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'Ukulele Heroes' take center stage in Ian Whitcomb's new book

John Rabe

Ian Whitcomb today, at KPCC.

If you've never heard of Ian Whitcomb, don't call yourself a die-hard fan of the ukulele. Not until you listen to this radio feature, anyway.

Whitcomb's eclectic musical life goes back decades, to England during the British Invasion of the 1960s when he made it big with the hit "Turn Me On." From there, after becoming disillusioned with the psychedelic direction of rock 'n' roll, he transitioned to recording Tin Pan Alley songs with his trusty ukulele. The instrument just stuck … for a number of reasons.

"I found that when you use this to a young lady, when I was in my first courting days … these songs are powerful and very effective songs, indeed," Whitcomb told Off-Ramp's John Rabe, describing a walk down a beach with a young lady, whom he — presumably — successfully seduced with a song on the uke. Plus: "You don't have to lug around amplifiers or pianos ... I've noticed that whenever I sang with the ukulele, people smiled."

Now at the ripe age of 71 — "I'm very old indeed" — Whitcomb has released a new book: "Ukulele Heroes: The Golden Age," a visually rich collection of archival photos, sheet music, anecdotes and histories of the men and women crucial to the success of the uke through the decades.

The self-professed "Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele" (because he plays it left-handed, and not restrung, just as Hendrix played the guitar) joined Off-Ramp to speak about the history of the ukulele, the resurgence of its popularity and he spotlights some of his favorite uke heroes.


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