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

Ian Whitcomb today, at KPCC.
Ian Whitcomb today, at KPCC.
John Rabe
Ian Whitcomb today, at KPCC.
Ian Whitcomb in a 1966 music video.
Ian Whitcomb

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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.

In our video, Ian and John also sing a delightful duet: "Lovely Hula Hands."

Interview Highlights

On the inspiration for his hit "Turn Me On":
"It was all inspired by a girl that I'd met in Seattle the previous year when I was on a tourist trip there … she said to me 'Ian, your accent is really turning me on.' I thought, what a wonderful expression, you can turn on a tap, but to actually turn on somebody's body … it was rather exciting."

On why he shifted away from rock 'n' roll:
"I was the Justin Bieber of my time, you've seen the photographs. The point is that the record company, Capitol Records, wanted a follow-up [to "Turn Me On"], but we just couldn't find anything. We had a song called "N-Nervous,' but it didn't really do the trick. My heart wasn't in rock 'n' roll anymore, it was becoming rock, it was becoming psychedelic and it wasn't my field. I had a ukulele, I always had a ukulele, I used to take the ukulele on the bus, on these tours, then one day a group called The Turtles who were on tour with me said 'Ian, those songs that you sing are really funny, why don't you record them?' So I did, I went in and recorded 'Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go,' and I've been recording that kind of song ever since, and so my career has gone backwards."

On why he was attracted to the uke:
"First of all it's very portable and it has a lovely, what I call pleasantly prescient sound. I'd found one in my cousin's houses in the 1950s. As you can see I play it left-handed, I am playing it upside-down, it's not retuned, I'm like Jimi Hendrix on the ukulele…you don't have to lug around amplifiers or pianos. It's portable."

On how the ukulele came to America:
"It was brought across by some Portuguese who were coming to work in the sugar plantations of Hawaii in 1878. They came on one ship and many of them were luthiers. The instrument they brought with them on the ship because it was compact was called a machete. The Hawaiians took to these at once. When the Portuguese landed and became disgruntled with the sugar business they started to make ukuleles for the Hawaiians, and they christened it the 'leaping flea'" (meaning ukulele in Hawaiian).

On the revival of the ukulele:
"The actual revival began on the West Coast, and it was largely because of Jim Beloff. He helped invent a ukulele called a Fluke, I was actually playing it, which is an inexpensive ukulele made of plastic. Then there were various ukulele clubs that formed on the coast, we're going back 20 years, so it started here, gradually spread. When the recession began, people could afford to play ukuleles, they couldn't necessarily afford to buy expensive instruments anymore, and I think the ukulele has a folky sound, a people's sound, to it. I think that it was a reflection of the recession."

On his encounter with uke legend Roy Smeck:
"I met him in New York in the 1980s when I was playing in a club there. He sat like a king on a throne, and in front of him were displayed all of these ukuleles and banjos. He said 'Give me your ukulele…if you're going to be in vaudeville, you've got to tune your ukulele up!' So I picked up my ukulele and tuned it very high. I thanked him, although I knew vaudeville was long dead. Well, that evening I played in the club and every string broke. I went into the store and I said 'do you have any ukulele strings'? They said 'yeah, why?' And I said "Well I want to buy some" and they said 'Well we only have one make, the Roy Smeck.' I thought, that bastard, he sits in that corner, breaks peoples strings so they have to go down and buy his goddamn strings. Anyway, thats the story of Roy Smeck, god bless him."

On uke legend Tiny Tim:
"Unfortunately he set it back in a way, because people saw him as a joke. It wasn't his fault; it was Johnny Carson's fault for treating him like a freak. But he really was very sincere about the songs that I think he sings rather well. He plays perfectly good, quite functional ukulele, I must say. He was a hero to me. He knew all the names of these old singers, Henry Burr. I'm not sure that be brought them back, but his knowledge was extraordinary. He was a tragic character."

Ian Whitcomb has weekly shows on XM Extreme Talk (with a music show) and Luxuria, and will perform a uke singalong at the Coffee Gallery in Altadena on Friday July 27.