BY EDDIE SCHER
Record companies sold more than 100 million records each year between 1920 and 1929, and some of the biggest stars of the era played ukulele. It can take some patience to listen to this music—tempos and pitches often wander—but keep in mind that it’s much more likely to be because of the technology than the musicians.
I love this music for the masterful playing, crisp singing, fun songwriting, and the immediacy that comes from live takes. You hear exactly what the artist played, soaked in the natural saturation of the mechanical recording equipment and record player. Yes, I’m listening to digitized versions, but these songs still deliver.
My list here skews towards hot popular songs that were largely mainland interpretations, but always heavily influenced by their Hawaiian roots. Recorded Hawaiian music at the time largely kept the ukulele in its more traditional supporting role as a rhythm instrument, but there are examples that prove otherwise (see #1 below). I know of plenty of examples by Hawaiian ukulele masters once the 1930s roll in, but that’s a different story. For today, here are ten relatively easy-to-find (online) recordings from the 1920s that feature ukulele in a lead role:
1. “Maui Girl,” Frank Ferera, 1922. The world’s first solo ukulele recording is a mash-up of “Moanalua,” a traditional hula, and “Maui Girl,” a tune from 1897 by Sylvester Kalama. Ferera was Hawaii’s first international recording star.
2. “Ji-ji-boo,” Nick Lucas’ Ukulele Trio, 1922. The singer and guitarist famous for “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” was also a superb ukulele player. The trio is violin, guitar, and a master class in rhythm ukulele.
3. “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’,” Wendell W. Hall, 1923. Just voice and ukulele, this novelty song by the superstar vaudeville singer who abandoned the xylophone for the uke sold two million copies and is considered one of the first radio hits.
4. “Ukulele Blues,” May Singhi Breen, 1924.Breen was a premier player of the 1920s who played a critical role in establishing the ukulele in popular culture. On this track, she shows her prowess, leading an accompanying orchestra, laying down powerful rhythm, and taking whirlwind solos. You have to dig a little deeper to find this one; courtesy of the National Jukebox at the Library of Congress: LoC.gov.
5. “Say It with a Ukulele,” Frank Crumit, 1924. “Syncopation, some sensation!” The song takes off in the second chorus when the band drops out and the “Honey Duke and his Uke,”as he was known, carries the song through an amazing uke and steel guitar duo breakdown.
6. “Then I’ll Be Happy,” Roy Smeck, 1926. This is featured in His Pastimes, a Vitaphone short film of the Wizard of the Strings playing on a park bench. He starts out on an 8-string guitar before moving to ukulele. Pure ragtime heaven.
7. “Everything Is Hotsy-Totsy Now,” Gene Austin with Billy “Uke” Carpenter,
1925. Austin was one of the top singing stars of the era, setting the stage for Bing Crosby and all the crooners since, but here Carpenter steals the show with his uke accompaniment and scatting.
8. “Oh How She Could Play a Ukulele,” Johnny Marvin, 1926. He’s probably best known these days for his namesake line of Harmony ukuleles featuring airplane-shaped bridges, but he was one of the premier crooners and ukulele players of the 1920s.
9. “Singing in the Rain,” Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, 1929. A #1 hit on the U.S. charts. It is Edwards’ distinctive voice that steals the show, so also check out “That’s My Weakness Now,” 1928, to really hear his masterful strumming.
10. “I Had to Give Up Gym,” Hokum Boys, 1929. Ikey Robinson—the influential banjo player with some of the greatest jazz innovators of the late-1920s—takes ripping single-note solos on the banjo-ukulele through two choruses on this novelty duo track with “Georgia” Tom Dorsey on piano.