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Book Review: Ukulele Heroes by Ian Whitcomb

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Paul McCartney plays the ukulele. So does Taylor Swift. Train made the top of the charts with the uke-heavy “Hey, Soul Sister.”

Nevertheless, a book about the history of ukulele musicians does not sound at first like a particularly riveting read. Surprisingly, though, through Ian Whitcomb’s words, Ukulele Heroes,is  just that.

Whitcomb had a novelty hit in the 1960s titled “You Turn Me On,” and a follow-up hit with “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?” That was pretty much the end of his career as a teen idol, but he managed to continue to play the ukulele and entertain audiences from then to the present.

Along the way, he wrote a history of popular music titled After the Ball and Rock Odyssey and four ukulele songbooks.

Whitcomb’s enthusiasm rings through on every page of this book, as he introduces us to, first, the history of how the ukulele became popular in Hawaii and then the United States, especially with the popularity of Arthur Godfrey. He recounts the stories of other American ukulele heroes such as Ukulele Ike, Roy Smeck, and Wendell Hall, among others, and then moves to his native land of England to introduce us to the likes of George Formby and Tessie O’Shea.

A section is also devoted to Whitcomb’s contemporary Tiny Tim, probably the one person most associated with the ukulele for those of us who were around in the 60s.

Most of these performers were complete mysteries to me, and I admit I was most interested in the book because as a very young girl I was a fan of Whitcomb’s and “You Turn Me On” and anything else British and was intrigued to read his book.

It turns out that his witty, fast-moving, gossipy style made this a fast and fun read which should be of interest not only to ukulele enthusiasts but also any person with an interest in musical or social history. The lavish vintage illustrations in both black and white and color add even more character and visual excitement to a book that is a delight from start to finish.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, Southern Crossroads: Georgia Bluesand Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.
  • Fixed! The promo droid responsible has been reprogrammed.

  • Unfortunately, neither I nor the editor noticed the misspelling. I cannot correct it but I apologize and appreciate you bringing it to my attention. It is indeed “Ukulele.”

  • Linda H

    Ian Whitcomb correctly spelled “ukulele” in the title of his book. You used the misspelling, ukelele, throughout this review. (Even this blog’s spell check noticed that the latter was incorrect.) People get confused by the nickname “uke” – but the short version doesn’t change the spelling of the full name. “Bob” is a nickname for “Robert,” but we don’t spell the full name “Bobert.” Same difference.
    Please correct the misspelling used throughout your blog, for the sake of accuracy and knowledge.