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114 C hap t e r 7 The Height of Its Popularity The whole face of the earth has bloomed with ukuleles this summer. —Music Trade Review, September 21, 1921 Originally a hobby pursued by a small group of enthusiasts, radio’s explosive growth after World War I left contemporary observers struggling for adjectives. The Review of Reviews said it “has possibly not been equaled in all the centuries of human progress.” Radio Broadcast called it “almost incomprehensible .” Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, found it “astounding.”1 KDKA of Pittsburgh, the country’s first commercial station, went on the air in November 1920; by the fall of 1922, there were almost five hundred stations nationwide .2 That year, $60 million in radio sets and parts were sold; just two years later, total sales had increased almost sixfold, to $358 million.3 From the beginning, Hawaiian music and the ‘ukulele were a staple of what one radio historian has called the “somewhat chaotic jumble of different types of music” offered in the early make-it-up-as-you-go days of broadcasting.4 In 1922, the Schenectady Hawaiian Trio broadcast on WGXP in Schenectady; Frank W. May offered Hawaiian guitar selections in Springfield, Massachusetts; in Chicago, KYW listeners heard Janey Hickey and the Mele Hawaiian Quartet; Los Angeles listeners heard steel guitarist Wiki Bird and Anita Ransom on ‘ukulele performing a medley of popular tunes; Messrs. Schrader and Lensner, Hawaiian guitarists, presented vocal and instrumental selections in Pittsburgh; and in New York, Virginia Burt, soprano and Hawaiian guitar imitator, offered her own compositions and Hawaiian novelties .5 “The radio listener is certain to tune in on some ukulele playing somewhere or other before any evening is over,” one music industry analyst observed.6 Theintimatenatureofaradiobroadcastthatgaverisetoanatural,casualstyleof singing labeled as “crooning”—a style the young Bing Crosby rode to success—also The Height of Its Popularity 115 favored the ‘ukulele. The new technology made it possible for the small instrument to be heard effortlessly in a way that was impossible on stage or in early recordings. “Stringed music has become highly popular with listeners-in,” the Los Angeles Times noted in June 1923 in reporting an on-air performance of Kenelle’s Iolani Hawaiian Orchestra. “It broadcasts perfectly, sounding perhaps better by radio than at close range.”7 Cultural critic Charles Merz reached a similar conclusion: “It is the brass bands, the harmony boys and the ukuleles that have made the radio famous. And it is to the brass bands, the popular airs, the harmony boys and the ukuleles that the radio gives most of its treasured time.”8 ‘Ukulele makers were quick to pick up on the trend, advertising their instruments’ “broadcasting qualities” and the endorsements of the radio performers who used them.9 The ‘ukulele’s radio resurgence came at a time when, weary of the fad that burst onto the scene in 1915–1916, some welcomed the idea that ‘ukulele’s time had come and gone. “Ukulele No Longer Favored by the Public,” the Hartford Courant proclaimed with obvious relief in the summer of 1921, after a reporter visited a local music store “and saw hanging upon the walls almost a score of ukulele, all of them covered with the dust of time.” But the obituary proved premature: Ten days later, the Courant quoted a local music dealer as saying the ‘ukulele “is still one of the most popular instruments today and we are selling as many of them as we were at the time the Hawaiian song was the height of its popularity.”10 Some predicted that with the rise of radio, interest in playing the ‘ukulele and other musical instruments would decline; but music dealers reported that the effect was quite the opposite. “Whenever one of the popular ‘mike’ artists thumps a new song hit on his guitar or ukulele, the dealers said there were many who resolved to master the magic of the melodic strings,” a survey of Chicago music retailers found.11 The speed with which the ‘ukulele became a staple of radio entertainment helped complete its transformation from an exotic novelty to a staple of popular culture. No longer was it regarded chiefly as a Hawaiian instrument played by Hawaiian musicians performing Hawaiian music. Now it was an American phenomenon —a perception popular not only at home but abroad. Americans “all are accomplished jazz singers; they sing the newest Broadway song hits all the day, accompanying themselves on the ukulele,” German cartoonist Hans Michaelis...


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