The ukulele has gotten a bad rap, thanks to some well-meaning musicians who turned the small, guitar-like Hawaiian lute into a novelty instrument. Chief among the offenders is Tiny Tim. Exploding into fame in the early sixties with his ukulele version of the ‘20s ditty “Tiptoe Thru’ the Tulips,” he became so famous, wrote Roger Ebert, “The Beatles asked him to sing ‘Nowhere Man’ on a bootleg Christmas recording. He did a night at Royal Albert Hall.” His marriage to Vicki Budinger on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show is “still one of the top-rated TV shows of all time.”
Tiny Tim played the guileless manchild, the Pee Wee Herman of his day. He was not a serious spokesperson for the instrument he popularized. He died in 1996, doing what he loved, playing his hit to a Women’s Club in Minneapolis. “The last thing he heard was the applause,” his widow said.
Tiny Tim had a good run, but it may not be mere coincidence that since he tiptoed thru’ his last tulip, the ukulele has seen a major pop culture revival, from indie folk singer/songwriters to TV theme songs, an orchestra, and Jake Shimabukuro, “a genre-demolishing artist,” writes NPR, “who plays jazz, blues, funk, classical, bluegrass, flamenco and rock” on his four-string axe.
Joining the ranks of serious ukulele artists are Overdriver Duo, who interpret songs with some very challenging guitar riffs and solos, like Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” One thing these songs all have in common is their melodies in the upper register, where the ukulele, and their vocals, really shine. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” on the other hand, depends on power chords and pounding drums for its impact. Leave it to these accomplished players to turn their tiny-bodied instruments into a convincing alt-rock rhythm section.
Contemporary players have more than earned the ukulele the respect it deserves. That’s not to say ukulele lovers of the past, like devoted life-long player George Harrison, did not appreciate the instrument. Harrison played a mean jazz uke, and took it seriously. But even he declared “you can’t play and not laugh!” Players like Shimabukuro and Overdriver Duo tend to inspire more awe than comedy.