In Jim Beloff’s book, The Ukulele, A Visual History, there is a table that contains the yearly number of ukuleles produced by the Martin Guitar Company. It provides an interesting glimpse into a half century of (mostly) American popular musical history, and of course provides a view into the popularity of the instrument.
The major high and low points of the last century are represented – The great depression and World War II both have a significant impact on the popularity of the instrument. Cultural milestones appear as well – the growing American fascination with Hawaii and the flapper era coincide to create the first boom in uke sales. The second big boom coincides with Arthur Godfrey’s rise and his popularization of the instrument. This boom lasts fifteen years.
The popularity of rock and roll and a backlash against the uke fad drive numbers down in the 60’s, but the instrument still seems to do fairly well until 1968, when just before the end of the graph, something amazing happens. Production numbers crash to double digits, a place where they have never been (other than the first year of production). What happened?
A lot happened in 1968 – but only one story includes the uke as a major player. This story:
This was the year that Tiny Tim hit the national stage. He recorded an album for Reprise, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In introduced him to America. Although the album reached the #5 spot in the charts, for once fame did not translate into ukulele sales. What Jack Benny failed to do for the violin, Tiny Tim did for the uke. His second appearance is really what he is remembered for.
I’m a huge Tiny Tim fan, but even I did not rush out in to purchase an instrument in 1968. After that performance, the uke went into a death spiral outside of Hawaii where it was too much a part of culture to fade away.
People as influential as George Harrison continued to play and popularize the uke, it is only in the last 10 years that the instrument has seen a renaissance, and now, only after a slow, steady recovery are there great players popularizing the instrument again.
I’ll leave you with a couple of favorite uke videos:
What do you think of the uke? This post? Tiny Tim? Leave your comments below.