In September 1973, I started secondary school. A big school, with lots of talented boys; many of them musical, some ambitious to perform. We fantasised about forming bands (this was the high era of Pub Rock, just pre-punk DIY ethos, after all). I was OK at singing, as that’s what I’d done for some time. We used to get together round at one another’s houses and copy records.
By 1974, we were a little older, and a little more ambitious. Guitars were being studied in music lessons by some. I still had piano lessons out of school, and was playing the cello. But neither of these instruments was any good for our embryonic band. I knew what I wanted to play.
At the top end of Bromley high street was an old and small music shop, run by a man of indeterminate age, though he must have been well into his seventies. I had a wodge of Birthday / Christmas gift money in my pocket. “Do you have any ukuleles?” I asked. The old boy shuffled off into the back of the tiny shop, emerging some considerable time later with a thick white cardboard box from which, true to time-honoured cliche, he was blowing the dust. “Is this what you want?” he said.
Opening the box, I saw the rich flush of mahogany, and a small but perfectly formed instrument. It was an old Chicago 30s/40s built Maxitone, I now know, from long before the name was bought for a short-lived company in the Far East. I plucked a single string, and it sounded sweet. I was sold; the old boy put a packet of new uke strings and a ‘how to play’ book in the box, took nine quid from me, and I left the shop, flushed with excitement. Nine pounds was quite a lot of money in 1974.
The ‘how to’ book was for D tuning, so for the first ten years I played uke, that was the tuning I used. It was only later when I met other players that I realised that C tuning was more common (and made more sense). That Maxitone was a lovely instrument – It was my favourite instrument for ten years, before I gave it to a mate at University, who (hopefully) still has it. It struck me, years after the event, that the Maxitone soprano uke I bought in that shop must have been New Old Stock. I guess the proprietor had ordered it in during the forties, never sold it, and was grateful to be sending it to a new home; getting shot of it.
For the next ten years, I played that instrument occasionally (sometimes as a novelty item, sometimes straight) with the band we formed at school. My mates had become accomplished rhythm and lead guitarists, skilled bassists and versatile keyboard players. Drummers are, well, drummers. Leaving school and breaking up a much-loved band was a wrench, but the Maxitone saw me through a couple of University bands, and by then other instruments had made it into the fold – we ukulele players were so thin on the ground, pre-internet, that friends and relatives would find ukes in sheds and attics and pass them on. Happy days! I’ve owned around a hundred ukes in the intervening years, and am now fairly happy with the fifty or so that remain. But there’s always temptation around the corner – never say never!
Other PLUC Tales: More Benny Hill Than James Hill – Dave P; I Never Liked The Uke – Steve H; Long-Distance Strummer – Gail; New Uker! – Sheila; A Tale Of Two Ukuleles – Tina; The First Rule Of Uke Club… – Anthony; Ron’s Progress; Probably The Most Fun Instrument In The World… – Jos; It’s Been A Year – Part 2 – Jeanette; From Classical To PLUC – Andrew; A History Of The Ukulele – And Its Part In My Downfall – James;Santa Rides Again – Alan F; Steph’s Story; Ron’s Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome; Uncle Ron’s Legacy… – Wee Kheng; Dan’s Story; Five Years & Loving It – Simon; Why Ed Started Playing The Ukulele; Ron’s Song; It’s Been A Year… – Jeanette