George Hinchliffe grew up in Sheffield, a city in South Yorkshire, England. Always interested in music, he studied fine arts in the mid-1970s at Leeds Polytechnic University and became quite adept at playing the Hammond organ. After earning his degree, he moved to London and began to make some money as a backing musician for American artists visiting the United Kingdom – especially for tours by various Motown figures. He was also in a band that specialized in soul music and, by the early 1980s, his social circle had grown to include aspiring artists trying to make their way in music or theater.
One of them was Kitty Lux, who was into punk rock but also sang in a women’s a cappella group. Her boyfriend was a bandmate of Hinchliffe, who inevitably spent time hanging around their flat.
“Everybody seemed to be in bands in those days, you know,” Hinchliffe said. “We’d all done all sorts of music with all sorts of people. Kitty was working in a band as a backing singer, and this guy said ‘Oh, your singing is wrong,’ because of some pseudo-technical thing. She said to me afterward, ‘I don’t know enough about music to be able to debate this or understand whether he’s right or wrong.’ I bought her this ukulele and told her to learn some chords. That’s quick and easy. She did, and it was helpful, but then the ukulele was laying around her apartment. All the visitors who came would say, ‘Hey, what’s this thing?’ And they’d plink-plink-plink like a guitarist having a go. We said, ‘This thing’s quite good, actually. Why don’t we get some more and do a gig?’ It was just a whimsical idea.”
More than 35 years later, that spur-of-the-moment lark has grown into a national institution in the UK and carved a niche internationally as Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The ensemble, which headlines the final show of this year’s fine arts series at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, has grown to include about a dozen musicians – regrettably no longer including Lux, who suffered chronic health issues, underwent a kidney transplant and died in 2017 following a stroke.
The “Ukes,” as they’re sometimes called, will bring a combination of serious performing talent and comic relief to Escher Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. April 14 at Saint Ben’s. In 2018, they sold out the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater at Saint John’s, making necessary this year’s move to the Benedicta Arts Center where Escher can accommodate more than 1,000 spectators.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Hinchliffe said. “The fact that we’ve been doing it for a while doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy it every time, wherever we go.”
Overnight sensation maintains audience 35 years later
The Orchestra first performed in 1985 in a local pub. Hinchliffe advertised with just a few posters, but interest in the musicians quickly snowballed. Within a month, they’d performed several additional gigs and then got an invitation to appear on BBC radio and, subsequently, television. They were asked to produce an album, at which point CBS contacted them about distributing it, and eventually they toured Korea and Japan under a sponsorship with Sony.
“It was like, ‘What happened?’” said Hinchliffe, who resisted signing with a label and has nonetheless had a hand in 30 albums and seven DVD recordings. “It seemed crazy. And one of the interesting things for me is that some of the people in the group at that time had their own sort of pet songwriting projects that they were quite serious about. When this much more lighthearted outfit started getting popular, they felt they were letting their side down. They didn’t want to become known for a bit of fun. They wanted to be known for this serious songwriting that they were trying to do.”
With the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, fun is almost inseparable from the music. To start with, all of the members sing and play some form of the little guitars (usually measuring between 16 and 32 inches) that originated 150 years ago when Portuguese immigrants introduced them to natives of the Hawaiian Islands. The sounds are “virtuosic,” “twanging,” and a “foot-stomping obituary of rock-n-roll and melodious light entertainment.” There are no drums, pianos, backing tracks or electronic embellishments. The ukuleles (in a range of registers and with the performers arranged as a chamber group and dressed in formal evening wear) produce everything from Tchaikovsky to Nirvana via Otis Redding and Spaghetti Western soundtracks. As Hinchliffe and his cohorts put it, they take the audience “on a world tour with only hand luggage,” and give the listener “One Plucking Thing After Another.”
The result has been thousands of sold-out concerts across the world, including in Canada, Finland, France, Germany, New Zealand, Poland and Sweden – in addition to Great Britain and America. They’ve sold out the Sydney Opera House, The Royal Albert Hall (twice) and New York's Carnegie Hall (twice). They’ve played for the Queen’s birthday and for Charles before he became King. They’ve played the houses of parliament, and in Tasmania, an island state of Australia and the southernmost part of the country, in China and in the Arctic Circle at the Polar Jazz Festival, in Svalbard, an archipelago of Norway that is the northernmost piece of land on the planet.
Saint Ben’s opens 19-date North American tour
The concert in St. Joseph opens a 19-date North American tour, after which the Ukes have another 25 shows planned yet this year throughout the UK, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Austria. All this on the strength of the little wooden four-strings with the figure-eight body of a classical guitar.
“It’s an instrument just like anything else,” Hinchliffe said. “You can play any music on a guitar, from bee-bop to heavy metal. You can do the same on a ukulele. But we picked the ukulele because it was, in a sense, an outsider instrument. It was neither the classical violin with the eggheads and their pretensions, nor was it the guitar with the egomania that sometimes goes with that. We wanted to avoid the prima donna, cult of personality thing that is so prevalent in all sorts of music.”
And the humor?
“The comedy isn’t because of the ukulele but, the first time you do a gig, things go wrong,” he added. “One of the things I find interesting in going to see any band is that often they walk on stage, and somebody says hello to the audience. Then somebody plugs a guitar in, and somebody’s setting the drums up. There’s 10 minutes of messing around on stage before they even get going. Whereas when you see an act that’s together, like the old Motown acts, they’re into performing straight away. So, we said, ‘Let’s not have dead air on stage.’ When things are going wrong, we talk to the audience. That’s where the comedy came in. Then we tried to develop pieces that were playful with the music. We did a good number of original things at the beginning, but then we thought using well-known music, cover songs and pop songs, enabled us to say something about music because the material was already familiar to most of the audience. If you start off with a piece by Anton Webern, a tiny percentage of the audience might have heard of him let alone know the music ... If you’re fooling around with an old pop song or a movie theme, people will recognize it and then tell when you’ve changed it a little bit.”
The Ukes endeavor to be entertaining, thought-provoking, amusing and sometimes challenging – usually within the bounds of polite discourse. But you can imagine the playfulness when a 68-year-old Englishman plucks out a song by Lady Gaga.
“People say, ‘You’ve been performing for a long time,’ and we say, ‘Yep. We’ve been playing longer than the Beatles and Led Zeppelin put together and we worked out that we’ve done more gigs than the Rolling Stones,’” said Hinchliffe, who had to put his name on the Orchestra to protect its brand after success brought imitators in many of the cities where it became popular. “I’m not saying our music is better, just that we’ve been going longer.”
That’s a pretty good measure of success.
This show is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. Tickets, ranging from $8 for CSB and SJU students to $42 for regular admission, are available at https://www.csbsju.edu/fine-arts/performances, while they last.