When The Beatles supported Joe Brown and his band in 1962, a teenage George Harrison snuck into the headliner’s dressing room to take photographs posing with Brown’s electric guitar. Some 20 years later, when the two men met again, Harrison was still eager to jam with his hero — but this time not on the guitar. “When I got together with George, he wanted to know about the uke,” Brown says. “I was teaching him all this stuff — he got really hooked. He had the same love for it that I’ve got.”
Brown has mastered many instruments during his 54-year recording career but the ukulele remains his favourite. When Harrison passed away in 2001, Brown’s uke-led rendition of the 1920s ballad “I’ll See You in My Dreams” closed the memorial concert for the former Beatle at the Royal Albert Hall. The video of that performance contributed to the uke’s emergence from the musical wilderness and, nowadays, the instrument is a staple hipster style accessory. In 2011, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder released an album devoted to it and Brown issued his own ukulele album the following year.
“Back when I was a kid, everyone had a uke,” he says, sitting in a private members’ club in London’s Soho. Now 74 and with 33 albums under his belt, Brown still has the same spiky hairstyle and down-to-earth manner that endeared him to fans in the 1960s. “It’s not a toy guitar, although people like to put it into that category,” he laughs. “It’s a wonderful instrument with its own unique sound. And the great thing about the ukulele is it’s dead easy to play.”
Easy or not, I feel a little intimidated at the prospect of being given a lesson by a man who has played with, among others, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash and Eric Clapton. Brown holds the uke close to his chin, puts his fingers on the frets and shows me three basic chords — C, F, and G — which I try to copy. Unlike the guitar with its six metal strings, the ukulele, with four nylon strings, is much easier to hold and strum and does not require nearly as much multi-fingered dexterity. “There are thousands of songs that you can play with those three chords,” Brown enthuses.
I mimic his hand movements up and down the frets, convinced I’m making a mess of things. But Brown merrily plucks away at his instrument and our notes syncopate. We carry on strumming and the evocative rhythm we create brings a big grin across my face. “A guitar don’t make you smile like a ukulele,” Brown chuckles. “The whole point of a ukulele is to make you smile.”
Many of the best-known prewar ukulele songs — such as George Formby’s “When I’m Cleaning Windows” — have a warm, effusive sound, which Brown teaches me how to replicate. “You need to learn the scissor movement,” he says, cupping his right hand and making a scissor shape with his index finger and thumb and brushing them up and down the strings. “I learnt it from the president of the George Formby Society back in 1964.” I try to copy him but my efforts are jerky and awkward. “You’ve got to practise a lot to get it right,” he concedes.
The ukulele’s origins go back to Hawaii, where it’s as synonymous with the local culture as surfing and hula skirts. Its Hawaiian name roughly translates as “jumping flea”, perhaps a reference to the bright jumpy sound that comes from the high octave string at the bottom.
The instrument was popular before the second world war, its affordability bolstering its appeal. In the UK, Formby, with his trademark toothy grin, became one of the era’s biggest stars. The advent of rock’n’roll, however, saw the ukulele sidelined by thunderous electric guitar riffs.
Its more recent adoption by hipsters has been helped by a flood of cheap imports from China and the spread of videos, such as Brown’s tribute to Harrison, on social media. A YouTube clip of Hawaiian ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro’s brilliantly intricate version of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has been viewed more than 14 million times. “Of course, I’m delighted that the uke has become popular again,” Brown says. “I like to think I had a little bit to do with that, and so did George. The uke has always been a great instrument but it’s only now getting recognised as one.”
The mahogany soprano ukulele that Brown is playing was made in 1910. “It’s the best uke I’ve got because it’s so old,” he says, caressing the neck. “The wood has all dried out and settled down and, as a result, it’s light as a feather and the tone on it is just amazing.” His instrument was crafted at a time when ukulele strings were made from animal guts, instead of nylon. “The problem with some of the ukuleles they churn out these days is the strings are too light and you can’t get the right bounce,” Brown says, holding his ukulele at eye level to show the “action” between the fret and the string.
Brown, who grew up above a pub in east London, occasionally drifts into anecdotes from his years as a professional musician, from tales of melting plastic trumpets to hanging out with The Beatles. Harrison was Brown’s best man at his second marriage in 2000 — the two men developed a deep friendship while living near each other in Henley. “Everyone I talk to wants to know about George and I do understand that,” he says. “I feel a bit guilty sometimes talking about him too much but, when I’m talking about music, he’s got to come into it because he was such a big musical part of my life. He was a wonderful guy too.”
Brown tells me he once met Bob Dylan at Harrison’s house eating a piece of toast, so we finish off the session trying to play Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. I’m more or less getting the hang of it now and Brown is able to embellish my strums with some creative improvisation. For a split second I feel like a real musician. “That’s the magic of the ukulele, it gives back straight away,” Brown says. “Of course, there are certain things you can’t play on the uke. It’s a bit like the bagpipes: it’s great fun but you don’t want to hear it all bloody night!”
Joe Brown is touring the UK until February 21. joebrown.co.uk
Photographs: Judy Totton; Owen Harvey; Getty
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published