The First Ukulele Duo Album
by Two Giants of the Ukulele World!!
JVC VICG-60452, June 21, 2001 release
Masami Kobayashi (Nihon Ukulele Association)
Ohta-San (Herb Ohta) helped elevate the status of the ukulele, once viewed as a toy or as an instrument for Hawaiian music accompaniment, to that of a solo instrument capable of interacting with a wide variety of other instruments used for varous kinds of music, not only for Hawaiian music. While not as popular as Ohta-San, Lyle Ritz is the musician who created the category of "Ukulele Jazz." This is quite likely not an overstatement.
For many years, these two artists performed in separate places, Ohta-San in Hawaii and Lyle Ritz on the US mainland. After Lyle Ritz recorded two albums of ukulele jazz, there were still no contacts between Lyle Ritz and Ohta- San because Lyle Ritz performed with his own bass. However, after "retiring" from his real profession and moving to Hawaii, one evening Lyle Ritz provided bass accompaniment to Ohta-San at the restaurant where Ohta-San played everynight. Each of them discovered a kindred spirit in the other. Since that time, their relationship has developed to the point that Lyle Ritz has played in each of Ohta-San's albums right up to the present.
In many cases where a musician enjoys making music with a friend, one of them plays accompaniment while the other is the principal performer. In the case of ukulele enthusiasts, one generally plays backup while the other solos. Ohta-San and Lyle Ritz have been enjoying making music in this manner on private occasions. They can both play solo and ad lib in turns. This album was put together for the purpose of helping music fans and ukulele lovers the world over enjoy the wonderful performances of this unique duo.
In the past, there have been albums which included ukulele duets but it is thought that this album, in which all the tunes are ukulele duets, is the first of its kind. The ten pieces included here are all famous standard jazz and bossa nova numbers. With its especially comfortable arrangement, this album will make listeners "kick back and enjoy." The contrast of the taut attack tone of Ohta-San's standard ukulele and the thick and mild tone of Lyle Ritz playing the tenor uke demonstrates the vast potential of the instrument. It is surprising that even though there are no other instruments this talented twosome creates an atmosphere of a combo or even a big band.
It will be fun for ukulele lovers to attempt to imitate this performance. You do not even need to have a tenor uke. The mood can be created with two standard ukuleles.
HOW HERB OHTA ACQUIRED HIS STAGE NAME: "OHTA-SAN"
Since the details of Ohta-San's musical career have been widely publicized, the history of his stage name "Ohta-San" will be shared here. Herb Ohta was born in October 1934. As a child, he devoted himself to playing the ukulele. At the age of 12, he accidentally met Eddie Kamae on a beach. At that time, Eddie Kamae was the best ukulele player in all of Hawaii and Ohta became one of Eddie's students. However, it is said, Ohta-San made such remarkable improvement in his performance skills that his tutor is reported to have said, "There is nothing more to teach him."
When Eddie Kamae traveled to Japan, he told his friend, Yukihiko Haida, that there was an exceptional player among his ukulele students; this was Ohta-San. At that time Ohta-San happened to be stationed in Japan as an interpreter for U.S. Marine Corps officers. Haida looked after Ohta-San and made arrangements for him to record an ukulele solo album at JVC and for him to put on a concert at the Nihon Ukulele Association (NUA).
Ohta-San returned to Hawaii after his 1963 discharge and considered various jobs before deciding to make his living as an ukulele player. In 1964 he made his Hawaii debut with a single on a Surfside label produced by Dan McDiarmid, Sr. of Hula Records.
Since "Herbert Ohta" was the artist's name on the two LPs recorded by JVC and on the one LP released by Polydor, friends who have known him since those days still call him "Herbert." However, Dan McDiarmid, Sr. selected the stage name of "Ohta-San" for his Hawaii debut. This was due to the fact that in Hawaii, with its long history of connections with Japan and the Japanese language, "San" is a word that conveys respect. This one short word "Ohta-San" helped create an image that improved on plain old "Herb" or "Herbert." As McDiarmid intended,the name "Ohta-San" became very popular. Because of this, Ohta-San had to use aliases such as "Poki-San" (which quickly turned out to be Ohta-San) when he performed on records with other labels during the duration of his Surfside and Decca contracts.
The songs selected for the debut single were "Suzukake No Michi" (path among the sycamore) and "Mori No Komichi" (path in the forest) both of which were composed by Ohta-San's Japan mentor, Yukihiko Haida. Moreover, during this period and to take advantage of the immense popularity of Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki," then at the top of the Billboard chart, McDiarmid decided to name these two songs "Sushi" and "Bonsai" respectively although the titles were completely irrelevant to the meanings of the original names. The great success of Ohta-San's Hawaii debut single provided a solid platform to launch his ukulele career which has continued up to today.
LYLE RITZ / 30 YEARS WITHOUT THE UKE
Lyle Ritz born in January 1930 and worked part-time at a musical instrument store in Los Angeles while still in school. His job was to demonstrate instruments at the store by actually playing them for customers. Though he had been practicing the violin and in spite of giving that instrument his utmost effort, he only succeeded in performing as one of his school's band 2nd violinists. He finally gave up any intention of becoming a professional violinist.
One day he picked up an ukulele and started to play it. He was attracted by the wonderful sound of the ukulele. Ritz then bought himself a uke and, with daily practice, became adept at the chord work unique to the instrument. This ukulele was a Gibson tenor, single cutaway type which he used for recording "How About Uke?" released in 1958 and "50th State Jazz" released in1959. In those years, he was not as hefty as he is now but he chose a tenor ukulele that he refers to as "his size," more appropriate for someone of his build than a standard ukulele.
Since his graduation from school he has participated in recordings of more than 5000 tunes playing the acoustic bass and electric bass as an A list studio musician. The artists he has backed include Frank Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt, the Righteous Brothers, the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Johnny Mathis and so on, too numerous to list.
Lyle Ritz's abovementioned two ukulele solo albums were cut from recordings he made with fellow musicians during his spare time from work as a studio musician. They were released by Verve. Since then for 30 years the ukulele was only his "hobby" instrument. Finally, Lyle went into "retirement" at the beginning of the 1990s and moved with his wife and daughter from Los Angeles, where they had lived for many years, to Kailua on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, the birth place of the ukulele.
In Hawaii he once again started to play the ukelele after becoming friends with musicians such as Ohta-San and Roy Sakuma. What is more, he appeared at the annual Ukulele Festival sponsored by Roy Sakuma where he played ukulele solo with his daughter, Emily. Ritz's Jazz ukulele received public recognition once again with the release of his 3rd solo album "Time..." (Roy Sakuma RSCD5583).
ABOUT THE SONGS AND PERFORMANCES
While Ohta-San uses a Martin standard ukulele for all the tunes, Lyle Ritz selected a Martin tenor ukulele for Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 10 and a Ko‘olau tenor uke for the rest.
1) SHOO FLY PIE AND APPLE PAN DOWDY
This long title refers to two kinds of snacks popular in some rural areas of the U.S. The song was originally sung by Dinah Shore in 1964 and became a hit. Other hit recordings of it were made by artists such as June Christy and Stan Kenton and His Orchestra, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Frank Sinatra and the like.
Just by listening to the first few stanzas of this tune, you can sense the awesomeness of this album. It is easy to visualize Ohta-San and Lyle Ritz genially joining their musical efforts.
With their unique sound created with Ohta-San's accute touch and Ritz's soft touch and a confluence of their notes, it can be said that this is just the right performance to start the album with.
2) STOMPIN' AT THE SAVOY
Savoy is the name of a ballroom located in New York City's Harlem section. The Savoy was the most famous dance hall in the 1930s. People who loved to dance liked to stomp there. This piece was originally played by the Benny Goodman band that performed at the Savoy. It became a hit in 1936, and was used in Universal Studio's "The Benny Goodman Story" (1955).
The performance of this song is filled with Lyle Ritz's chord playing on the tenor uke. The skill he demonstrates in his chord work for each tone of the melody and the mildness and clarity of his single tones will definitely fascinate general listeners as well as his fans.
3) TRISTE (SADNESS)
When Antonio Carlos Jobim, the father of the bossa nova, went to Los Angeles in August, 1966, to make a recording with Frank Sinatra, he had to wait there for 5 months until January of the following year due to Sinatra's busy schedule. During this period Jobim composed "Wave" and "Triste" and recorded them on his own album "Wave". These two songs have been played by many musicians since then.
Ohta-San and Lyle Ritz take turns playing the melody and the accompaniment. In the smooth flow of music where it seems that only one person is playing accompaniment, their unique ad lib and chord work can be heard.
4) AUTUMN LEAVES
This song, originally a masterpiece of chanson, has lyrics written by Jacques Prevert and music composed by Joseph Kosma. It was sung by Juliette Greco and scored a hit in 1947. Thereafter many singers (for instance, Nat King Cole in "Autumn Leaves", a Columbia film, 1956,) sang the English lyrics written by Johnny Mercer, and Miles Davis played it on his instrument. In this way, a solid base was created for the song to become a popular masterpiece.
The performance gets underway with Lyle Ritz's unaccompanied solo. He continues to play two choruses. Ohta-San then takes over, followed by Ritz taking back the lead. Their ad-libbing with single notes, combined with accurate accompaniment and Ritz's playing of chorded melody, enhances the beauty of this song.
5) TEACH ME TONIGHT
This is a humorous love song written by Sammy Cahn and Gene De Paul in 1953. The lyrics go, "Since this is the perfect spot to learn, Teach me tonight. Starting with the ABC of it, Getting down to the XYZ of it... Teachers should'nt stand so near, my love." The original record sung by Janet Brace did not become popular but later recordings done by other singers and groups achieved hit status.
Since Lyle Ritz and Ohta-San both love to tell jokes, every time they exchange jokes there is a burst of laughter. At the beginning of this number, you can enjoy the moment when Ohta-San bursts into laughter moments after Ritz utters the sexy title of the song in a mock serious tone.
The album "Brasileiro" recorded in 1992 by Sergio Mendes, who went on to win great popularity as the leader of Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, has as its focus the Brazilian music that forms the background of his work. The song expresses the vast potential of Brazilian music with originals by several composers. Sergio Mendes himself says that the mood of this song is closest to the music of the Brasil '66 era.
This tune was included in Ohta-San's previous album, where he, however, only plays ad lib as a member of a combo. In this particular recording of "Sambadouro", Ohta-San starts out with unaccompanied solo and Lyle Ritz joins in with his colorful chord backing. They then take turns playing ad lib. This performance will make listeners say, "You know, this is a true ukulele duo!"
7) LULU'S BACK IN TOWN
This song, with music composed by Harry Warren and lyrics written by Al Dubin, was first introduced in "Broadway Gondolier", a Warner movie,(1935) starring Dick Powell and the Mills Brothers. In the same year, 1935, Fats Waller's record had spent 10 weeks on the hit chart, rising to 8th place for part of that time. On a radio program where Dick Powell appeared, the song was the most requested one for a long period. This tune is Lyle Ritz's specialty; the mere mention of his name brings this song to mind. The image of "Lulu's Back in Town" is reinforced in this recording by an arrangement that gives us Ritz's chord solo and single-note ad lib at first and then Ohta-San's solo and then back again to Lyle Ritz's soloing.
8) I WON'T DANCE
The music for "I Won't Dance" was composed by Jerome Kern and the lyrics were cowritten by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II. The song was originally publicized as the main theme of a 1934 musical, "Three Sisters" which became popular after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang it with the lyrics written by Dorothy Fields for "Roberta" an RKO film, 1935. This song which Lou Sherwood recorded in the same year was on the hit chart for some 14 weeks.
This is the longest performance on this album. However, due to the arrangement in which Ohta-San's chorded solo is followed by single-noted ad lib lines which cheerfully flow in turns on accompaniment with tasteful chord work, listeners will not be conscious of its length.
The title "Bluesette" is made up of "Blues," a category of popular music, and a suffix, "-ette" meaning "little or pretty" which adds life to the term, "blues." This song was originally composed in 1936 by Jean Toots Thielemans, the harmonica player and guitarist, as an instrumental tune, but in 1964 lyrics suitable for the title were written by Norman Gimbel.
When Ohta-San recorded the song previously, it seemed the Pianica was the main instrument because the arrangement was based on the original where the harp was featured. This time Ohta-San performs with the guitar in mind, which was the real profession of the composer. The fusion of Lyle Ritz's phrasing with his favorite chords for cadences mingled and Ohta-San's single-noted solo is exquisite.
"Dream" was written in 1944 by Johnny Mercer who also created the English lyrics of "Autumn Leaves" (#4). The song was used in "Her Highness and the Bellboy", a 1945 MGM movie, and in "Daddy Long Legs", a 20th Century Fox film (1955). The popularity of the latter film helped this song gain its position as a standard song. "Dream" is a memorable song from Ohta-San's youth. Beach boys in Hawaii at the time enjoyed it in four-part chorus.
Ohta-San and Lyle Ritz have played the song over and over and they instinctively know "when to play what." The performance is superb and, with Ritz's marvelous chord work and Ohta-San's single-noted solo occasionally laced with chords,is a praise worthy way to bring the album to a close.
Data included here was gathered by Mr. Kazuya Deguchi and commentary was
provided by Mr. Takehiro Kobayashi.
(Translated by M/s Kenji Kawai and Laurence Wiig)