Playing in Uketopia (Jim Beloff and the ukelele)

It’s Sunday night and a half-dozen people are onstage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. Jumpin’ Jim Beloff and his wife, Leapin’ Liz, are leading the sold-out crowd as they strum their ukuleles and sing “Farewell.”

This is the climax to Uketopia, Beloff’s annual celebration of that four-stringed wonder: the ukulele. It is an evening in which almost a dozen performers, from 20s to 90s, including the self-declared “Mr. Ukulele,” Charles “Soybean” Sawyer, Fred Sokolow and “King Kukulele,” played two-song sets each of Hawaiian, Jamaican and Tin Pan Alley tunes — everything from Sophie Tucker’s “Making Wicky Wacky down in Waikiki” to a soulful rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

When I last saw Beloff, many moons ago, he was living in New York selling advertising space for Ziff-Davis computer publications. He and Liz, his recently betrothed, were buying a loft, and I was, of all things, their real estate attorney — it was that long ago. Last I heard, Jim had moved to Los Angeles and became associate publisher of Billboard. That made sense, because even in my dim remembrance of things past Beloff was always playing music.

By 1992, although he and Liz loved Los Angeles, he was not so crazy about Billboard. It’s never a good sign when your worst fear is getting promoted. In New York, he and Liz were flea market fans, so they were eager to make a pilgrimage to the Rose Bowl where, on their very first visit, Beloff came upon a Martin Tenor ukulele. His father-in-law had played one, so he picked it up. Within a week, he recalls, he became obsessed.

When Beloff found that most old ukulele songbooks were out of print, he approached Hal Leonard, the largest songbook publisher, and suggested writing a new one. At Liz’s suggestion, Beloff took on the moniker “Jumpin’ Jim” and the book exceeded all expectations. A how-to-play book followed. Beloff then collaborated on a visual history of the ukulele.

As Beloff tells it, it was a boatload of Portuguese workers from the island of Madeira that first brought a four-string instrument to Hawaii in 1879. I would love to tell you that they were descendants of Marranos who had fled the Inquisition, but there is no evidence of that, save their affection for sweet wine. The playing style and sound reminded the natives of U-koo-ley’ley, or jumping fleas. Soon the Hawaiians were making the instruments out of native wood. When the king started playing, a national craze was born. An exhibition at the Hawaiian pavilion at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama Pacific exhibition launched America’s romance with all things Hawaiian, lasting until the Jazz Age. The second ukulele craze came in the 1950s — many Americans serving in the South Pacific had caught “tiki fever” and when the Eisenhower era’s “king of all media,” Arthur Godfrey, played a plastic ukulele on his show, sales shot up by 9 million. However, a decade later the ukulele death knell sounded as “Tiny Tim” made the uke into a kitsch artifact.

The third wave of the ukulele explosion began in the early ’90s as bands in Hawaii, such as the Ka’au Crater Boys, made the uke relevant to a new generation. At the same time Beloff continued to publish songbooks of showtunes, surf songs, island songs and movie music. No less a cultural seer than Leonard Maltin, a uke collector and player himself, has dubbed Beloff “the Johnny Appleseed of the uke.”

In 1998, Beloff said “sayonara” (or “aloha” as the case may be) to corporate life. He and Liz started an Internet-based business called Flea Market Music that sells songbooks, CDs and instructional videos. When people kept asking, “Can you recommend a ukulele?” Beloff turned to his brother-in-law, an engineer, to come up with a made-in-America plastic ukulele, with good sound, great design, at a reasonable price. The Flea Market Music ukulele or “The Fluke” as Liz named it, appeared at a trade show in 1999. Priced at $179, including case, the orders started piling up. “The Flea” a slightly smaller and lower-priced model ($149, case included) appeared a few years later, and are now sold at music stores nationwide, including McCabes and through their Web site

One of the high points for Beloff came in 1999, when uke fan George Harrison came by his home and scribbled an appreciation on the spot. And lest you doubt that the ukulele is a full-blown phenomenon, watch the crowd go wild when Eddie Vedder starts playing his onstage.

Today, Beloff is a man who smiles a lot. He is a part of a generation of guys I know who came under the spell of James Taylor and other singer-songwriters of the 1970s. They bought guitars and strummed songs, jammed with friends, formed bands and dreamed of lives playing music. They played frat parties, bars and coffeehouses. Sunday brunch at the Four Oaks. Busking in the subways in Paris. But as they stood Robert Johnson-like at the Crossroads of their early 20s, they wondered what to do with their lives.

They were nice Jewish boys. For most, the call of professional life was stronger than the call of the road. Some became music arrangers, others music executives, managers or attorneys. Even if they left the music world, a visit to their home would always reveal that one place, the music room where they keep their guitars. And in some deep recess of their soul, reserved for the weekend, was the thought: “I have to get back to the music.”

So after all these years, there’s Jim up on stage, playing music and performing songs that he wrote. When he and Liz launched into a rousing rendition of Carl Sigman & Herb Magidson’s, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think),” I had to agree. They get to play. And, it’s my good fortune that I get to write about them. Ain’t life grand?