I recently had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Jim Beloff. He runs Flea Market Music Inc., which is a great community website with wonderful forums and a store that sells the popular made in the USA Fluke and Flea brand ukes.
Julie: How did you originally get interested in the ukulele?
Jim: I was a pretty good guitarist before getting into the uke. I was also a songwriter and big admirer of sophisticated theater and pop writers like Stephen Sondheim, James Taylor, Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Webb, Joni Mitchell, etc. Like many I thought the ukulele was a novelty instrument/toy with a high voice that wasn’t suited for nuanced chords and thoughtful lyrics. That all changed when I found a Martin tenor uke in 1991 at the Pasadena Rose Bowl flea Market. After a few days of playing this uke tuned down to DGBE (with a high D—a la “my dog has fleas) I became convinced that my kind of songwriting actually made more sense on a uke than it did on a guitar.
After spending a few weeks poring over old, out of print Cliff Edwards uke songbooks we pitched the idea of compiling our favorite arrangements from his books to a leading print music distributor. At the time they didn’t have any significant uke book offerings and they agreed to distribute what became our first songbook, Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Favorites. Since then my wife Liz and I have published 18 Jumpin’ Jim’s songbooks with several new ones on the way.
Julie: How many ukes are in your collection right now?
Jim: Hmmm. I honestly don’t know. It’s not many compared to some major collectors…around 60 or so. The ones I like most are the old Harmony and Regal ukes with designs and cartoons. Also any of the unusually shaped ones like the Lyon & Healey Shrine and Bell ukes. In fact, it was the yummy graphics on ukes like the Cheerleader, Le Domino, Harold Teen, Victory, Football, etc. that inspired me to write The Ukulele: A Visual History. I felt it was very important to not let this little slice of graphic pop culture disappear from view. The book ended up being a real feast for the eyes (thanks to designers Tommy Steele and Doug Haverty) filled with lots of fun, vintage sheet music, songbooks, print ads and ukes to admire.
photograph by Tim Becker
Julie: What is your favorite uke to play?
Jim: My brother-in-law, Dale Webb designed the Fluke and Flea ukes and I’m a big fan of them. I mostly perform with a koa concert Fluke and a Pegasus tenor made by Bob Gleason in Hilo.
Julie: In case people reading this interview don’t know, you’re one of the people behind the Fluke and Flea brand of ukuleles. One of the neat things about these instruments, other than the fact that they are well made and affordable, is that they come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. How many different Flukes are available? What about the Flea?
Jim: According to our current catalog we offer 15 different Fluke soundboards, seven of which are designer models. There are 13 different Flea soundboards, four of which are designer models. The various parts of our ukes are made around the country although the molded parts (back shell and soundboard) are made in Connecticut.
Julie: What style of music do you enjoy playing most?
Jim: These days I often perform with my wife Liz who has a great voice. We usually like to mix it up with some originals and some standards. Lately we’ve been performing songs from our new CD, “Paradise Lost & Found.”
Julie: If you could give a new ukulele player some sage advice, what would tell them?
Jim: Have fun and keep in mind that there is no single correct way to play. Get a hundred uke players in a room and I promise you they will each have their own idiosyncratic strum or style. Whatever works for you is the right way. That said, I still encourage new players to use their pinky as much as possible (especially when making a G chord). Going from a G to a G7 is much easier if two of the fingers stay in the same position and you just toggle your pinky and index finger. One other key reason is that many of the really yummy altered chords require four fingers anyway. So get that pinky working now so it’s ready for some heavier lifting down the road.
Julie: Besides playing the ukulele and running a very popular business /website, what are your other hobbies?
Jim: There can be an upside and a downside into turning your hobby into your business. Mostly for us it’s great to be able to do what we love full-time. Writing songs still gives me a great deal of satisfaction and I sometimes get to sneak one or two in our songbooks.
Julie: How many song books, DVDs and CDs have you made so far?
Jim: So far 18 songbooks, the uke history book, Ukulele Fretboard Roadmaps (co-author) makes 20 books total, 2 DVDs and 4 of my own CDs and a bunch more I’ve produced.
Julie: Thanks for letting us get to know you a little bit better and keep up the fantastic work on your song books, CDs, DVDs and website.