Joe repeats his praise for humble instrument that takes centre stage
Last time I spoke to Joe Brown, about a year ago, he was absolutely passionate in his praise for the versatility and charm of the humble ukulele. That was hardly surprising, considering he was about to release a whole album of songs played on this modest four-stringed instrument, appropriately titled The Ukulele Album.
I told him I'd been toying with the idea of trying to play the uke myself; he said that was a splendid idea and that it was never too late to learn an instrument – and the ukulele was an excellent place to start.
"Go and get yourself one, girl," insisted old-school rock 'n' roller Joe, now 71, whose illustrious musical career spans more than half a century. Roll forward 12 months and Joe and I were chatting again, this time about his forthcoming tour, which comes to the Westcountry for two dates – Truro's Hall for Cornwall on February 26 and the Princess Theatre, Torquay, on March 23.
"So, did you get one? How are you getting on with it?" he asks straight away, enthusiasm ringing in his voice.
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Happily I could keep the smile on his face by affirming that I had, indeed, purchased my very own, sweet, little uke, and though I can't pretend I've even begun to master it, it's certainly given me a lot of fun trying.
"Great stuff, mate," says Joe, who even wrote a song with his musician and producer son Pete, called I Like Ukuleles for the aforementioned album.
Joe – also a master of guitar, mandolin and violin – has always loved playing the ukulele. In 1963 it even got him into trouble. Joe was one of the very first artists to have a record banned by the BBC – his recording of the old George Formby song With My Little Ukulele In My Hand was deemed way too risque for broadcast at that time.
"It's a great instrument and, most importantly, it is an instrument not a toy. You can achieve great heights with a ukulele," declares Joe.
"Everyone should have one. It's amazing how much fun they are. You can cheer yourself up with a uke. There's something about them that is quite magical; you can do wonderful things with them."
The original soprano ukulele originated in Hawaii in the 19th century and became hugely popular across the USA in the 1920s. They now come in three other sizes – concert, tenor, and baritone – and there's even a Joe Brown signature version on the market.
The idea for the whole album of ukulele songs came about after Joe's singer daughter Sam Brown lost her big, bluesy voice after an operation on her vocal cords. She turned her attention to founding and fronting the International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common – a group of amateur players.
"There are lots of ukulele clubs springing up. Anyone can play one – they are very, very simple," said Joe. "Sam's group has all ages; some are in their 70s and they go right down to kids of ten or 11. They're all doing something they thought they couldn't do, and are absolutely loving it."
The record is a pleasing and inspirational one for any aspiring uke player, mixing original tunes with a surprising range of covers that have been given his ukulele treatment.
My favourite tracks are his versions of Motorhead's The Ace of Spades, The Who's Pinball Wizard, and ELO's Mr Blue Sky – all of which are, apparently, in his current live set.
The creme de la creme for me, though, is I'll See You in My Dreams. This was the sweet song Joe strummed on when he took centre stage in front of an all-star band at the Concert for George at London's Royal Albert Hall, in memory of his close friend George Harrison.
It's also the song that reduced me to spontaneous tears when I saw Joe in concert a few years ago – it took me straight back to my own childhood and my dad singing it to me as a lullaby.
That one is still in the set, too, but the rest gets constantly switched about as Joe and his band traverse the world on old-fashioned "proper" tours. This one has 34 theatre dates.
"We try to make everybody happy – and we try to include ourselves in that, too," says Joe, who has just got back from South Africa.
"We have a vast repertoire. You do songs for a year or so and then they get a bit tired. So we leave them for a bit and maybe go back to them again later.
"We've got five great new songs in the show," he enthuses, revealing that two of those are George Harrison's Any Road and Harry McClintock's Big Rock Candy Mountain – a classic from back in the 1920s.
Joe formed his first skiffle group in 1958. In 1962 he stormed the pop charts with hit single and album A Picture Of You and went on to headline British tours that featured American acts Del Shannon, Dion, the Crystals… and an up-and-coming Liverpool band called the Beatles.
He's never stopped writing and performing. Still as down to earth as ever, his achievements were rewarded in recent years with an MBE and a Mojo Award for services to music – and an unofficial promotion to "national treasure".
For this tour Joe is joined on stage by his son Pete, playing guitar, lap steel guitar, uke, mandolin and mandola, Phil Capaldi on drums, percussion and vocals, Mike Nichols on bass guitar, double bass and vocals, and Ben Lee on guitar, mandolin and... ukulele.