Without Jim Beloff, it’s possible there wouldn’t be a Ukulele Rob.
My history with stringed instruments goes back a ways, beginning with a plastic ukulele given to me when I was in the first or second grade. By fourth grade I’d left it behind for a Sears Harmony folk guitar, which led to more guitars, and then surf, folk, rock, and jazz bands. There were even a few months of taking classical guitar lessons.
In the 1990s I was looking for something that might be fun to take on vacation trips, and spotted a $20 plywood uke in a local music shop. (The uke was short on intonation and playability, but traveled very nicely in a grocery bag.) That’s when I discovered “Jumpin’” Jim Beloff and his series of ukulele songbooks. Shortly after that I began receiving Jim’s regular Flea Market Music catalogs in the mail, and I kept looking at his ukuleles and thinking I ought to get myself one.
What finally caused me to make the move was our local Rotary Club. For a couple of years I’d been the Club’s Song Leader, occasionally bringing along my $20 uke, which was invariably a source of good-natured ribbing. Our Club had an annual “Hawaiian Shirt Day,” to provide a bit of a break from our normal business attire, and in 2008 I set out to salute the day by leading everyone in singing well-known Tin Pan Alley Hawaiian songs. And I decided that a new (and better-sounding) uke was in order. Jim’s Pineapple Flea fit the bill to a tee, arriving on my doorstep within days after I’d sent away for it. It was love at first sight. And that Flea is to this day my regular traveling companion.
Jim’s story has been well documented in print and on the internet. (The late Daniel Dixon’s description of Jim in his enjoyable book, Ukulele: The World’s Friendliest Instrument [Gibbs Smith Publishing, 2011] is among the most recent re-tellings.) Jim, a magazine publishing exec who’d studied musical theater composition in college, and his wife Liz (an accomplished film and TV graphic designer, and the creator of TriStar Pictures’ winged Pegasus logo, who’s also a great singer and entertainer) moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles in 1991, where Jim worked for Billboard Magazine.
Jim and Liz happened upon a vintage Martin ukulele at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Flea Market, and the rest, as they say, is history. That uke sparked an interest in finding and resurrecting long-forgotten ukulele music, researching ukulele history (resulting in Jim’s The Ukulele: A Visual History [Backbeat Books 1997], the first of what has become – fortunately for us uke fans – a broad assortment of ukulele history books), and promoting what has become known as the “Third Wave” of worldwide popularity. (According to many uke historians, the “First Wave” began with the Hawaiian music performances at the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco, and the “Second Wave” with Arthur Godfrey’s radio and TV promotion of Maccaferri plastic ukes in the early 1950s.) As success followed success, they quit their “day jobs” and devoted themselves to their new company, named – of course – Flea Market Music.
Not content with books, lesson DVDs, CDs, and festival and clinic appearances, Jim and Liz set out to provide the growing uke community with a high-quality US-made ukulele. They enlisted Jim’s sister Phyllis Webb and her engineer husband Dale, who produced (using a toaster-oven, much like Nike’s running shoe originator Bill Bowerman) the prototype for the Fluke, the iconic, triangular, plastic bodied/wood topped instrument adopted by everyone from Ian Whitcomb (his is named “Flukie,” of course, to keep company with his vintage Martin “Ukie”) to Victoria Vox.
My arsenal includes two Flukes. That’s me in the photo above, playing my Mahogany Fluke at the 2010 Reno Uke Fest.
To say that Jim, together with Liz, Phyllis and Dale, have had a lot to do with the uke’s current popularity would be an understatement. And even though I’ve never met any of them, the great customer service I’ve experienced with Flea Market Music orders and some retrofitting by the Magic Fluke Company says a lot about what great people they are.
Until next time, enjoy a visit to www.fleamarketmusic.com