From the Winter 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY VICTOR PRANCHÉRE | PHOTOS COURTESY OF JONATHAN VECCHI
Among those who pioneered the ukulele as a solo instrument, very few left recordings. Frank Ferera, it seems, was the first to record solo ukulele.
Frank Ferera (born Frank Ferreira, but often spelled “Ferera” on his records) was born in Honolulu in 1885, the son of Portuguese immigrants. Though his interest in music arose early, his learning years were not easy, as he had to face the strong disapproval of his father. Reputed to be a violent man, his father reportedly even broke his son’s instruments on several occasions, forcing Frank to hide in order to practice. This difficult situation didn’t stop Ferera from pursuing a career as a musician, and he left for the Mainland at the turn of the 20th century. His main interest was the Hawaiian steel guitar, of which he became one of the first virtuosos. When he started to play the ukulele is not known.
Ferera benefited from both the rise of interest for Hawaiian music in the 1910s and the expansion of the record industry, and along with his wife, guitarist Helen Louise, gained some fame as a musician and began to record prolifically as early as 1915. In that era, Ferera and his wife were frequently accompanied on ukulele by Louise’s sister, Irene Greenus.
In 1919, Helen Louise disappeared mysteriously from a ship sailing from Los Angeles to Seattle. Having lost his wife, as well as his main musical partner, Ferera eventually found his new accompanist in Anthony Joseph Franchini, an Italian-born guitarist.
At the end of summer 1922, Ferera recorded on the ukulele for the first time. He had arranged two Hawaiian tunes as unaccompanied instrumental solos and played them in at least three different sessions. The first was Sylvester Kalama’s “Maui Girl” (). The second was an interpretation of a hula, “Moanalua.” After these solo sessions, his ukulele playing was mostly used to accompany popular singers.
In 1923 Ferera teamed up with vaudeville and recording artist Al Bernard. Building on the success of Wendell Hall’s songs, the pair made two recordings of “Ain’t Gonna Rain No’ Mo’.” In 1924, Ferera also recorded “It Looks Like Rain” with singer Ernest Hare. The collaboration with Al Bernard was more than Ferera simply providing the ukulele accompaniment. They co-authored two of the songs recorded between 1923 and 1924, “Twenty-Five Years from Now” and “De Ducks Done Got Me.” Presumably, Bernard wrote the lyrics and Ferera worked on the melody, with possible assistance from composer Jimmie McHugh for the first one.
Though Ferera was mainly confined to ordinary, yet elegant, strumming accompaniment, his soloing skills were also occasionally on display. In addition to the customary short intros, sometimes he also performed longer solo breaks that showcased his wonderful technique. One version of “Twenty-Five Years From Now” even has Bernard enthusiastically exclaiming “Pick it son, pick it!” during the ukulele solo, the way Doc Watson would do several decades later.
Singer Eddie Cantor also benefited from Ferera’s ukulele accompaniment skills. Among the two songs they recorded together, the Hawaiian-themed “On a Windy Day Way Down in Waikiki” probably explained the need for a uke. On “I’ll Have Vanilla,” Ferera launched into a 32-bar, 30-second solo, where his technique was put to its best effect, making his single uke sound like two!
Still, the steel guitar remained by far Ferera’s main focus. In 1925, he issued his last ukulele disc. As in 1922, it consisted of two instrumental, unaccompanied solos. The two sides were original compositions, with titles clearly signaling that they were intended for the ukulele. The first, “Strumming Uke Blues” was— in spite of its title—a waltz with a slightly melancholic aspect, typical of the playing style Ferera had used in his previous records. The second track, “Ukelele Dreams”, showed that he had developed his technique even further, allowing the melody and the accompaniment to blend in a more fluid manner.
His involvement with the instrument was not completely over though, as in June 1925, music publishers Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., issued a booklet titled Ferera and Franchini’s Two-Color Method Ukelele Solos. As mentioned above, Anthony Franchini, had been Ferera’s accompanist on the guitar since 1920. His exact influence on the process remains unknown. As a formally trained musician, he was able to read and write music, apparently unlike Ferera who, as an autodidact, had to rely on his ear to play. Franchini thus was probably responsible for putting the music on paper.
The 15-pages booklet intended to demonstrate how to play the melody and accompaniment parts together, an idea at the core of Ferera’s style. Great care was put into indicating clearly the different parts, hence the “Two Color” system: the diagrams figuring the finger positions for the melody were in red, and the ones figuring the accompaniment in black. However the drone notes, so essential to Ferera’s playing, were absent, and what was proposed was essentially to alternate between picked melody notes and strummed accompaniment.
More interestingly, the method advocated a special tuning, deemed “absolutely necessary for solo work.” The C string was to be tuned an octave higher than usual (an E violin string was recommended to achieve that effect). This particular tuning had been documented before, and has been used in more recent times by Laura Dukes, Billy “Uke” Scott, Sione Aleki. Whether Ferera used it in some of his records or not is clear. He might have been using it with Eddie Cantor, given the high pitch at which he played.
Lyrics for each of the six tunes were signed by lyricist Walter Hirsch (1891–1967), known for songs like “’Deed I Do.” In that sense, the duality between the ukulele as an instrument for Hawaiian music and as an accompaniment for light-hearted song was quite present in the book.
After 1925, there are no more traces of Ferera recording on the ukulele and it’s unknown whether he continued to play it privately or not. He continued to record on the steel guitar until he retired in 1933, having recorded more sides than any other steel guitarist of his generation. Though he concentrated on another business for the rest of his life, Ferera continued to play the steel guitar privately. When he died, in July 1951, he was buried with the steel bar he used to play the Hawaiian guitar.
The man who probably knew the most about Ferera’s ukulele playing, Anthony Franchini, went on to have a long musical career, focusing mainly on the violin. He died at age 99, in 1997.
The delicate and sophisticated ukulele instrumentals Ferera left are unique in the instrument’s history. Not only were they the first ever recorded, they also showed a playing technique which, despite its great musicality, was never used again—though some players did get close to it, such as Japanese steel guitarist and ukeist Setsuo Ohashi with his signature tune “Hawaiian March.”
The author thanks Gary Peare, Jonathan Vecchi, John Troutman, Margaret Kieckhefer, Suzanne Metrick, and the Record Memory Club (Belgium).