Art of the Uke

Nearly 50 years since it was first released, a classic Lyle Ritz jazz ukulele album debuts on CD for a new generation of fans.

Lyle Ritz, How About Uke? Verve Records

In 1958, When Lyle Ritz released his ground-breaking album, How About Uke?, it didn’t generate much interest on the Mainland. One Los Angeles disc jockey, Bob Crane (who went on to star in TV’s Hogan’s Heroes) did play the unique jazz ukulele sound, but, overall, no one listened.

That was on the Mainland. In Hawaii, How About Uke? influenced a whole generation of ukulele players, including Sam Ahia, Moe Keale, Peter Moon, Ohta San, Benny Chong, Byron Yasui and Roy Sakuma.

Sakuma recalls first hearing Tom Moffatt play Ritz’s album on the radio. “All of us young kids, we’d buy that record and we would sit by the phonograph, play it over and over, and we would all try to learn Lulu’s Back In Town.’ We used to play just C, F, G7, then all of a sudden here comes Lyle with all these fantastic chord harmonies that just took the ukulele to a whole new level.”

Living in Los Angeles, Ritz had no idea he was a huge influence in Hawaii. “Verve sent me to New York to promote the record, not Hawaii,” recalls Ritz. “I didn’t know the record sold there.” After putting out a second jazz ukulele album, Ritz called it quits. “I decided there wasn’t much future in jazz uke. It was just a novelty.”

Instead, Ritz found himself in demand as a Hollywood studio bass player. For 25 years, he played on hundreds of pop hits, like “Good Vibrations,” “A Taste of Honey” and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.”

Lyle Ritz, one of the first to turn the ukulele
into a jazz instrument.

Photo: Gary Hofheimer

So what brought him back to his first love, the ukulele? Two things. First, in 1979, Ritz got a call to work on the movie The Jerk, starring Steve Martin. When Martin picks up the uke to serenade Bernadette Peters, it’s actually Lyle Ritz playing.

Then, in 1985, Roy Sakuma tracked Ritz down in L.A., hoping to learn from the master. Ritz recalls Sakuma saying, “You’re such an influence in Hawaii.’ I thought, Whoa, what are you talking about? He invited me to play [at an annual ukulele festival] that got me back to playing the uke.”

Eventually, Ritz moved to Hawaii and lived here for 15 years. Now 75, Ritz is based in Portland, Ore. These days, the jazz ukulele pioneer is in demand at ukulele concerts around the country and has released two other CDs.

Jim Beloff, author of The Ukulele, a Visual History, credits Ritz for inspiring players to “think of the instrument as more than just an accompaniment instrument, but one that could tackle sophisticated jazz arrangements.”

Now a whole new generation is discovering the “father of jazz ukulele,” thanks to Verve, which recognized the quality of Ritz’s first album and its importance. So after nearly half-a-century, the revolutionary album How About Uke? is being reissued on CD.

“I’m surprised they still had the master tape somewhere in the vault. I had no idea it would come back to life,” says Ritz. “I’m humbled, grateful.”