in two minutes so I could go over to my friend’s house to play folk songs on our ukuleles.” Casey was so enthralled with folk music he would record the Hootenanny shows with his family’s reel-to-reel tape recorder so he could listen to them over and over.
Very little music was heard in the MacGill household while Casey was growing up. There was a piano in the house and Casey’s mother would practice her church vocal solos in an operatic voice (which Casey did not like), but besides that there was little else, other than watching The Lawrence Welk Show every Saturday night. “My dad had played cornet professionally when he was a young man. He was 72 when I was born, so by the time I knew him he had false teeth and didn’t play the horn anymore.”
In the early ’60s, Casey purchased a new Martin ukulele at a music store in Pasadena for $25. “I took some lessons at the music store where I bought the uke. Shortly after that, I got a guitar that I played for a few years—until I was 17 and saw Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, and I thought, there are some really good guitar players out there. Maybe I’ll just go back to piano.” But the siren song of the ukulele continued to tug at young Casey’s ears, and a year later, he was back playing folk songs on the uke. Then, a chance meeting with another teenager in a men’s clothing store in Pasadena changed Casey MacGill’s ears forever.
That teenager became Casey’s earliest musical mentor. His name is Robert Armstrong, and he would later become a founding member of Robert Crumb’s infamous Cheap Suit Serenaders, a string band that played music from the 1920s and earlier. “I had met Robert, who lived in Pasadena, when we were 14,” Casey says. “His father and my mother went to the same church. But it wasn’t until two years later that I ran into him in a men’s clothing store and we struck up a conversation and realized we had met before.” Armstrong continues the story: “I was lamenting to the clerk the fact that you could no longer get spats [a small cloth gaiter covering the instep and ankle area of shoes]. Casey was in the store and overheard the conversation, which got us talking about spats. As we continued to talk, we realized we had met before and found out we had a lot in common, including music.”
“Every time I’d visit Robert at his house,” Casey adds, “I’d hear some music I’d never heard before that I liked. It could be 1920s jazz, Clifton Chenier or Flaco Jimenez playing the accordion, or Robert Johnson or some other vintage blues music. Even as a teenager, Robert Armstrong was a virtual encyclopedia of music. He was a vital musical resource for me.”
A short time later, Casey and Robert, along with another friend, Tommy Gifford, formed a folk trio, calling themselves The DeSotos. Casey played his Martin ukulele, Robert a National guitar (bottleneck style), and Tommy washboard. “Back then, we didn’t have DVDs, so when a new movie came out, people had to go to the theater to see it,” Casey says. “In 1969, we would busk the movie lines in Westwood, near the UCLA campus. They were a captive audience. I remember one weekend working the lines, Easy Rider was playing in one theater and across the street was Midnight Cowboy.”
Casey made his decision to pursue a career in music while he was attending Pasadena City College. “I was listening to a big band concert at the college. While watching everyone performing, I thought to myself that I wanted to do that. I had been playing music up to that point, but I didn’t have a clear dedication to it.” Robert Armstrong, who also attended PCC, sums up Casey’s affinity for the beat: “Casey is a natural. He just absorbs the music and gets the feel. It’s so easy to launch into a tune with him. He sets up the rhythm in the first few measures and it’s off and running. Of everyone I know that’s playing old music, Casey best captures the feel of that era.”
PLAYING TO YOUR STRENGTHS
By now, Casey had become a real fan of early jazz (thanks again to his friend Robert Armstrong), and especially the music of Bix Beiderbecke, an influential jazz cornetist best known for his recordings from the 1920s. “By my mid-20s, I said to myself that I’ve got to try to make some of Bix’s sounds, so I started fooling around with the cornet.” Now boasting a trifecta of musical instruments—ukulele, piano, and cornet—Casey MacGill was ready to embark on a career in music. “I always loved the music of the ’20s and ’30s, but it took me the entire decade of the ’70s before I realized that was the music I played best,” he says. Of course, the ’70s weren’t without their highlights, as Casey performed on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and garnered a first-place tie on The Gong Show playing in a Spike Jones- inspired ensemble, the Rubber Band.
By the early 1980s, Casey was taking only jobs where he could play in the old jazz styles he was so fond of. This decision, of course, required he don the correct attire. “I had done a little collecting of vintage clothes ever since the late-’60s, so I decided I was going to wear those clothes on the jobs I played,” he says. “I was also looking for like-minded people that could authentically play in those styles.” Guitarist John Reynolds fit the bill perfectly. “John is a completely retro guy. His focus has always been old music.”
John remembers first meeting Casey at a Cheap Suit Serenaders party in Pasadena in 1975. “The entire band was there except R. Crumb, the famous cartoonist who fronted the band. We were playing old-fashioned music and it was fantastic.” Five years later, Casey and John, along with string-bass player David Jackson formed Mood Indigo. Sporting white dinner jackets, red carnations, and pencil-thin mustaches, the all-acoustic trio looked like they had just stepped out of a 1935 RKO musical. John goes on to say, “I just gravitated to the sound of old music and Casey has a great touch for that era also.” The band played a number of swank venues in and around Los Angeles, and at parties hosted by celebrities. Casey remembers a luncheon the group played at Burt Reynolds’ house. Among the guests was Fred Astaire. “Fred was alone at the buffet table with his back to us. So we are playing this song and all of a sudden, Fred goes into this time step, he starts dancing to our music! Our jaws just dropped to the ground.”
Casey’s ukuleles of choice during his Mood Indigo days were a Martin soprano and a Martin tenor. “I tuned the tenor down a whole-step to put me in the black keys [of the piano] for my voice. Then, in late 1983, I went to Hawaii again and found a Kamaka 6-string tenor, a liliu, and I ended up playing that for many years.” MacGill’s ukulele also landed him and the trio spots in two early-’80s feature films—Frances, starring Jessica Lange, and Swing Shift, with Goldie Hawn. But, he adds, there was a downside to being one of the only professional ukulele players gigging in southern California at the time. “One drawback to playing the ukulele back then was it seemed like everybody would make some lame joke to me like, ‘Hey, it’s Tiny Tim.’ I very seldom ran across another person that played the uke and in the early ’80s, I had to field a lot of those remarks.”
Casey left southern California in the mid ’80s and eventually settled in Spokane, Washington. “I ended up staying in Spokane for a long time. I wouldn’t recommend it for advancing your music career,” he says. But then, at the end of the 1990s, swing music and swing dancing came back into style, “so, I put a band together and start touring, playing swing dances. I also recorded a CD entitled Jump with another musician from Spokane with the goal of making the best CD with the music of that whole swing revival.” A few weeks after the recording was released, one copy had found its way down to a dance teacher in L.A. “Well, this dance instructor just happened to be helping the director of a Broadway musical called Swing! find dancers for the show in Los Angeles. The director heard my swing CD and called me. She said ‘I’m so-and-so and I’m directing a show on Broadway called Swing! and I love your CD.’ And I said, ‘Is that Broadway, like, in New York?’” It was.
Not only was Casey offered a role in Swing!, but the show also featured four of his songs. After a year on Broadway at the St. James Theater, Casey was ready for a change, and he returned to Spokane. Now 50 years old and thinking “I don’t want to die here,” Casey sold his house and moved to Seattle. “Around that time, in the early 2000s, swing music’s popularity was winding down, but coincidentally that’s when the ukulele started to become popular again. Tiny Tim died in 1996 and I have this strong feeling his passing allowed the ukulele to enter a whole new chapter.”
Fellow ukulele great and Seattle musician Del Rey met Casey when he first moved to the Emerald City. “I played rhythm guitar with Casey’s swing band when he first moved to Seattle from Spokane and he was putting together various pickup bands. The great thing about Casey is that he is so connected to the dancers’ rhythms. He has that uplift of a great swing player that makes the dancers dance. To me, his sense of time and how he lifts up the rhythm section of a band is a direct link back to the olden days.”
As Casey explains, “I’m not interested in soloing on the ukulele. I use it to accompany my singing. I’m playing for people who want to dance. I enjoy creating a pulse with the instrument. It works so well for that! One of the most important things I’ve realized in playing the old music that I like is the space in-between the beats. By that, I mean where there’s no sound. To create that you have to learn how to mute your strumming. The muting is not a separate activity; it’s the conclusion of the strum. It also has to be a very even pattern. Another way to look at it is like if you are stitching thread. If it’s topstitching, like on the lapel of a coat, you want all the threads to be even, and the spaces between them to be even. Otherwise, it’s sloppy. It doesn’t look good.”
Casey teaches a workshop called “My Three Strums” to help ukulele players hear the rhythmic pulse of the music. “There are some people where rhythm comes naturally, and there are some people, who for whatever reason, have built-in speed bumps on the road to their rhythm. If I encounter people like that, I try to help them, through my workshop, to eliminate those obstacles so we can all have that experience of playing with that beat.”
And when it comes to learning the vintage material, Casey has a systematic regimen. “When I learn an old song, I first like to listen to some of the recordings that are out there and see what’s been done before with the song. Next, I try to find the original sheet music on eBay. This research gets me closer to the original source, not some fake book. I’ll type out the lyrics and make a chord chart for myself. For people without the musical skills to decipher what’s going on with the music from the chart, I suggest they find a teacher or professional musician that can teach them the best possible understanding of the song. You’ll also want to experiment to find the best key that fits your voice.”
Current favorites Casey likes to sing and play are “It’s Been So Long,” a Walter Donaldson tune from the 1930s, and “I’m Through With Love,” a ballad that was introduced by Bing Crosby. “Both of those songs are in E-flat. If you’re going to play the old music, you need to become comfortable playing in the flat keys.”
For nearly the last 20 years, MacGill’s ukulele of choice has been his John Morton 6-string tenor. It’s a nickel-plated brass resonator ukulele, and one of the best things about the instrument, according to Casey, is how it helps his singing. “Not only do I like the big, rich tone of the Morton ukulele, after playing it for a few weeks, I noticed that using it helped improve my singing because I could hear the pitch reference of the ukulele much more easily than my previous six-string instrument.” Another big advantage to the six-string resonator is the silk-wound string Casey uses to double up the first A string. “I would say that I get 30 to 50 percent more volume from the instrument just from that one silk-wound string.”
MacGill regularly swings in Seattle leading the Casey MacGill Trio and Casey MacGill and His High Five. The group’s new album, Am I Blue, grooves in the traditional swing dance genre of the 1930s with all the tunes falling between 120 and 220 beats-per-minute. According to Casey, “What makes this recording shine are the vocal and horn arrangements.” The CD is currently available on CD Baby and Amazon. MacGill can also be found fronting The Casey MacGill Orchestra, a 13-piece band, and sitting in as an occasional member of the Cheap Suit Serenaders. He also teaches at numerous ukulele retreats and festivals. Casey MacGill has been swinging hard for over 40 years, and one thing is for sure: As long as Casey is strumming his nickel-plated 6-string resonator ukulele with the pulse, the old tunes will continue to swing!
Casey’s main axe was made by luthier John Morton of Port Townsend, Washington. The 6-string Modèle Armstrong tenor resonator ukulele features a nickel-plated brass body with a headstock patterned after the elevator doors of New York’s Chrysler Building, with decorative etching designed by MacGill’s long-time friend, artist and musician Robert Armstrong. Casey uses Aquila strings, replacing the first A-string with the first string from a silk-wound set of classical guitar strings.
Am I Blue? (2018)
Casey MacGill & the High Five
Casey MacGill’s Blue 4 Trio
Swing! Original Broadway Cast Recording
(Sony Masterworks, 2000)
Casey MacGill & the Spirits of Rhythm