Ian Whitcomb &
His Bungalow Boys,
The Cat's Meow:
Ukulele Favorites
from the Roaring Twenties

(Mel Bay, 2003)

Englishman Ian Whitcomb has had his moments of glory over the years -- a hit single here and there (the classic "You Turn Me On," for example), appearances on such TV programs as Shindig and the Pat Boone Show, writing and performing music for movies -- and seems to have settled into a highly satisfying way of life, working at something he loves: the music of Tin Pan Alley. Needless to say, he also spends a lot of time playing ukulele, an instrument intricately tied up with the glorious era when Tin Pan Alley ruled.

The Cat's Meow: Ukulele Favorites from the Roaring Twenties draws together these components into an experience which can only be described as great fun. A couple of films (The Cat's Meow and Last Call) supply the music, the '20s is the time, while various Whitcomb ensembles, including his ukulele-led Bungalow Boys band, create the music for a CD and an excellent song book transcribing 26 songs and tunes. Ah, heaven!

After a somewhat light-hearted introductory chapter to Whitcomb, the book presents the legacy of 'Ukulele" Al Brown, a perfect background not only to this songbook, but also to The Cat's Meow movie.

Through Brown and Elsie Pangland-Frosset, two people from different ends of the social spectrum, the story is told and the scene is set: Elsie, the society grand dame presiding over her monthly socials, and Al, the itinerant musician with a magical hold on all he meets. Through these characters, Whitcomb introduces life in those wild times. He writes about the Wobblies, the spread of radio and the new music known as jazz, but all the while class divisions, etiquette and smoked salmon sandwiches still play their part. And of course, the uke appears, a relatively new instrument outside of Hawaii.

Following the introductions is a series of good examples of music with ukulele accompaniment, written by some of the most talented lyricists and composers of the 20th century -- Gus Kahn, Albert Von Tilzer and Irving Berlin, among others, including the aforementioned Al Brown himself. Whitcomb has included lyrics as well as transcriptions of melodies with ukulele chords, making singing along with the accompanying CD fun. This is especially so on the songs he sings. His English accent is perfectly classy.

But first and foremost, this is a ukulele book. My experience with the instrument is at a much simpler level, often using the keys of G and D. Many of the pieces here are in keys like Bb and use chord shapes I often avoid. Playing along has involved some contorting and a certain degree of effort. There may be only four strings, but the ukulele has an incredible range. Whitcomb's arrangements encourage full usage of the instrument; fast and frequent chord changes requiring intricate fingering and resulting in intriguing progressions.

The slower songs on the CD are relatively easy to play along with even on first listening. The up-tempo ones are a different kettle of fish. Sometimes when tripping over a particularly awkward sequence, it took a few minutes to untangle my fingers, take stock and resume the accompaniment. However, the sense of achievement as I finally got up to speed was highly rewarding.

It's a very attractive and convenient publication. Only six songs are spread over more than two pages, so there's very little annoying page-turning, and there are period photographs and reproductions of old song sheets throughout, some of them absolute gems. However, you need large rubber bands as the binding is not conducive to keeping pages spread open.

The accompanying CD can also be appreciated to in its own right. Whitcomb is a fine musician (vocals, ukulele, accordion and piano) and is joined by a number of players in various combinations. He's selected diverse material for the recording and has successfully recaptured the era. It's great to hear the "jumping flea" taking such a prominent role, but I wish he'd have also included the music of the Hawaiian "funeral" band in The Cat's Meow, too.

- Rambles
written by Jamie O'Brien
published 27 September 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.