Interview with Will Grove-White of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
This morning I had the pleasure of interviewing Will Grove-White who kindly gave up more than an hour of his time for http://www.ukuleletutorial.com/ before getting ready to go on tour to Hong Kong and China.
Q We all know you as a ukulele player. Was that your first instrument and do you play other instruments?
R My Mother started my interest in music at an early age as she wrote a rock column for the Daily Mail. When I was a kid I tickled the ivories on a piano to produce the usual renditions of chopsticks and other such typical pieces. Strangely I was interested in old films in which George Formby played the banjolele and asked my mother for one for my birthday. She bought me a wooden ukulele and I was disappointed but later I met Ian Whitcomb, a friend of my Mother’s. and he introduced me to the ukulele on a visit to England in the early eighties. About that time I followed the newly formed Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and when I was 16 they let me play with them and the rest is history, as they say.
Q I believe your Grandmother Mary Dobbs wrote the lyrics to ‘They Swims’ on your ‘Small Fry’ pocket instrument album. Are there other musical streaks in your family?
R Not really but my Grandfather was a big fan of Cab Calloway and played the piano and ever since I’ve been interested in traditional jazz as well as music from bygone eras.
Q Did you have any formal musical education and can you sight read?
R I play by ear but will work songs out in chord measures with beats to the bar carefully measured in boxes above the relevant lyrics, similar to my beginners’ guide to ukulele playing at http://willgrovewhite.com/learning-to-play-the-ukulele-lesson-three/ and of course it will be covered in my new book ‘Get Plucky with the Ukulele’
Q Is the soprano your preferred size of ukulele to play?
R It suits me down to the ground, but I’ll happily strum any ukulele.
Q When did you and the other members of UOGB first realise that you were going to be a sought after act requiring booking at least a year in advance?
R We gradually started to get more gigs throughout the 90s and by the time we played at Jools Holland’s Hootenanny in 2004 we knew were onto something bigger than we had ever envisaged. It was about that time that it became a full time job for us all.
Q Do you rehearse the comic banter as well as the music when you all perform in UOGB?
R We usually figure out rough introductions but it all changes once we’re on stage in front of an audience. Lots of funny things happen unexpectedly.
Q Ian Whitcomb who introduced you to the ukulele managed to record himself playing with the late Harry Warren of Home in Pasadena fame. Are there any celebrated song writers whom you would like to have accompanied on their compositions?
R Cab Callaway and Cliff Edwards would be among those who are dead and among the living would be Talking Heads
Q When I first heard you play in Cardiff I was intrigued by the fact that ‘Hot Tamales’, one of the bluesman Robert Johnson’s hits, was in your repertoire. How long did it take for you to all to decide to include the song ?
R Such a great tune! I’d played that song for years with a university band, The Kenyan Tea Corporation, and when George realised I was keen on it we pulled out a dusty copy from the back of the UOGB pad and started to do it with the Orchestra.
Q Are there many pieces of music which you have decided just don’t work on ukuleles even with bass?
R With a ukulele you have to understand that sustain is not there. That said, a great song will always work on a ukulele. In fact, if a song doesn’t work on a ukulele chances are it’s not a very good song in the first place.
Q Do you have a favourite genre of music?
R I like traditional jazz and some fairly old obscure artists like Lewis Rabbit Muse and Charlie Burse and the Memphis Mudcats.
Q Do you feel that the 3rd wave of uke popularity will last even though there are many “serious musicians” who still think of it as a toy?
R I actually like the”toy” reputation of the ukulele. In a world where no one goes to sing in church anymore the modern phenomena of groups of players gathering in pubs to sing and play is a good thing. You also have to remember that historically, thanks to the work of May Singh Breen, ukulele chords were printed on popular song sheet music for many years and if you didn’t have a piano the chances are you heard a song played on the ukulele first.
Q Do you ever manage to find time to catch other ukulele acts?
R Sadly not too often but I do like acts like The Hot Potato Syncopators and Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave.
Q What recording equipment and technology do you use at your office for recording?
R I’ve been using Pro Tools for a long time; it handles just about all my recording needs.
Q On your website you have an amazing collection of pictures of celebrities with a uke in their hands. Do you know of any others that don’t have photos?
R I’d love to get my hands on a picture of Jimi Hendrix, David Byrne, Syd Barrett or Neil Young playing the ukulele. I haven’t seen any yet!
Thank you Will and all the best with your oriental tour and good luck with your new book ‘Get Plucky with the Ukulele’ .