A Tribute to Lyle Ritz – Father of Jazz Ukulele 1930-2017
We were sad to hear news of the passing of Ukulele legend Lyle Ritz this week. Lyle was the first musician to consider the ukulele as a serious Jazz instrument, and his bass playing featured in some of the biggest selling singles in history. Read on for our favourite Lyle Ritz moments.
Lyle Ritz became interested in ukulele whilst working as a musical instrument demonstrator at Southern Californian Musical Company in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Barney Kessel, a talent scout for Verve records, resulted in the making of two albums dedicated to ukulele, ‘How About Uke?’ (1957) and ’50th State Jazz’ (1959). Not big sellers at the time, the Verve recordings have gained many new listeners over the years, especially in Hawaii. They’re now regarded as must have classic ukulele albums. Lyle’s approach to the instrument is unique. The first artist to consider ukulele as a credible jazz instrument, he’s influenced anyone who’s taken ukulele seriously ever since. Unable to support himself financially solely through ukulele record sales, Lyle switched to playing predominantly upright bass for the next two decades.
Lyle Ritz was a long standing member of ‘The Wrecking Crew’, a loose collective of L.A. session musicians whose members were hired to help craft some of the finest West Coast pop hits of the 1960 and 1970s. Famously working with Beach Boy Brian Wilson on classic albums ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’, Lyle was one of the bass players who contributed to the sessions. ‘Good Vibrations’ was one such recording that featured his bass playing. The song was painstakingly pieced together over many sessions, making ‘who played what’ rather hard to determine! Beach Boys detectives over the years have attributed the bulk of the bass contributions to Lyle, based on the dates of the sessions. Here’s that bass line in all it’s glory!
I Got You Babe
The Wrecking Crew provided the instrumentation for ‘I Got You Babe’, a debut single for two relatively unknown singers Sonny & Cher. The single was such a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic that the debut album was swiftly recorded and rushed to press later that year. Lyle Ritz is the bass player and this tune launched his career as go-to session bassist for some of the hottest vocal talents in the industry. Here’s his take on the story from the documentary ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (2008) – well worth a watch.
Tonight You Belong To Me
We posted about THE signature tune for ukulele recently in our Valentines Special (chord sheet included!). The definitive version of the classic ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’ appears in the 1979 movie ‘The Jerk’. Steve Martin appears to have transferred his impressive banjo playing skills to the ukulele in this scene.. however it is none other than Lyle Ritz providing the ukulele arrangement and playing – who else!
Here’s Lyle in later life performing ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’ with Jim Beloff.
With the ukulele regaining popularity, Jim Beloff helped spread the word about Lyle’s expert jazz ukulele playing in the late 90s. In response, Lyle released a new ukulele album, ‘No Frills’ recorded at home using Garageband in 2006. Hear extracts and Lyle’s story on ‘No Frills’ at npr.org. To coincide with the world’s renewed interest in ukulele, Lyle Ritz recently penned some fantastically arranged songbooks. If you’re into jazz ukulele these are must haves!