BY AUDREY COLEMAN | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
“So you’re asking yourself, ‘Am I able to create a robust arrangement in such a way that with a handful of chords beginners can have fun with it? And most of the songs should work for playing alone, with someone else, or with 50 people?’”
Jim Beloff recalls poring over hundreds of songs in every songbook that he and his wife Liz could find, in order to come up with 365 of them for The Daily Ukulele. The book became one of the most popular songbooks published by Flea Market Music, Inc., the company they founded 26 years ago.
Although they were looking for well-known songs, there were exceptions. “Miss the Mississippi and You” by Bill Halley can be found in the book because, in Jim’s words, “It’s such a beautiful song. It moved us so deeply.”
Leaning toward upbeat selections, they still considered a few that had a darker mood, though in the case of “The Sound of Silence,” recalls Jim, “I imagined 50 people singing, ‘Hello darkness, my old friend…’ and I took a pass on it.”
After the Daily Ukulele was in circulation, customers demanded a new edition. More foraging for songs yielded The Daily Ukulele: Leap Year Edition, published in 2012. Five years later, a new member of the Daily family arrived—The Daily Ukulele: Leap Year Edition for Baritone.
How did the saga of Flea Market Music begin? The correct answer is—unexpectedly.
The ukulele tiptoed into dedicated guitarist Jim Beloff’s mind thanks to Liz’s dad. One day he happened to hear his father-in-law playing the uke. The sequence of beautiful chords astonished him. So Jim listened to him play on subsequent occasions, marveling at the sophisticated arrangements of the Tin Pan Alley tunes played on an instrument he’d dismissed as a toy. He decided that if he ever found a nice ukulele, he’d buy it.
Liz and Jim Beloff are, in Jim’s words, “certified junkers.” They love wandering around flea markets, and did so frequently when they lived in New York City. But 1991 brought a change of scene. Billboard magazine, Jim’s employer at the time, transferred him to Los Angeles head up the office there. Once settled, the couple discovered, to their pleasure, the popular flea market that sprawls alongside Pasadena’s famous stadium, the Rose Bowl. On their very first visit to the Rose Bowl Flea Market, they came across a Martin tenor ukulele priced at $250. Liz had the cash.
“I tell people to be careful what they buy at a flea market. It can change your life,” says Jim. “It was love at first strum.”
Immediately, playing the uke opened up new chordal and melodic possibilities for Jim. In short order, the four-string instrument replaced the guitar as his tool for songwriting. This also made him eager to learn songs arranged for the ukulele. Searching in local music stores, he and Liz found next to nothing until they visited a little shop in East L.A. The elderly owner shuffled out of a back room carrying a stack of some 25 vintage songbooks. The Beloffs bought them all.
Admiring the exquisite arrangements of classic mid-century pop tunes, Jim thought it strange and sad that they were not readily available, and that it would be wonderful if he and Liz could put some into a book—even if nobody bought it. But how could they get a project like this off the ground?
Both had demanding jobs. Liz, a gifted graphic designer, created title sequences for films. (She’s best known for the TriStar Pictures flying horse logo.) Jim was associate publisher of Billboard magazine overseeing domestic advertising sales. One day, after concluding some Billboard business with a woman from MPL, Paul McCartney’s music publishing company, he happened to share his “crazy idea” of assembling a book of ukulele arrangements from vintage songbooks. She recommended he contact an independent editor she knew who specialized in putting together songbooks. Ronny Schiff thought the book idea was fun and agreed to help find a publisher/distributor.
Flea Market Music became the company name. It evoked the place where Jim and Liz had come upon that Martin tenor. It also incorporated the name Hawaiians gave the lively sounding instrument when it arrived on their shores—ukulele—or “jumping flea.” Schiff successfully pitched the book concept to Hal Leonard Corporation, the prolific and successful publisher and distributor of sheet music, songbooks, method books, DVDs, music software, and internet-based resources. That first book, Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Favorites, began the couple’s ongoing business relationship with Hal Leonard, which distributes Flea Market Music books and also has commissioned other titles. It partners 50-50 with Flea Market on The Daily Ukulele series. Equally enduring is the collaboration with Ronny Schiff, who continues to edit all of the company’s books.
Although Liz and Jim intended to do just one book, the first did so well that Hal Leonard suggested publishing a how-to-play title: Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Tips ’N’ Tunes was so successful that the distributor requested another book. And then another. During the mid-’90s, the increasing demand for such materials resulted from rising interest in the ukulele nationwide. “People would write to us and suggest things, like, ‘Hey, why don’t you do a book of country songs?’ And we’d think, ‘That’s a good idea,’” Jim says.
Brisk business at Flea Market, plus his full-time Billboard job did not stop Jim from satisfying his inner collector. “I’m on a tear buying all these vintage ukes—Regal and the Harmony ukes from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s; fun ones like the Betty Boop uke. A lot of them are really colorful and rare. At the same time, I’m collecting songbooks, photographs, albums, and starting to trade with other people. It’s getting to be kind of crazy, but it’s a joyful thing.”
Jim particularly admired the collection of a good friend he’d met at the Rose Bowl Flea Market named Chuck Fayne, who had 500 rare, vintage ukuleles on his walls. Jim wondered if there was a book with lots of photographs that collectors used to identify vintage instruments, but his research turned up only a 60-page pamphlet commemorating the ukulele’s arrival in Hawaii—and that contained only black and white photographs. Disappointed, he flirted with the idea that someday he might write the book he’d been looking for.
Suddenly, in 1996, the idea took on urgency. “My friend Chuck announced he was moving to Australia and he was taking his ukuleles with him,” Jim recalls. “I knew in the back of my mind that if I was ever going to do this history book, I had to fill it with color photographs of some of his wonderful and rare ukuleles.”
From there, the project moved into high gear. He collected still more photographs, albums, and ukuleles, and Ronny Schiff found Backbeat Books, a San Francisco–based publisher of music-related titles. Jim managed to recruit a supremely talented designer he knew through Billboard: Tommy Steele, who was the VP of Art and Design for Capitol Records. Jim wanted to emulate the style of a beautiful, photo-driven book Steele once had authored on the history of the Hawaiian shirt. The designer agreed to work on the project with a partner. “Immediately we went over to Chuck’s place and took pictures of hundreds of his ukes,” Jim says. “We photographed the sheet music I had collected and all the other ephemera… and somehow I did this book. Looking back, I don’t think I could do it today, but I was very pleased with the way it came out.” The Ukulele: A Visual History was published in 1997 and is still in print.
Then came an unexpected project. When Jim showed his book to an executive from Rhino Records, who had put out a cult-classic CD called Legends of the Accordion, Rhino immediately proposed he do an album of ukulele legends. Jim’s 18-track compilation includes ukulele pioneers in the realms of jazz, pop, and traditional Hawaiian music, among them Eddie Kamae, Lyle Ritz, and Herb Ohta. Also included were lesser-known masters such as Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, whose arrangements Liz and Jim had discovered in a vintage songbook, and Hawaiian virtuoso, Troy Fernandez, whose lightning leaps and runs were thrilling young audiences. Rhino released Legends of Ukulele in 1998, the same year Jim decided to leave Billboard and immerse himself in ukulele projects.
His decision to leave this job to focus on his burgeoning business seems to embody the watchword coined by renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell: Follow your bliss. Who or what influenced Jim Beloff to heed that advice? He remembers that his parents were “more concerned with my doing something I loved than with my doing any particular thing.” Also influential were his undergraduate years at innovative Massachusetts-based Hampshire College, where, he says, “it was inculcated in you that no barrier should be too great. Whatever you don’t know, you can learn. So the idea of building a business around the ukulele did not seem all that intimidating.”
Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, Jim’s brother-in-law, a successful engineer named Dale Webb, had become disenchanted with corporate life and wanted to do something new. Jim proposed Dale apply his professional skills to designing a new style of ukulele, one proudly made in the USA. Jim was convinced there was a market to tap, since music stores had such a paltry selection. He addressed Dale’s qualms and tried to inspire him by pointing to photos in the Visual History book and telling him: “You don’t necessarily have to bend wood… Look at these pictures! There are square ukuleles, ukuleles shaped like airplanes, all sorts of oddball shapes and sizes. Don’t let the classic miniature guitar shape throw you. If you can come up with something more appropriate, go for it.”
Dale embraced the challenge and went to work. Eventually, he designed a ukulele that had a flat bottom, allowing it to stand up. Thanks to Liz’s flair for creating catchy names like Flea Market Music and Jumpin’ Jim, the instrument became the Fluke. She dubbed a later, smaller model the Flea.
In 1999, Dale arrived in Los Angeles with demo models to exhibit. Jim had booked a booth at NAMM, the gigantic music-trade show which in those days was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. On the display table, he and Liz placed a few books. One day at the booth, Jim noticed someone pick up his Visual History. “My friend George gave me this book,” the man commented. “He gave copies to all his friends.”
A brief chat revealed that this was luthier Danny Ferrington, builder of instruments for such high-profile musicians as Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne. The “friend” was George Harrison. “He’s in town at the moment,” said Ferrington, “and he’d actually like to see your ukulele collection.”
Liz and Jim doubted the visit would actually happen. “Beatles don’t come to your house,” they reasoned. Five days later, Danny called. He and George would be coming by that afternoon. It was the second day of February, 1999. A Tuesday. George spent most of his three-hour visit having fun playing ukuleles together with Jim, Liz, and Danny. Jim was amazed that the four of them were jamming, “just the way people do at ukulele festivals—lots of give-and-take, back-and-forth. And George even played a couple of new songs he’d written.”
The timing was serendipitous. Jim and Liz had just completed Jumpin’ Jim’s ’60s Uke-in, featured a number of Beatles songs including two by Harrison, so Jim announced, “You can’t imagine how wonderful Beatles songs sound on the ukulele,” and he began strumming “All My Loving.”
Soon everyone was playing the song. “It was such a wonderful afternoon and it was so clear how much he loved the instrument,” Jim says. Before leaving, Harrison agreed to write a few words expressing why he liked the ukulele—a heartfelt paragraph, ending with “Love from George Keoki Harrison.” (Keoki is the Hawaiian name for George.) Beside the signature, he drew a whimsical picture of a ukulele.
After the 1999 NAMM show, Dale Webb’s Fluke gained a foothold in the fledgling ukulele market. To this day, Dale, his wife, Phyllis (Jim’s sister), and their crew continue to manufacture and market Flukes, Fleas, and other instruments, which his Magic Fluke Company sells to music stores worldwide and online. Liz and Jim play Flukes and Fleas and promote them at the many music festivals where they perform and teach.
Apart from arranging songs for Flea Market books, Jim has taken joy from publishing arrangements by other musicians. The Ukulele Masters series features Herb Ohta, Lyle Ritz, John King, and James Hill. Jim especially treasures his collaboration and friendship with the late ukulele jazz pioneer Lyle Ritz.
He also has endorsed promising projects by little-known arrangers. When UK-based Tony Mizen first proposed arranging lute pieces for the ukulele, Jim questioned whether something like that would appeal to a mainstream ukulele market. But after Tony sent an MP3 of sample arrangements, Jim recalls, “It was so lovely to listen to that I thought, ‘Let’s just do it.’” The resulting book/CD package, From Lute to Uke: Early Music for Ukulele, turned out to be a steady seller.
Overall, however, Jim Beloff’s primary bliss stems from creating music. He has been writing songs throughout the Flea Market saga. A Vintage Guitar review described songs on the album Jim’s Dog Has Fleas as “catchy melodies with crafty lyrics highlighted by that special ukulele sound.”
Venturing into the classical realm, he has composed two concertos, both commissioned by Philip Ventre, who conducted the premieres with Connecticut’s Wallingford Symphony Orchestra. (Incidentally, Ventre was Jim’s high school music teacher.) Jim’s 1999 piece, Uke Can’t Be Serious demonstrates the ukulele’s expressive potential, while occasionally chuckling at the incongruity of a uke on the concert stage. More recently, he performed the work with a string quartet for the first time during the 2018 Casco Bay UkeFest. The Dove Tale (2017) takes its inspiration from the melancholy call of the mourning dove. Jason Nyberg collaborated with Jim to orchestrate both works.
So many musical adventures have unfolded since Jim discovered the ukulele. At 62, he gives himself some credit for trusting his gut to steer him in the right direction. But then, sometimes there’s no steering wheel. “One thing has just kind of led to the next,” he muses. “And maybe that is, in some ways, a great tribute to our company name. Because it’s kind of unexpected—you’re walking in a flea market and you don’t quite know what will attract your eyes. And somehow that’s how these last 26 years have worked for us.”