PLAYING THE FOOL OUT OF “UKULELE LADY”

I read Whitney Balliet’s New Yorker Profile of King Oliver, “For the Comfort of the People,” perhaps twenty-five years ago, and this passage stuck in my head: Jess Stacy describing the first time he heard Oliver play, around 1926, in Chicago:

The first time I ever went to hear Oliver he was playing “Ukulele Lady,” and he was playing the fool out of it, and he took five or six choruses in a row.  He played sitting down, and he didn’t play loud.  He knew his instrument.  He wasn’t spearing for high notes; he stayed right in the middle register.  His chord changes were pretty and his vibrato just right — none of the Italian belly vibrato.

When, last year, I became interested in the ukulele,  I wondered what that pop tune — supposedly inspired by May Singhi Breen — sounded like, but that question faded into the disorganized repository of unanswered questions I carry around with me.  Last summer, though, when the Beloved and I visited Maine, I found stacks and piles of sheet music*.  And one of the songs I found was UKULELE LADY.  So the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.  It was a simple, bouncy song — and if I tried quite hard, I could imagine a Joe Oliver solo on its melody.  But how to convey this to my readers?

Nothing simpler.  Sheet music cover and lyrics, presto change-o!

Ukulele Lady cover

UKULELE LADY© 1925

Lyrics & Music: Lyrics: Gus Kahn, Music: Richard A. Whiting

Verse: I saw the splendor of the moonlight

On Honolulu bay

There’s something tender in the moonlight

On Honolulu

And all the beaches

Are full of peaches

Who bring their ukes along

And in the glimmer of the moonlight

They like to sing this song

Chorus: If you like ukulele lady

Ukulele lady like-a you

If you like to linger where it’s shady

Ukulele lady linger too

If you kiss ukulele lady

And you promise ever to be true

And she finds another ukulele

Lady fooling ’round with you

Maybe she’ll sigh (and maybe not)

Maybe she’ll cry

Maybe she’ll find somebody else

By and by

To sing to where it’s cool and shady

Where the tricky wicki wacki woo

If you like ukulele lady

Ukulele lady like-a you

She used to sing to me by moonlight

On Honolulu Bay

Fond memories cling to me by moonlight

Although I’m far away

Someday I’m going

Where eyes are glowing

And lips are made to kiss

To meet somebody in the moonlight

To hear that song I miss

But how to provide the music — short of bringing Bent Persson into a studio to become Papa Joe Oliver?  This isn’t an adequate substitute, but it made me laugh hysterically this morning, so I hope it will do the same for you — a musical extravaganza by the Fred and Ginger of hand puppets . . . . Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.*  Now everyone can hear what the song sounds like, including the verse:

*Go ahead.  Find another blog that has Jess Stacy and the Muppets in the same posting.  I dare you.  I am also so fond of the phrase “playing the fool out of ______,” perhaps a polite Midwestern euphemism, that I keep trying to find a context in which it fits, which isn’t easy.

**Subject for another blog: the near ubiquity of music for painfully forgettable songs in certain regions — CHONG, HE CAME FROM HONG KONG must have been a huge hit in Maine in 1930.

3 responses to “PLAYING THE FOOL OUT OF “UKULELE LADY”

  1. sam parkins

    JzLvs – where on Earth did you find that? That’s the best movie in the world. Up there with Casablanca.

    And allow me to explain Middle Western Euphemisms such as “playing the fool out of…….”: My entire Gene Pool is from Iowa*, and I can assure you, at least when ‘Ukulele Lady’ was writ, Mother didn’t KNOW it was a euphemism, or for what it stood. Glad you all are safely back from the more dangerous Far West…sam p {* Grandmother was Prez of the Iowa chapter of the WCTU; sent me the pledge to sign when I was 4, which I of course did. But nowhere did they mention any problem with smoking funny cigarettes…}

  2. But this movie doesn’t have Dooley Wilson doing KNOCK ON WOOD. It was one of my great disillusionments — I watched CASABLANCA so many times I can’t do it again — that Dooley couldn’t play the piano, so his work on AS TIME GOES BY is dubbed in by someone else — piano, not voice. Move from YouTube, that source of all things weird and enlightening. Cheers! MS

  3. Hey Everyone,

    This Saturday (May 30th) there will be a benefit concert in New Orleans. The Domino Effect Benefit Concert lineup includes musical icons B.B. King, Little Richard and Chuck Berry alongside gifted performers Wyclef Jean, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Junior Brown and Ozomatli. Tracy Morgan, of Saturday Night Live & 30 Rock will host the concert.

    If you can’t make it to the concert you can watch it live online! Participate in a piece of history for only $9.95 by purchasing a live streaming webcast of The Domino Effect Benefit Concert.

    Best of all, this music extravaganza will help benefit the “Operation Kids: Rebuilding Dreams in New Orleans” campaign’s ongoing efforts to provide care, education and opportunities for children in New Orleans.

    To live stream it go here: https://www.operationkids.org/dominoeffect/

    Or if you just want to donate you can go here: https://www.operationkids.org/nola/

    -Operation Kids

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