Commonly associated with Hawaii, and with a Polynesian name that roughly means “jumping flea” due to the jumpy finger movements required to play its strings, the ukulele was developed in the 1880s with a design similar to that of both the cavaquinho and the raja, a couple of small guitars that had made their way to the islands with a shipload of Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and Cape Verde.
One of these newcomers, a cabinetmaker by trade, began to churn out this hybrid instrument within weeks of his arrival, to the vast delight the locals. When Hawaiian King Kalākaua, a steadfast patron of the arts, heard the new instrument he roundly supported its usage at royal gatherings and by the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco a ukulele ensemble headlined the Hawaiian Pavilion.
The ensemble was such a mainland hit that Tin Pan Alley and Vaudeville took note and a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs soon worked its way throughout the country. Within a few years the portable, inexpensive ukulele, which now commonly comes in four sizes (soprano, concert, tenor, baritone) would gain world renown as one of the icons of the Jazz Age.
Born a half century later in Honolulu, in 1976, Jake Shimabukuro (whose mother gave him his first uke at the age of four) is a ukulele virtuoso who plays a custom-made four-string tenor model. Having participated with a number of ensembles, Shimabukuro (who has experimented with myriad innovations including effect pedals) made his initial mark with the release of an instructional DVD called Play Loud Ukulele, which was soon followed by scoring credits for a Japanese film Hula Girls.
A spokesman for “Music is Good Medicine” (promoting music, arts and the importance of a healthy life) Shimabukuro went on to perform on stage with Jimmy Buffett and accompanied fellow Hawaiian-born Bette Midler at The Royal Variety Performance before the Queen.
Today’s (ukulele) selection is “Me and Shirley T” and lest you worry that we’ve dug up another moppet-ode to Shirley Temple, let me assure you that the song is dedicated to another star that first saw the light of day in the mid-’30s at Chasen’s, an old school Beverly Hills restauraut opened by Three-Stooges fill-in Dave Chasen.
Best remembered for its chili, Chasen’s was a favored haunt of Hollywood celebrities including the young Shirley Temple who had requested a non-alcoholic cocktail. So an anonymous bartender mixed up a concoction made up of two parts Sprite, one part cherry juice, a splash of grenadine, all topped off with a maraschino cherry.
The mixture was a hit, not only with the spritely starlet, but with generations of kids, including (at some point) a very young Jake Shimabukuro, who wrote “Me and Shirley T” in honor of his affinity for the Shirley Temple Cocktail.