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Listening to The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” on…Ukulele?

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The Beatles and ukuleles: while the two terms appear unrelated, there has recently been an explosion in reinterpreting their iconic songs on the instrument. This resurgence has resulted in world-record performance attempts, CDs, and now the Beatles Complete on Ukulele Marathon, which will occur December 6th, 2009 at the Brooklyn Bowl in New York. These events and albums allow ukulele enthusiasts to express their love of the Beatles in a unique way. But the Beatles-ukulele connection is hardly a stretch.

It is said that John Lennon's mother, Julia, taught her son to play the banjo and ukulele; of course he later switched to guitar. George Harrison professed a deep love for the instrument and grew up listening to the uke stylings of English comedian George Formby. His interest only grew when he spent a great deal of time in Hawaii throughout the 1970s until his death in 2001. In 1995 he played the instrument during the Beatles Anthology documentary, and tacked on a Formby tribute at the end of the Beatles virtual reunion single "Free as a Bird." On his final album, Brainwashed, Harrison played a charming uke rendition of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Paul McCartney also enjoyed the music, often stating that when visiting Harrison, they would jam on ukulele. At 2002's Concert for George, McCartney paid tribute to his friend by performing "Something" on a ukulele Harrison once gave him. And on several world tours, McCartney has continued this tradition.

Ever since McCartney has revived interest in the ukulele, a variety of projects have emerged. 2009's Fest for Beatles Fans in Chicago mounted a Guinness Book of World Records attempt: to set the record for the greatest number of people playing a Beatles song on the ukulele at the same time. Participants enthusiastically strummed "Love Me Do" for over five minutes, led by (among others) GiGi Wong Monaco of Sitar Emporium. Another performer at the Fest was Cars co-founder and keyboardist Greg Hawkes, who has become one the most well-respected ukulele artists today. His album, The Beatles Uke, contains his distinctive interpretations of the band's classics—it makes the listener rethink uke stereotypes.

The latest Beatles ukulele event is The Beatles Complete on Ukulele Marathon. Consisting of over 60 singers, 40 musicians, and 16 Yoko Ono lookalikes, the marathon features a nonstop concert of 185 Beatles songs, performed from 11 a.m. to midnight. Co-founders Roger Greenawalt and David Barratt have also embarked on a related, ambitious project: for 185 weeks, Greenawalt and Barratt have been posting MP3s of Beatles ukulele covers. Each week guest artists (accompanied by Greenawalt on the uke) lend their unique spin on Beatles tracks, often with interesting results. Visit the Beatles Complete on Ukuelele blog to listen to—and download—each song.

The Beatles ukulele trend shows no signs of slowing down, particularly if McCartney continues to perform the Harrison tributes during his concerts (most recently on his live CD/DVD Good Evening New York City). It's official—the ukulele is cool again.

The Beatles Complete on Ukulele Marathon occurs Friday, December 6th from 11 a.m. to midnight, at the Brooklyn Bowl in New York. The concert lasts from 11 a.m. to midnight (all ages welcome before 6 p.m.), and the cover is $10. Admission is free to anyone who brings a uke at 11 a.m. and plays in the Mass Ukulele Beatles Rally. This volunteer group will rehearse two songs, performing them live at noon. For more information, visit the event's website.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • GiGi Wong-Monaco

    Great article Kit! And ‘mahalo’ for the mention about the 2009 World Record Attempt we tried to do at this year’s Fest For Beatles Fans in Chicago. We just ‘missed’ it by 1… thousand! LOL! Boy, what fun we all had. And we’re still having fun every Thursday night in the Oak Park Arts District with the Oak Park Ukulele Meetup Group at Eastgate Cafe’, talk about a roomful of ukulele players playing songs of the Beatles, Hawai’i, Tin Pan Alley and more! And, our Wonderwall Music Shoppe & Emporium store on HARRISON Street carries a variety of ukuleles, and songbooks too!

    Happy Thanksgiving~!

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thanks, GiGi, and thanks for the update and mentioning the Thursday night meetups!

  • http://www.BeatlesTributeCruise.com Woody Lifton

    Kit,
    Great article…don’t forget that Paul has done a Ukulele version of “Something” as a Tribute to George on concert for many years.

    Woody Lifton
    Promoter for the Beatles Tribute Cruise

  • http://www.beatle-fans.com Kathy Wheeler

    Hi Kit, Thanks for the wonderful article. I’ve linked to it from my Beatles uke site. Rock on!

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Kathy–thanks so much!
    Woody–yes, I know–Paul’s uke tribute to George is unbelievably touching.