BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
A biography of Ralph Shaw’s life could easily be titled How to Parlay a Physics Degree into a Career as an Internationally Known Ukulele Entertainer. His is the story of how a $15 ukulele started a reluctant English physicist on an unlikely career as a recording artist, ukulele educator, author, and the title ‘King of the Ukulele.’
Ralph arrived on earth in 1964 in a small iron-ore mining town in middle-of-nowhere northern Quebec, Canada. Born to a German mother and an English father, Ralph’s family soon fled the frozen Canadian wilderness, relocating to a quaint Yorkshire village in England where he spent his formative years. Ralph studied the clarinet during his primary education, but he abandoned the instrument after failing his Grade 3 exam (the lowest grade). Ralph rebounded from his musical break-up with the clarinet by teaching himself to play the harmonica. “I started on the harmonica because I could do it for myself, instead of having to play Bartok. They gave us really dreary stuff to play on the clarinet. Plus, I had a very good ear, so I wasn’t reading the music properly.” Despite being rebuffed by a woodwind, Ralph’s love of music could not be denied. “Some of my earliest musical memories are of lying in bed singing songs, and my mum always telling me to shut up and go to sleep.” By the age of four, Ralph knew about two dozen songs, taught to him by his grandfather.
Ralph graduated from university with a physics degree, and in an odd twist of fate ended up working the same job his father once held at a research station in the isolated mining town of his birth, Schefferville, in northern Quebec. His main task at the research station was monitoring the daily seismic activity. He also assisted visiting scientists who would come to the site to study the environment, climate, and wildlife. “Another job I had was as a professional butterfly collector. For six months, I was paid by a butterfly enthusiast to catch butterflies. So I’d be out on one research expedition and I’d suddenly see a butterfly and I’d go leaping across the tundra with a big net.”
But, it was during his university years—when he was trying to avoid studying physics—that Ralph was actually preparing himself for a career as an entertainer, without even knowing it. “I bought a banjo and I took lessons from Sara Grey, a professional folk musician, and she would bring me along to her gigs. So I got to hang out with other musicians and that was my first taste of, ‘Hey, I like these people, this looks like a fun life.’ I also learned to juggle and other skills I used later as a clown.”
Ralph’s introduction to the ukulele was his grandfather’s banjo ukulele, which didn’t have any strings. “To me, it was a mystery object. I thought it was a drum with a handle.” It wasn’t until many years later, after Ralph had immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, that the ukulele re-entered his life. “I was in a vaudeville show at the Burnaby Village Museum. I was going to do a Formby song on the banjo when the director told me I should be doing the song on a ukulele. And, it just so happened, the director had a ukulele she was willing to sell me for $15. I put new strings on it and the magic of the ukulele hit me right away.” Beverly Adams, the museum director, tells a slightly different story: “When Ralph auditioned for me for Footlight Theatre Company, I recognized what a great performer he could become. His style of singing reminded me of George Formby. I had an old ukulele hanging on my music studio wall and gave it to him. He insists I sold it to him. I have no recollection of that sale, however, at 87 years I’m entitled to forget. Ralph was a natural with the instrument and with the audience. I’m not surprised at his successes.”
Go West, Young Man!
Ralph was in Montreal on a break from monitoring seismic activity and catching butterflies in Schefferville, when he met his future bride-to-be, Catherine. Catherine moved from Montreal back to Vancouver about the same time Ralph returned to England. “I was at a loss for what to do when Catherine suggested I give Vancouver a try,” he remembers. “So I went to try Vancouver, and 28 years later, I was still trying it. We got married and had a daughter and I just never left.”
With his new responsibilities, Ralph knew he’d have to get full-time work. The problem was his morbid aversion to having a fixed schedule. “I was looking for any way to become self-employed. So I picked up this how-to book on how to be a clown. I read it and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t have to be a physicist! I can just be a clown. That’s easy.’” After investing in the big shoes, checked jacket, and squirting flower, Ralph embarked on his new career. Adding magic tricks, balloon animals and face painting to his already acquired skill of juggling, Ralph was on his way. “It took me a long time to come up with my clown name. I went through a whole list of them but I finally settled on ‘Ralph the Clown.’”
Ralph the Clown seamlessly incorporated the ukulele into his act. The bit that always got a laugh was when he pulled the little soprano uke out of a big guitar case. But after Ralph visited Hawaii on his and Catherine’s honeymoon, an event occurred that would compel Ralph to quit clowning around with the ukulele. “I heard this beautiful Hawaiian group playing in Whaler’s Village in Lahaina. I heard their ukuleles and they didn’t sound like mine. So I went to Bounty Music on Maui and found this 6-string Kamaka. The sound of it just melted me. And then I looked at the price tag, which was $600 U.S. So I started to put it back and Cath said, ‘Why don’t you get it?’ That’s the first and last time she talked me into buying a ukulele. Ever since then it’s been, ‘Why do you need more than one?’”
The Kamaka ukulele invited Ralph to begin playing more than just funny, three-chord kid songs he had been performing as part of his act. “I began playing all those lovely songs from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s era, and I started to become a musician instead of a clown at that point.” Ralph started his performance career on the assisted-living-center circuit, and in a very short time recorded his first slbum. “My first CD was titled King of the Ukulele, only because we had a throne in the common area of the building we lived in and we took pictures of me sitting in it for the CD artwork.” Surprisingly, the CD did really well, garnering national airplay, and being chosen as one of the top ten albums of the year by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. “At that point I thought, ‘I can do this,’ so I hung up the red nose and the floppy shoes and concentrated on being a musician.” However, it did take a while to become the internationally known performer Ralph is today. “At the time, being a clown was an easy sell. People were looking for clowns for birthday parties in those days. They weren’t looking for kings of the ukulele.”
No More Clowning Around
The ukulele landscape in the mid-1990s (over a decade from when YouTube ukulele videos would be as prolific as fleas on a dog) was quite barren. For inspiration, Ralph returned to England and visited the Yorkshire Ukulele Circle. “All of these guys were playing the George Formby split-stroke style, and the energy in that room was just phenomenal. I thought I would start a group like that in Canada. So in September 2000, I started the Vancouver Ukulele Circle.” Ralph led the VUC for over 15 years. Current leader of the club, Tom Saunders says of Ralph, “He has a wonderful presence as a group leader and entertainer—upbeat, confident, knowledgeable, cheeky, and a very solid musician. People appreciate his energy and passion for the ukulele. I think of him as the prototype for a ukulele group leader. He’s also a very spiffy dresser and knows how to tie his own bow-tie!” Also during that visit to the UK, Ralph paid a visit to the President of the George Formby Society’s home to learn the elusive split-stroke strum. “The split-stroke is a very difficult strum and almost impossible to learn on your own. So the president of the society gave me a lesson, but by the time I got home, I’d already forgotten it! So I had to spend another afternoon with him and learn to do it all over again.”
Ralph spent the next few years honing his playing and performance skills by busking in Vancouver. And, on one particularly gray day, busking outdoors, the King’s entry into the professional ukulele circuit came walking up in the form of two employees of Seattle’s celebrated acoustic music store, Dusty Strings. “They told me they were having a ukulele festival and they asked me if I would like to teach at the event, and I said yes.” Coincidentally, about that same time, the owner of a music store in Vancouver was encouraging Ralph to produce a VHS tape on how to play the ukulele. The result was a one-hour video lesson he called The Complete Ukulele Course. “The reason I titled it that is it refers to the first-ever how-to book, The Compleat Angler, which was published in 1653. It also refers to the fact it was my complete understanding of ukulele playing at that time.”
Ralph successfully presented his new video lesson in a one-hour teaching performance at the Seattle festival. One of the persons attending that class was Marianne Brogan, who would go on to become a promoter of ukulele events in the Pacific Northwest. “I tried to be a student of every potential teacher/performer that I might hire for the Portland Ukulele Festival,” says Brogan. “I was eager to increase my own playing skills so I attended a lot of workshops. Ralph’s workshops were among the best. Ralph has a rare ability to teach, to make us laugh, to get us to take risks, and to be kind to ourselves as future performers. The other thing I most admire about Ralph is his ability to inspire the other professionals around him. I never knew what we were going to see when he was on stage, but I knew it was going to amaze and delight us. He has a generous nature, as well as being brilliant and creative.”
Ralph continued to hone his ukulele playing and entertainment skills by busking and taking every job that came his way. “Busking is a major love of mine, and Granville Island in Vancouver is a perfect place to do that. I did it to make some money, but also to try and attract other jobs. People would see me performing and hire me. Also, at the time, lounge and burlesque were making a comeback and they wanted odd music for those type of events. I basically said yes to everything.” Also about that time, around the year 2000, Ralph traveled to New Jersey to attend a festival at the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum, where he met a kindred ukulele spirit in the form of performer and luthier Joel Eckhaus, owner of Earnest Instruments in Portland, Maine. “What immediately caught my attention with Ralph was he was such a good performer. He was like an actor. He could assume different roles and personas, and was highly entertaining.”
“To be an entertainer is an underrated thing,” says Ralph. “It looks easy when you see someone else entertaining effortlessly, but it’s really difficult—probably more demanding than learning the instrument.” And simply building and endlessly rehearsing an entertaining set is no guarantee it will work every time it’s trotted out on stage. “That’s the crazy thing about performing. You think you’ve got a solid package together that is fantastic for one audience and when performed for a different audience at other venue it can fall completely flat. In the end, it’s what you do in the moment that really counts. I find that endlessly interesting and terrifying as well.”
Ralph’s fascination with the art of entertaining eventually led to the writing of two books on the subject, The Ukulele Entertainer: Power Pointers for Players and Performers and The Art of the Ukulele: An Essential Handbook for Players and Performers. In the forward to Ralph’s first book, ukulele master James Hill wrote, “The collection of Ralph Shaw wisdom we’ve been waiting for. Keep the book in your ukulele case, under your pillow, in your car… anywhere you might need a little inspiration from a true entertainer and gifted teacher.”
Around the time that Shaw began to write, he read an e-newsletter from a writer whose work he liked about how to write well, and the idea hit him, “I could do something like that for ukulele players about how to sing, play, and perform better.” And that’s what he did. Ralph’s newsletter became so popular that it led to the writing of his two books. “I found writing to be a remarkable process. Very often, I would think I was writing about one thing, and as the piece progressed, I would realize other ideas were coming in and taking the article in a completely different direction. An interesting quote I found from George Orwell expresses that thought, ‘I write to find out what I think.’”
Now, after 30 years of ukulele exploration, Ralph Shaw’s musical journey has come full circle. “I’m back living in England and I’ve picked up the 5-string banjo again, but now I’m applying my ukulele skills to that instrument. I’ve developed for myself a hybrid style of playing that uses clawhammer banjo technique and ukulele technique and it’s given me that musical thrill that you get when you first start something new. Ralph is also working on a new duet act with multi-instrumentalist Chris McShane, which combines ukuleles, banjos, and harmonicas. In addition, Ralph still hones new material by getting out in public and busking.
He has some advice for ukulele players who want to sound better—practice your singing. “Ninety-eight percent of ukulele players use the instrument to accompany their singing. The biggest mistake most folks make is thinking by practicing the ukulele they can become better singers. It doesn’t work like that. Back when Iz’s version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ came out, people were asking me for the chords and the strumming pattern. They thought if they could strum like him, they would sound like him. No. He had an incredible voice. So what I would suggest to all ukulele players is to go join an acapella choir, take singing lessons, learn how to stay in pitch, and generally learn what it takes to sing well.”
Regardless of what direction Ralph Shaw’s music takes him, he has left an indelible stamp on the ukulele world; so says Mr. Ukulele himself, Jim Beloff: “At the dawn of the ukulele’s third wave, a number of unique talents emerged. Ralph Shaw was one of them. Off stage, he was somewhat reserved. On stage, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Whether he was channeling George Formby on a banjo uke, crooning a melting ballad, or performing a comic tour de force original song about building a ukulele case, you knew you were in the presence of a rare and gifted entertainer.”
Visit Ralph online to learn more. ralphshaw.ca