James Clem has been playing blues guitar since the 1960’s and his career includes backing up Chick Willis in his Stoop Down Baby heyday. More recently, he’s picked up the ukulele and will be appearing at this year’s Portland Uke Fest. I interrogated him to find out more.
How did you first get started as a musician?
I went to a car show when I was 15 years old with my father and heard Dick Dale playing guitar and right then I knew that was what I wanted to do. His playing was amazing to hear, especially live.
When did you start playing the ukulele?
I started playing the uke about four years ago when I found an old Kumalae koa ukulele at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, California for $20. I bought a songbook of 1920’s tunes and right off the bat I loved it. If you play guitar most of the techniques from that instrument (damping, strumming, etc) can be applied to the ukulele.
What made you pick the ukulele up?
I had seen the ukulele in many vintage films and always thought it looked like a lot of fun. Twenties jazz like the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong and others has always been one of my favorite genres of music, but I was too lazy to learn that swing style jazz guitar and all the musicians I knew were into blues, so I couldn’t see much chance of playing it anyway. Actually, the last couple of years I have been studying the Django style swing guitar rhythm and adapting that to the ukulele. To me, the weak point of most uke players is not damping the strings enough (or at all). It can make or break a player.
The first really great ukulele player I heard live was Bob Brozman in the eighties. He really opened my eyes to what you can do on that instrument. He is a phenomenal musician and one of the best uke players.
When I lived in Los Angeles Janet Klein and Ian Whitcomb performed a lot together at a tiny club near my house and they both played ukulele and that got me into thinking “I need a ukulele!”. Janet Klein has a band of killer jazz musicians and she has this kind of wacky Gracie Allen personality that is a throwback to another era. You can’t help but love that group.
It’s quite unusual to play Delta blues on the uke. How do you go about making the songs work on the uke?
I really don’t play that many Delta Blues tunes on the uke as I try to do more twenties jazz on the ukulele with a lot of snappy chord changes that seem to fit the little instrument so well. I play a lot of slide guitar and regular guitar so when I dig out the uke it makes a nice change of mood for the audience. Audiences love the instrument. You just pick it up and they smile.
As far as playing blues on our little four string friend goes I have found that uptempo blues with a ragtime feel can be played on the ukulele and works great. I look for tunes that have a lot of right hand rhythm such Robert Johnson’s They’re Red Hot which he adapted from Blind Boy Fuller’s Keep On Truckin’. Be on the lookout for blues tunes with a lot of chord changes (think 1920’s and ’30’s) and a fast tempo and there are a lot of possibilities that will enable you to get away from the jazz standards that everyone does on the ukulele. Check out Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Big Bill Broonzy and others from that era . You will be surprised how well some can sound on the ukulele.
Another tip I have for players is if there is a song that you really want to learn, you should search out different versions of the song and after learning the chords steal some horn or guitar parts from the recording and tweak it a bit to make it your own. That is how most musicians get good. Steal from the masters!
Can you tell us a little about your ukulele.
My uke is a newer National Reso-Phonic made of koa. It has rope binding, fancy inlays and an ivoroid headstock overlay. The resonator projects well into a microphone, so it doesn’t need any kind of a pickup.
How can people buy your music?
Right now they can’t as I have a very basic CD that I sell at my gigs , but right now I am recording a new CD that will have some really good musicians and should be available be the end of the year on CD Baby. I would like to get on a label with world wide distribution and play over in Europe. Playing live is where it’s at for me but every musician will tell that you are taken for granted in your hometown (oh him, he is always around!) My wife is from England and I consider it my home away from home as I have been over there a lot. It would be great to get established over there.