Finding a ukulele at a flea market in 1992 changed Jim Beloff ’s life.
Jim Beloff purchased a Martin tenor ukulele that led to a 30-year career centered on the ukulele.
Beloff is the author of The Ukulele—A Visual History (Backbeat Books), as well as the author, arranger, and publisher of the Jumpin’ Jim’s series of ukulele songbooks with over one million copies i
n print. This series is available worldwide and includes The Daily Ukulele: 365 Songs for Better Living and The Daily Ukulele: Leap Year Edition. These are two of the biggest and best-selling ukulele songbooks ever published. All Jumpin’ Jim’s songbooks are distributed by the Hal Leonard Corporation. [Read article about Hal Leonard CEO, Larry Morton on the future of music.]
Beloff produced Legends of Ukulele, a CD compilation for Rhino Records. Additionally, he has made three how-to-play DVDs for Homespun. Jim is also an active songwriter and has released a number of CDs.
His two-CD set, “Dreams I Left In Pockets,” features 33 songs he wrote or co-wrote with uke legends Herb “Ohta-san” Ohta and Lyle Ritz. He will be releasing an album of new songs entitled The Wind and Sun, in 2020.
Jim composed and premiered Uke Can’t Be Serious, a concerto for solo ukulele and symphony orchestra in 1999. Since then, the piece has been performed with both high school and professional orchestras, including the Michigan Philharmonic. He has also performed it many times with a string quartet. His second concerto for ukulele and orchestra, The Dove Tale, premiered in 2017 with the Wallingford (CT) Symphony Orchestra.
Learn Ukulele with Jim
Flea Market Music
Jim and his wife, Liz Maihock Beloff, own Flea Market Music, Inc. It is a company dedicated to
the ukulele. They perform together, playing their family’s Fluke, Flea and Firefly ukuleles. Together, Liz and Jim have enjoyed tours of Japan, Australia and Canada. And they continue to believe in their company’s motto, “Uke Can Change the World.”
www.fleamarketmusic.com and facebook.com/jimbeloffmusic.
Jim Beloff Gear
Jim Beloff plays a concert koa Fluke ukulele. The instrument was designed by his brother-in-law, Dale Webb, and manufactured by the Magic Fluke Co., of Sheffield, Massachusetts. The Magic Fluke Co., is owned and operated by Dale and Jim’s sister, Phyllis Webb.
Here is a video of Jim Beloff playing his concerto, “Uke Can’t Be Serious,” with a string quartet at a ukulele fest in Portland, Maine.
A Chat with the Duke of Uke: Jim Beloff
Chuck Schiele: You have a flourishing career. You are acknowledged to have played a prominent role in the ukulele’s current wave of popularity. And, it looks like you’re having a blast doing it. What is your perspective and/or philosophy on the success of all this?
Jim Beloff: Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” best sums up my almost 30-year relationship with the ukulele. I bought a Martin tenor ukulele on a whim at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, CA. That purchase set in motion a life and career, that Campbell would say, was waiting for me all along. I was associate publisher of Billboard Magazine, at the time, and the ukulele was way off the pop-culture radar, even in Hawaii. I was a decent guitarist and one of my long-time passions was songwriting.
Chuck Schiele: You are a songwriter, yes?
Jim Beloff: In college I majored in writing musicals. I was under the influence of the Great American Songbook writers like the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. When the ukulele came into my life, I saw it as a more natural vehicle for the songs I wanted to write than the was guitar. I started to write these classically structured songs with lush chords that felt more appropriate on this out-of-fashion instrument.
One thing led to another and my wife, Liz, and I decided to publish a songbook of arrangements that we found in several 1950s-era songbooks. We met Ronny Schiff, who became our editor and agent. She introduced us to Hal Leonard Corp., the well-known songbook publisher. They decided to distribute our first songbook, Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Favorites, in 1992, and it sold better than anyone expected. The rest, as they say, is history.
I am eternally grateful that we can make a living in music, doing what we love. To meet someone at a ukulele festival with their battered copy of a songbook of ours is one of our greatest pleasures. There’s nothing a publisher of songbooks enjoys seeing more than their books being used. Or in our case, written on, stickered, personalized and in general, “loved.” We talk with them. We learn just how much these books mean to them. And also how big a role they play in their musical lives.
Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?
Jim Beloff: There were several points in my life when it seemed that playing music and writing songs were incompatible with my career. Advancing up the rungs in a corporation required a focus that meant less time to do things I really loved. Once Liz and I started Flea Market Music, performing became a big part of what we do. This led to the need for new material.
So, I began to write songs more purposefully and that led to releasing CDs of those songs. Several of those songs have been covered by other players on their albums or on YouTube. In addition, I’ve been asked to write songs for various television and film projects. After all this time, I’m still passionate about the songwriting process, and the fact that I can do it as part of my day to day life means everything to me.
Chuck Schiele: What are the inspirations that have gotten you here.
Jim Beloff: At first, we only planned to publish three songbooks. Both Liz and I had busy jobs and couldn’t imagine making the ukulele our full-time business. On a trip to Hawaii, I met Alan Yoshioka of Harry’s Music Store. He asked if I’d heard of Lyle Ritz. When I said “no,” he recommended I seek out Lyle’s two Verve jazz ukulele albums recorded in the late 1950s. Back in Los Angeles, I hunted down Lyle’s “How About Uke” at an out-of-print vinyl store. After hearing 30 seconds of the first track, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” my life changed. The sound of Lyle swingin’ on a Gibson tenor uke with three other top LA jazz musicians, knocked me out.
I thought that if the musical world knew that a ukulele could sound this cool, then it could lead to a total re-thinking of the instrument. Suddenly our path became clear. It was to expand the boundaries of where the ukulele could go. Eventually, that led to us publishing all sorts of non-traditional uke songbooks. Books that tackled unusual repertoire like a book of 16th century lute music arranged for ukulele (From Lute To Uke). It also led me to compose “Uke Can’t Be Serious,” a concerto for ukulele and symphony orchestra. It premiered in 1999.
Not long after hearing “How About Uke,” I met Lyle and we eventually became close friends and collaborators. He arranged three books of standards for us. We also released two CDs featuring him live from his home studio. In addition, we co-wrote several songs. Thanks to that initial inspiration from Lyle, I’d like to think that the world has a broader sense of what can be played on a ukulele.
Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist?
Jim Beloff: We’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the finest ukulele players in the world. As mentioned above, the great jazz ukulele player Lyle Ritz arranged three books for us. The legendary Hawaiian player, Herb “Ohta-san” Ohta arranged a book for us in 2001. And John King, the worlds’ finest classical uke player, arranged The Classical Ukulele for us in 2004.
Also, for Flea Market Music, musician and prolific songbook author, Fred Sokolow, arranged the very first blues and bluegrass songbooks for ukulele. British classical uke player, Tony Mizen, arranged three collections covering lute, baroque and romantic period literature. Most recently, Canadian virtuoso, James Hill, arranged Duets For One, for Flea Market Music.
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your ax, and the gear associated with it.
Jim Beloff: Since1999, I’ve been associated with ukuleles designed and manufactured by my brother-in-law, Dale Webb. He and my sister, Phyllis Webb own and run The Magic Fluke Co., and they manufacture the Fluke, Flea and Firefly ukuleles. In particular, I play a koa Fluke concert that Dale built for me.
One blind spot for me has been in amplification. Early on I heard a plugged-in ukulele and it seemed so harsh and un-uke-like that I rebelled against plugging in at all. I only played and sang into microphones. This included performing my first concerto with various orchestras. Eventually it became clear that the only way to adequately compete with an orchestra was to plug in and Dale fitted out my latest Fluke with a high quality pick-up system. Still, Liz and I are happiest playing and singing into a single condenser mic.
Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?
Jim Beloff: I’ve been noticing how some artists in concert will spend more time than expected talking in-between songs. They tell stories about themselves, the circumstances under which they wrote their songs. If they know their audience well enough, they will opine about the current state of the world. Some audience members may wish they just stuck to playing, but my gut tells me that most enjoy this chance to get to know the artist as more than just a song machine.
One of my better-known songs is, “Charles Ives,” about the great American composer. Ives is particularly notable because he ran a successful insurance business at the same time that he was composing his very modern and challenging music. I wrote the song as a tribute to those who have to live double lives to make their art and pay the bills. It’s a subject that’s near to my heart. And, in concert I’ll often give it a more extended introduction.
Some of my newer songs do obliquely reflect the current state of the world, but I prefer to let those songs do the talking. When performing as a married couple, Liz and I have always had the feeling that the audience was curious about the dynamics of a married couple on stage. With that in mind, we’ll have fun sharing a bit of what its like to be partners off-stage and on.
Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you take the stage?
Jim Beloff: Not to screw up. I’m a Capricorn. Trying to remember the lyrics and chords, the set list and to thank the host and the sound man are all in conflict with trying to remember to be relaxed and look like I’m having a good time. A song of mine about the joys of the ukulele that we often sing at uke fests is “Can’t Help But Smile.” I can’t tell you how many times Liz has had to remind me to “smile” as I sing it!
Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the uke?
Jim Beloff: In my experience, all anyone needs to get started is the confidence that they can play and sing one song. I’ve tested this hundreds of times by telling someone (usually no younger than 8 or 9) that I can teach them a song in one minute. “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” is that song. It has two chords, C and G7. Quickly I show them how to make both chords (the C requires only 1 finger and the G7 is in the shape of a triangle) and then how to do an up/down strum. By the time we get to the second verse, “He’s got a little ukulele in His hands,” they are usually beaming and thinking that they’ve made a new friend … the ukulele.
Learn from Jim Beloff
Link to Flea Market Music for books, DVDs and CDs, here.