Notes on playing the banjo uke (and the regular ukulele), as well as some of my favorite songs and videos, but mostly, you'll find information here on my particular obsession - the many models of banjo ukulele offered by Stromberg-Voisinet in the 1920's to 1931.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Prince Wong

One of the holy grail instruments for me is a Martin 2 from the 20s. I've always loved the sound of Martin ukes. I bought a Martin 0 from the 60s back in 1993 and loved it so much, I never really felt the need for buying another soprano uke for another 18 years.

But in the back of my mind, I always wanted a style 2. Cliff Edwards had a couple, and so did several other vaudeville acts; perhaps the white binding helped the uke read visually from beyond the first dozen or so rows.

Here's the Cook Sisters, a vaudeville act from the 20s, which only cut one record (on the B side was "Make My Cot Where the Cot Cot Cotton Grows"; "A Shady Tree" on side A). They have matching Style 2s, and are famous for having had some of their costumes stolen by a young dancer appearing on the bill with them called Lucille "Billie" Le Seur, who within a year was re-christened Joan Crawford.

In December, I was trolling Ebay for a Style 2 - there were about 10 on sale and I got one from a pawnshop in Lancaster, CA. It's the one that went for the least - though I think it was most valuable of the lot. As you can see in the photograph, it's got a name painted on it; Prince Wong. It's a dark-stained mahogany number, very dark next to my Style 0. A minor twist in the neck thankfully had no impact on the intonation (complete luck!). The uke needed to have the second fret hammered back in and filed slightly, and although there are a couple of cracks, they're tightly closed on the body, and the fretboard, though showing tiny cracks in a couple of places, is rock-solid. $35 in minor adjustments and the uke was suddenly loud and clear. Different from my Style 0, but no less addictive to play.

So who was Prince Wong? I had no idea when I bid on it, but I started looking into it. The great folks over on Ukulele Cosmos had some thoughts, and Victrola Lague - who is herself a serious collector and player of the good stuff - had a couple of cuts for me to hear, including one recording of Prince Wong playing "Somebody's Lonely" on ukulele; perhaps, she mused, he played this very Style 2?: Somebody's Lonely

J. Boy Shyne came up with a violin cut of Prince Wong's, and Karl in Bruges also came through, with a website for Grass Skirt Records, which gave enough basic information to track Prince Wong: Grass Skirt Records This rang a bell for me: "Prince Wong was actually George Prince Louis, born 14 January 1899 in San Luis Obispo, California. He was born into a well-known local family and his father Wong On Ah Louis established a number of businesses in the area, including the renowned Ah Louis Store."

Coincidentally, I had just read about Ah Louis and his role as a labor advocate and agent for Chinese working on the railroads on a recent visit to the Museum of Chinese in America here in NYC. So, armed with this knowledge, I called up the San Luis Obispo County Historical Center and hit paydirt. It turns out that they weren't aware that George Ah Louis was a musician, let alone in show business, but Eve Newman there was kind enough to dig into the Ah Louis family file with her colleagues and unearthed not only George's story, but also photos of him playing different instruments. Here's what I found out through Eve, IMBD and other sources:

George Ah Louis showed a musical talent early in life - and became a multi-insturmentalist - playing guitar, Hawaiian guitar, tenor banjo, ukulele, and violin - and perhaps other instruments. He had an act called Shanghai to San Francisco in 14 minutes, and, when he made it to the top-flight Orpheum circuit, the act was changed to Shanghai to San Francisco in 10 minutes (Perhaps they gave you less time on the bill the better you got?). As Prince Wong, George enjoyed a long career in vaudeville, radio, and did some recording, though how many sides he cut is unknown. During WWII, he got work playing Japanese Soldiers in the movies under his new stage name "Prince Waln". He also led a Hawaiian band that regularly played Radio City Music Hall here in New York. Later, he was involved in producing TV commercials, teaching music, and other business ventures. His style of banjo playing was apparently very influential, and according to his obituary, so was his Hawaiian Guitar work; He died 20th May, 1993 in Tigard, Oregon.

And so, did my Style 2 belong to George Ah Louis? Hard to say. I initially thought, with the signature painted where it is, that to whomever it belonged must have been a lefty, but the uke's original nut and bridge have always been strung for a right-handed player. And Prince Wong was right-handed, as we can see in the photos of him. But, if you were righty, holding the uke in your left hand, that's where you would have painted your name on the lower bout.

Nothing's conclusive, but the signature is quite old, hand painted in white (you can see the brushstrokes when you're up close). According to Ukulele Cosmos pal Autumn Leaf, and confirmed by my friend Meghan McGeary (who sometimes plays as Amity Rose), the pictogram in the signature is the name "Huang", which Anglicized is "Wong". The uke is conclusively 1920's, and could certainly have been the one used when Prince Wong cut his records for Pathé in 1926 and afterwards. Or, could it be that he personalized one of his students' or a fan's uke? Well, yes, it could be.

So, while I don't know that it's his, I believe it is. And the Museum in San Luis says that they'd be happy to accept it into their collection someday. I want to hang onto it for a bit, first though. :) In the meantime, I want to share this great piece of Asian-American show business history with people I play for and with. Just being able to hold it in my hand during the time I get to play it makes me feel like I hit the lottery.

Next time, I'll have some golden age tenor banjos to show you - 'til then - keep on strumming and picking. :)


  1. That was a great find, John, and the uke sounds fantastic.

    I'd love to find such a thing in a pawn shop. Ours seem to be full of 20's banjo mandolins, lovely instruments, but not to my taste! :-) I still dream of finding the odd Martin 5K....

    Happy uking!


  2. Ahh - the day I find a Martin 5K in a pawnshop is the day I'll own a Martin 5K.

    Thanks, Chris.

  3. Ahh -

    It seems I ALMOST remembered that Joan Crawford story correctly. Here is more from a website dedicated to Joan. And in another example of how the web perpetuates poor information - someone once wrote that the Cook Sisters were an unknown act that "wandered" into the Brunswick Studios to mysteriously cut two sides and disappear into history, but as usual, there is more to it. They were actually a pretty big act:

    Cook, Lucille and Nellie. A sister singing act in Kansas City in the early 1920s. One night when Joan (then "Billie Cassin") was locked out of her house by her wicked stepfather Harry Hough after coming home too late, the two found her sobbing in a hotel bathroom and took her home with them. A week or so later, the sisters took Billie along when they performed at the Ivanhoe Hotel; a booking agent interested in them also noticed Billie dancing and arranged for an audition as a chorus girl in Katharine Emerine's Springfield, Missouri, show. Billie got the job... and promptly took off with all of the Cooks' costumes! Said Nellie later: "We forgave her, in a way. Billie had such determination and drive, and she was so frightened of failure. She did what she felt she had to do. It's true we were placed in a terrible spot, but it worked out all right." The Cooks later traveled the Orpheum circuit, did national radio shows from New York and Chicago, and even had small roles in Hal Roach comedies in Hollywood.

  4. You'll find a rare 78 of Prince Wong's on Grass Skirt Records' You Tube page, here:

    The family group photo above which you found on the Grass Skirt website came from George's great niece who lives in California

    1. Les -

      Thanks for posting that cut. George really was something - between the Hawaiian Guitar and uke cut, you can tell how versatile he was as a player, and in terms of style. Grass Skirt has a lot of wonderful cuts on You Tube, and I've really been enjoying them over the last several weeks.

      I plan to reach out to George's family through the County Historical Society, just to make the connection and show them the uke.

  5. Update: I spoke with Matt Umanov, at Matt Umanov Guitars, and shared the signature conundrum with him. He says he has seen names painted on ukes in this way before, upside down, presumably done for ID purposes.