His work, including five solo albums and a book, has played a crucial role in creating the current ukulele boom. He joins us to talk about his musical world, his songwriting and more. Hailing from Yorkshire, England and making his home in Canada, it was a pleasure to interview him and also have him perform a song for the listeners.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure I welcome the king of the ukulele, Mr. Ralph Shaw. Thank you so much for joining us.
Well, it’s my pleasure. I must say, though, I get a little bit embarrassed by the ‘king of the ukulele’ these days. I gave myself that name when there were pretty well no other ukulele players around and now there’s a lot of player much better than me.
Well, there is only one Ralph Shaw.
That’s true! As I often … I guess we can all be kings and queens in our own little world, can’t we?
That’s true. I think most stories are best from the beginning. What was life like growing up for you?
Wow, that’s a big question. Ukulele related, I’d have to say the very first ukulele I ever held belonged to my grandfather. He played with it in the 20’s and this was just an old instrument that was just kicking around the house. And my father put real string on it, you know, like hairy gardening string so it was totally unplayable. So, for me, the ukulele was a mystery object. And I grew up in a little village in Yorkshire, in England. So…I’m not sure what TV shows you might have seen – there was one called All Creatures Great and Small – but it’s sort of wind-blown moorland, you know? So it’s a fairly harsh climate. Probably similar to the Scottish highlands, that kind of thing. They had a lot of farm folk around there and, you know, it wasn’t – as a teenager it wasn’t easy to get around. At the time it seemed quite normal but I realize, especially by today’s standards, that I spent a lot of time doing my own thing. You know, creating my own entertainment. When I got gifts, you know, it was often like real tools for woodworking and, you know, painting. So there was always this element of creation, making up your own stories and games. And getting into trouble and, you know, all the usual things. But lots of outdoor play as well. And I guess – I think part of me actually believed the reality of what you’d see on television. So when you saw these fictional situations of how pop stars lived – I’m thinking now, for example, the Beatles, how they would all go in separate doors and when they got inside the house it was all just one room. I think I believed a lot of that kind of thing. You know, when you watched an Elvis movie where Elvis would sing and suddenly everybody would join in. I think part of me always believed that that could happen. And I think, to some extent, it still does and that’s what I go out with, as an entertainer, you know? I believe that people will just join in with my little musical world. And quite often, they do which is wonderful.
Well, you mentioned the Beatles. What type of music did you grow up liking the most?
Actually, funnily enough, not the Beatles. I was born in 1964 so I think by the time I was really listening to music the Beatles were quite passé so it was – I don’t remember hearing their music as a child, which surprises people. So, yeah, they’re not a part of my scheme at all. I mentioned Elvis. When I was around 13 years old, they showed Elvis movies every day through the Christmas holiday so (laughs) it was quite neat to grow up with that as a kind of entertainment. My grandfather, on the other hand, he lived just around the corner and he was one that would sing songs when I was a child so I grew up hearing a lot of those songs. And I’m not even – I couldn’t even name you too many titles right now. It’s just that when I was very young my mum, she thought ‘this kid knows a lot of songs!’ You know? I was four years old and she wrote down about 25 songs that I was singing. And I didn’t – you know, they weren’t kid’s songs, right (laughs)? They were just – these were things I had learned from my grandfather. But then, later on, you know, I would listen to what my friends listened to and like what they liked. So I picked things up like there was Led Zeppelin for a while. There was ELO. There was Pink Floyd. In my early teens I got this book called The Encyclopedia of Rock, which for me, was like the internet of the day because you could look up, you know, a band or a musician you were interested in and then it would be cross-referenced to the links to other parts of the book where other band members had been in their band or they played music with someone else. So, so it was from that that I then discovered my own music that my friends didn’t even know about. And it was through that that I got interested in all sorts – Frank Zappa, Little Feat, Arlo Guthrie. It just became a real eclectic kind of mix of music that I liked then.
Your first album, The King of the Ukulele, the songs are all from the Tin Pan Alley. In my humble opinion, you made those songs magical. They’ve been recorded so many times, but some of my favorite versions of those classics are the ones that you recorded. You did a beautiful version of Blue Skies with that long harmonica intro. I’ve played a lot of those songs on the air. You did a beautiful version of Puttin’ on the Ritz. You had a few humorous songs, too, that I’d never heard of – Taking My Oyster for Walkies. So tell us about your love for those songs.
It’s so wonderful to hear you say that, Paul! Let me tell – if I can, can I tell you a story of something that happened just a week ago? I got a phone call from a fellow in England. He’s an artist. And every two or three years he calls me up just to tell me something, you know. And he’s got this rich, plum English voice. And he told me about how he’s just received a terrific shock. He thought one of his neighbors, an elderly neighbor, was in trouble. He’d pretty well gone to kick the door down, you know, because he thought he was in danger. And then he realized he might be visiting a friend. And then it turned out that this elderly neighbor was visiting a friend. But Giles, he said ‘Ralph, I was very much in shock!’ he said. ‘So I listened to my iPod. And I’ve got thousands of songs. You wouldn’t believe how many songs I’ve got. And I thought ‘What do I really need to listen to at a time like this?’ and straight away, Ralph, I thought of you, and “King of the Ukulele”! (Laughs)’ He said ‘I’ve got, you know, Frank Sinatra and Joan Stafford, the Beatles, the Stones’ – he’s reeling off all these names – he said ‘but Ralph, it was you that I thought of!’ (Laughs) You know, so that, it was so neat. They happened for me when I started to play the ukulele because I thought I would play rock songs, but I found that a lot of modern music sounded very boring when played with the ukulele. They’re very simple chords. And reaching into the 20’s and 30’s and 40’s – those songs, I discovered, are so well-written, melodically. The chords, the lyrics, everything was so clever. And, in fact, it ws all so good that I stopped writing my own songs at that point. I thought why write my own not very good stuff when there is this treasure trove of songs to draw off? So, yeah, I recorded those and produced, I must say, by Geoff Gibbons who did a great job there. I really don’t know what to say – why people like my versions of them. It’s, uh, I just sing them in the way I feel they should be sung and I do seem to have a sort of Tin Pan Alley/Vaudeville aspect to my style that seems to suit those songs quite well.
You did a second album with a lot of old songs on there. You did La Mer and then there was one song that sticks out in my mind. I believe the title was I Just Wish I Was in Love?
Tell us about that one.
Well, there’s several songs on that album that aren’t old songs but they sound like they could be. So this one is one that Geoff Gibbons, again the producer, he showed up at the door as I, you know, when I arrived for the recording session and he said ‘Ralph, I had a dream about you last night.’ He said ‘You were in a park. You were like Gene Kelly. You were dancing and you were singing a song.’ He said ‘And I don’t, I don’t remember the, all the words, but you were singing ‘I just wish I was in love’ and I remember the tune.’ So he played me the tune and sort of what lyrics he could remember and then left it for me to write the rest of the song. So I spent the next day or two finishing that song off. And it was probably a year or two later that I realized that this song he had thought of as Gene Kelly – and Gene Kelly is famous for Singing in the Rain, you know, ‘I don’t care what’s coming. The sky can pour down with rain. I don’t care, ‘cause I’m in love!’ right? Well, this song has the exact opposite sentiment. This song says ‘Everything in the world is perfect. The sun is shining, children are playing but what does it all matter? What does it all mean if you don’t have someone to love?’ Just a needs reversal there.
I don’t want to put you on the spot here, but do you happen to have a ukulele handy?
Oh, I do have one. I always have one by my desk. I don’t know if it’s in tune (plays a few notes) – umm, not too bad.
Would you care to play that for all the listeners out there?
Hmm, OK. Let’s, uh, let’s play something I’ve just – this is something I’ve just been working on so it’s sort of fresh in my mind. (Performs Mr. Sandman)
There you go.
Thank you on behalf of all the listeners. Thank you so much!
Hey, you’re very welcome. Thank you.
Mr. Shaw, one thing that I’ve heard you say several times – well, I’ve seen you write – is respect for the ukulele. What does that mean to you?
Back, back when I wrote that – and, you know, I think I put that in the liner notes of The King of the Ukulele album – that was at the time when the ukulele was treated as a joke which, in a lot of ways, I didn’t mind because, as an entertainer, I could walk on stage with a ukulele and people would just start smiling straight away because it was something goofy and silly. But with that statement, I also wanted people to realize that it’s a musical instrument and that it has, you know, it has so much potential Any kind of music can be played on it. Just because it’s small and got four strings, you know, doesn’t make it silly. A violin is small and has four strings, too. So that was really my intent. It was, it was before the present ukulele boom took off. It was to let people know, yeah, here is an instrument worthy of being looked at, worthy of being noticed, worthy of being taken up by all kinds of musicians. And it’s, it’s quite wonderful. This is probably now 16 or 17 years after I wrote that and I don’t need to say it anymore. There is, there are so many great players that have taken up the ukulele and they’re doing all kinds of things with it. And I don’t think, I don’t think it’s ever going to fall back into that ‘Tiny Tim’ niche goofy status anymore. I think it’s, um, here to stay as a recognized instrument. You know, that happened with the saxophone, it happened with the banjo. You know, these were all new instruments at one time that people saw as novelties and then they became established things and I think we’ve hit that point now with the ukulele.
You have two new albums out. Tell all the listeners about these two new records of Ralph Shaw’s.
Yeah! They’re called Love and Laughter. And I mentioned earlier that I stopped writing my own songs when I discovered the Tin Pan Alley era. Well, after a few years, I did start writing songs again and what those oldersongs did for me – really studying the songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, all these great songwriters – it made me a much greater self-critic of my own work. I’ve learned to know when a song is not finished. I think a lot of, a lot of modern songwriters, you know, write songs and the first thing they write, the first thing they put out, they think it’s a done deal. And I’ll listen to it and I go ‘Oh, they could have done so much more with this. They could have made it so much better.’ And so, that’s what I’ve done with my songwriting, which falls into two categories. I have funny songs and I write songs on the theme of love as well, like so many popular songs. And, and I just felt that they – I had enough of each and I felt that they should be in two separate categories so I made two individual CDs, one called Love, one called Laughter. And pretty much, all originals.
Do you have a favorite song of yours that you’ve written?
Ahh … oh, dear. For different reasons, I sort of have different favorites. I, I must say I’m a big fan of the sort of the genre of double entendre songs so it sounds like you’re singing about one thing and you’re actually singing about something else. And one of my favorites in that line – it’s almost unplayable (laughs) because it’s kind of naughty – but it’s one called Bird Lover that’s on the Laughter album. And I think that’s going towards being a triple entendre song and it’s a song that – it just amused me so much to write it. And it really is quite, if you have a mind for that, it’s quite sexually raunchy and yet, it’s just seems to be an innocent song about a cat. I had a lot of fun writing that one but I must say, I’m a little bit careful where I sing that one (laughs).
One of, one song that’s very special for me that’s on my Love album – in fact, it starts the album – it’s called Fair Kathryn which I wrote for my wife – who, uh, who just came in and brought me a cup of tea right now. That’s a nice one as well. It’s got sort of a British feel. It’s upbeat and yet there’s a lot of poetry in the words. I, I like it when a song comes to me and it seems to be something outside of myself. I can look at it as if ‘Wow, that was neat. I don’t know how that happened, but there it is.’ And that’s one of those songs.
When you go down the path of being an entertainer, a ukulele entertainer no less, you’re choosing a different path in life, one could say (laughs). So I’d like to ask you what kind of adventures have happened to you as a result of this journey that you’ve been on in music?
I have to say, Paul, you ask just the best questions (laughs) though, you know, you’re sort of hitting on the things that are, really, kind of big issues in my life. Yeah, and this choice to be an entertainer, it was really a naïve choice, you know? I believed all those movies, you know, where a little band just gets together to rehearse, the next thing somebody notices them and then they’re thrust into the limelight and then they’re – that’s it, they’re famous forever! I believed in that story for many years and I think part of me still does. I’ve always loved the idea of entertaining, you know? It’s something I would do – I would write songs, I would write funny poems. And when I found a book in the library called The Independent Entertainer that was written by a clown, it made me realize that you could make a living as an entertainer. And I did. I became a clown first. That was my first thing. I would carry the ukulele around in a guitar case which also contained the clown props. And then, bit by bit, as I became more proficient at the music, then I became more of a, you know, ukulele entertainer – “king of the ukulele”. But it’s not an easy life. I thought it was going to be just fun and games all the way, you know? And as time goes on and as I understand more and more about the business, I realize what a ‘business’ it is and how much you have to do. And when people have succeeded, what, you know – what things they’ve had to, you know, to do to get to that point. Some do fall into it. Some do have the lucky breaks, you know? But many don’t. You know, most, are just out there hustling for gigs, and playing the gigs, and working on it all—and, uh, there’s a lot of hard work that you don’t see. And most people do not realize it. All they see is a happy guy onstage with a ukulele, right? And if you’re going to go onstage with a ukulele, no one wants to see a miserable guy. So it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter what you’ve got going on with the rest of your life, you’ve always got to be that cheerful person. But quite honestly, 95% of the work is going on behind the scenes. And it, yeah, it’s kind of slugging away, really. You know, just doing what has to be done. You know, I thought I could escape being a slave to a job and, in a way, I have done. You know, I love being self-employed. I love being able to do this for a living, but it’s still work. It’s still a job, even if it is more of a calling (laughs) at this point.
What is the best thing about being Ralph Shaw?
Oh, my goodness (feigns a groan) – oh, dear Paul, what the …! (Paul laughs) Oh, no. I don’t know … I don’t know. Like, I am, I am a bit of manic-depressive kind of a character, I have to say. You know, there are times where I’m just so full of joy and music and happiness and other times where I’m not, so I would probably answer that question in different ways, depending on when you catch me. I think, professionally, I really love the way people that like what I’m trying to do and get what I do and respond to it. You know, like you have, have done. You’ve expressed that. And I run a ukulele club in Vancouver, here where I live. And people come out to that. We’re playing along and I run the show and I keep it fun. We have over 140 people coming out to it now! And just to see the delight in all their faces. You know, all these people who come with their ukuleles – you know, they’ve all got their problems in life but by the time that evening is over, everybody, every single person, they’re just beaming. They’ve all got big smiles and they’re all leaving and going off into the world. I just imagine each of them going into their, back into their homes – not with any – just full of this good feeling. And they’re, individually, going to be spreading that wherever they go. I’d have to say that if there’s one thing that keeps me going in what I do – and it’s the thing that I love most about what I do – it is spreading, you know, I’m this little nucleus of positivity that ripples out and puts good into the world and helps others to do the same thing for themselves in their world.
For anyone who listens to this interview, or who reads the transcript, what would you like to say to them?
Don’t give up your day job (laughs) unless becoming a professional entertainer is something that you pretty much have to do, do it. Be happy with whatever you’re doing because everything we do, every life is worthwhile and everybody, I’m discovering, has their problems and their trials in life so we really have make the most of whatever we’ve got and work with that to the best of our abilities.
Now, for my last question: who is Ralph Shaw?
Hmmm, I don’t know. Can you give me a bit more to go on (laughs)?
Well, somebody might see you and say, oh, from a distance, Ralph Shaw is a singer and ukulele player and recording artist or an entertainer. But sometimes we view ourselves differently, or we think there is a part of us that not everybody gets to see. So I guess I’m asking ‘Who is Ralph Shaw at heart?’
You know, that’s a very good question. It’s a really good question. I don’t know. I think I’m still on the journey to finding myself. I really get what you’re saying. You know, ‘you’re looking smart in your suit and your fine moustache and everything’ (laughs). You know, I’m in my cycling outfit – I was just out on my bike. I don’t wear a bow tie. You know, whenever I perform I’m always in a suit and a bow tie and that’s what I present as Ralph Shaw, the performer. But when I’m not like that – I’m not wearing a bow tie all the time. You’ll have to get back to me on that, Paul. Until I reach some moment of enlightenment, where everything all comes into some great oneness, I’m still toying around with these aspects of myself that do different things and play different parts and different roles.
Well, that gives us an excuse to have another interview someday.
(Laughs) I would love that Paul! This has been so neat to talk to you.
Well, thank you very much for this interview. I can tell you, on a very personal level – we’ve never spoken, we’ve emailed several times throughout the years, and I have an autographed photo of you where you drew a little palm tree in the corner of the photo – your music has brought me some joy in my life and I appreciate that.
I must say, Paul, our correspondence has been very, very encouraging for me as well. And it has been over a few years. I was expecting you to look a lot older than you are so congratulations on looking so young (laughs).
Well, thank you very much for that. Keep playing the ukulele and keep singing and making this great music because it’s what the world needs.
Thank you so much, Paul. You keep putting it out there. All the best, mate.
All right. Have a good one.
Yeah, you too. Bye bye. Hey, I wasn’t expecting such an impressive moustache, by the way! (Laughter)
TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA.