Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 15, 2001

Lyle Ritz entertains his cat, Tootsie, in his home office,
where he composes and works.

Jazzing up
the uke

Lyle Ritz plays tenor ukulele
at the Hawaii Guitar Festival

By Gary C.W. Chun

While Lyle Ritz was not born and raised here, having first come here to enjoy some semi-retirement downtime 14 years ago, he's taken our most native of stringed instruments and made them his own.

The tenor ukulele, the "grown-up" version of the instrument first introduced by the Portuguese, is transformed into a jazz instrument in Ritz's capable hands. And while younger and flashier players like Jake Shimabukuro are inspiring local kids to take up the friendly little four-stringer, Ritz continues to quietly solidify his standing as its best jazz player around. (He'll be one of the featured performers at this year's Hawaii Guitar Festival next Thursday.)

"I can't see myself playing like him," Ritz said during a sit-down Tuesday morning on a picnic bench on the grounds of his Kailua apartment complex, "but still, isn't that neat? He's just a wonderful instrumentalist, and he's helping promote it not only here, but to the mainland.

"I'm not as agile as I once was, because of my physical limitations at my age, but the quality of playing is there. I don't play as many notes as I used to, but they're better ones!"

And they're easier ones to play, considering that he's put aside the standup bass, his first instrument and entree into a storied career as a Los Angeles studio session musician. "My first pro job was around 1955, playing in a trio at a summer resort at Lake Arrowhead near L.A."

He came upon the tenor ukulele about five years earlier, when he worked part time in a downtown L.A. music shop that stocked Gibson, Martin and Kamaka ukuleles, both small and large, cheap to expensive. CBS-TV variety host Arthur Godfrey made the uke a popular instrument in those days, performing stuff like "Making Love, Ukulele Style" on his show, with its promise of luring all the girls on the beach with endearing ukulele ways.

"The instrument was just the right size, and it sounded wonderful," Ritz remembered, "so I saved up for it and bought one. It was a Gibson make.

"I loved the sound of it, its mellowness and the manageability of the instrument; it was neither a guitar or a little uke."

Legendary guitarist Barney Kessel, then the West Coast artist-and-repertoire man for jazz label Verve, heard Ritz play and offered him a three-record deal. In the early days of stereo recording, Ritz cut two "jazz ukulele" albums, "How About Uke" and "50th State Jazz." "They were kind of a curiosity, a novelty," Ritz said, "but they didn't really sell," although they were an inspiration to savvy local musicians.

A third album was never recorded because Ritz found the sessions abysmal. "I was in my late 20s, new to the business," he said, "and since the first album was the very first stereo recording ever done, the engineers were moving sound baffles around to the point where (this was during a time when no headphones were used) all I could see was the neck of the bass sticking up over the baffles that surrounded me!

"Now when I listen to those records, they're not as bad as I thought, although I refuse to make copies of them when asked, because my vinyl records are all scratchy and warped."

Fellow ukulele enthusiast and teacher Roy Sakuma actually wanted to reissue those two albums on CD locally but couldn't when the master tapes couldn't be found. Ritz did, however, re-record six of those tracks for a project that was released on Sakuma's own label about five years ago.

"It was an OK seller," Ritz said. "I think they were much better than the originals, although I think I'm a harsh judge on myself, especially if I feel I fell short of my intentions."

This from a man who played the tenor uke on a Continental Airlines commercial, on some Beach Boys sessions and on the movie score for Steve Martin's first film, "The Jerk."

While Ritz has always felt more comfortable in the studio, "lately, over the past six months, I've had wonderful feedback from live audiences -- and I hardly play live at all! The last gig I did, before the upcoming guitar festival, was last October on the mainland. I did a couple of shows in one night at McCabe's in Santa Monica with Ohta-San and a bassist by the name of Richard Simon. Jim Beloff, who's publisher of my instruction books and the head of Flea Market Music, will hopefully release a CD that will be available on his Web site by Christmas." (Ritz still makes regular trips to L.A. for gigs and workshops.)

But it was as a member of the L.A. studio session grouping later dubbed "The Wrecking Crew" that Ritz made a crucial contribution to pop music when he worked with Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys. He helped Wilson notate the charts for two of music's crowning achievements, "Good Vibrations" and the "Pet Sounds" album.

"My memories of working with him are all good," Ritz said. "A nice guy, not at all impatient with a holier-than-thou attitude; he respected us session musicians." Untrained in music notation, Wilson would dictate the notes and musical parts to Ritz, who was busily translating them to paper.

During his tenure in L.A., Ritz did some 5,000 recording sessions, "memorable sessions that I've forgotten!" he joked. When he moved here in hopes of doing more ukulele work, more often than not he was lugging his standup bass for gigs with Jimmy Borges, Gabe Baltazar, Del Courtney, Charo and Melveen Leed.

As for his upcoming festival appearance with veteran local bassist Byron Yasui, Ritz said he's looking forward to playing with him again. "He listens to what's going on between us," Ritz said of Yasui. "Even though he's a music professor, he's willing to get down in the trenches with me."

Lyle Ritz with Byron Yasui

In concert: 8 p.m. June 21
Where: Orvis Auditorium, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Admission: $15 general; $13 students, seniors, UHM faculty and staff
Info: 956-7221 or

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