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. :)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Stromberg-Voisinet's Budget Uke?

Hello and Happy New Year.

I hope that everyone who reads this had a great holiday and got what they wanted from Santa in the uke department. And I hope that wherever you are, the weather isn't AWFULLY COLD, like it is here.

Back in my last post, I promised an entry on a Stromberg-Voisinet model that I'm calling the Style 2. So far, we've covered the Style 1 "Black Beauty" and its variants, the Style 1 "Crocodile Skin" and the various versions of the Style 1 "Deluxe"; as well as the "Rose". Since then, there have been several Roses up for sale, and an update on those may well be in order. I've also got a LOT of Stroberg-Voisinet tenor banjos to share with you, as well as a fantastic little Martin 2 I bought, which I'll post on next week.

But, in the meantime - here's a look at the Style 2. As you can see in the above photo of George Formby Society member James Bassett (age 7 at time of the photo) - who can really play, and these below photos here, this is a unique model for Stromberg-Voisinet. It appears to have only been offered in one color and wood option, and it's hardware is more basic than that offered on every other style of S-V uke. Key features are: deep-lipped non-flanged resonator with black binding on both resonator edges, blond maple pot, neck and resonator, ebony fretboard and headstock facing, and hex-shaped tension hook shoes. As for adornment, only the four MOP fret markers – no headstock diamond - and in this example only, a double pinstripe around the bottom of the pot.

As this model sadly illustrates, these instruments are seldom in good shape, which also contributes to my thinking that they may have been the cheapest models offered, as less expensive things tend not to be taken care of.

This particular example has been nicely customized on the resonator back by a previous owner with the name “Max Boyd”. Who was the artiste Max Boyd? Well, clearly *not* the smooth jazz practitioner who leads the Max Boyd Group, but someone who made their living in vaudeville.

All features of the Style 2 are here, pointing to one of the most design-consistent SV offerings. Offered on EBay, this did not sell, unsurprisingly – as it had a $59US starting bid and not a few issues…

Another Style 2 with somewhat creepy player art of a flapper on the vellum. As noted, identical in all aspects to the dozen or so I've seen. This one, missing some hardware, moved on Ebay in August of 2011, moving for $82.

And finally, a few shots of a Style 2 that moved for about $100. Pricing seems fairly consistently low for this uke, with others I've noted going for $110 and $89 for two examples in good condition. As you can see in the very bottom photo - this example shows the only other variation I've seen on a Style 2: a birdseye maple resonator back. This makes the uke look less bargain basement.

There's not a lot to add, except that - based on surviving examples - this model appears to have been very common, though not quite as common as the black Style 1. It's come up for sale as a wall hanger several times, often missing all hardware. A shame, but that was and is the story with most of the low end vintage ukes out there. If you do find one that's playable or in restorable shape - or better yet, in good nick - then jump. It may not be worth a lot, but it's a great piece of history.

Next time, I'll tell you all about Prince Wong's uke.

Until then, keep strumming, and keep warm, for goodness sake.