REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Lyle Ritz' instrument of choice is the ukulele. And yes, that is the correct Hawaiian pronunciation. Now, plenty of musicians play the uke, but no one plays it the way Lyle Ritz does. He earned the title father of jazz ukulele when he recorded the world's first jazz album on the instrument 50 years ago, and he's not slowing down. Lyle Ritz has a new CD.

Heidi Chang reports.

HEIDI CHANG: Like many older people, 77-year-old Lyle Ritz is not especially computer savvy, but he wanted to figure out a way to use the computer to make music.

Mr. LYLE RITZ (Musician): So I went down to the Macintosh store, an Apple store, and ended up buying one of them, taking it home, and - so I had a fool with it a couple of months, and then I finally did a song.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RITZ: Just bass and uke. And the bass I entered in with my keyboard, like a piano, like keyboard, and I'm not a keyboard player either. So I just hunted and picked the bass notes and put them in their proper place, which you can do with this program, and then I plugged in my uke, which has a pick up in it and play it along with my headphones. I could listen to the bass and play along with the bass, play the uke. And it really sounded really kind of nice.

(Soundbite of music)

CHANG: Ritz does have a lot of experience in a recording studio, on film scores and pop records, most of it as a bass player. He played on more than 5,000 sessions as a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew, the group of studio musicians who backed up most of the hits that came out of Los Angeles from the mid-1960s to the early '80s.

He's on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," "A Taste of Honey," by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers, which featured Carol Kaye playing electric bass and Ritz playing acoustic.

Mr. RITZ: Okay, this is on a uke, of course, and there was a bass interlude that was sort of famous, and it went something like this.

(Soundbite of ukulele playing)

Mr. RITZ: And then here the Brothers were singing, and it was like an adlib phrase, which was so high energy, it was just one of those things in the studio when you're playing and you know this is really going to be something.

(Soundbite of song "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling")

The RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS (Singer): (Singing) You've lost that loving feeling, now it's gone, gone, gone, whoa, whoa, whoa. Baby, baby, I get down on my knees for you.

CHANG: Lyle Ritz didn't start out playing either bass or ukulele. His first instrument was a violin. He picked up the ukulele while he was working at a music store during college in Los Angeles.

Mr. RITZ: I learned how to the play the uke because I had to sell them in the music store. This was in the '50s when Arthur Godfrey, the entertainer, who liked to play the uke, popularized the instrument, and so many people just had to have ukes. And we were selling them like mad. And one day, I picked up, somebody wanted to see this beautiful, nice big tenor uke. And I picked it up and played a few chords on it, and I was gone. I just loved it so much. I loved the sound of it. I loved the size and just the way it felt it my hands.

(Soundbite of music)

CHANG: Ritz was drafted during the Korean War. One day, while on leave, he dropped by the music store. His former boss asked him to play a few tunes on a ukulele without telling him the West Coast representative of Verve Records was in the store.

Mr. RITZ: So I played a couple of songs, and sure enough Barney Kessel comes over and introduces himself, and I just about fell to the floor. I couldn't believe that I was actually played before this man. And Barney Kessel, for those of you who don't know, was one of the few really great jazz guitarists of the '50s and '60s and '70s, and he was just a brilliant player.

CHANG: Kessel offered Ritz a record deal when he got out of the Army. In 1957, Ritz recorded "How About Uke?"

(Soundbite of song "How About Uke?")

CHANG: When the record was released, it didn't generate much interest. So after putting out another album, Ritz hung up his ukulele. He didn't think there was any future in playing an instrument many considered a novelty. That's when he took up the bass and joined the Wrecking Crew. But there was interest in "How About Uke?" in Hawaii.

Mr. ROY SAKUMA (Premiere Ukulele Teacher): I can remember all of us young kids who were playing the ukulele, who would buy that record, and we would sit by the phonograph, play it over and over.

(Soundbite of song "How About Uke?")

CHANG: Roy Sakuma is Hawaii's foremost ukulele teacher. He tracked Ritz down in L.A. in 1984. Until then, Ritz had no idea his first album had influenced a generation of ukulele players and enthusiasts like Sakuma.

Mr. SAKUMA: We would all try to learn "Lulu's Back in Town." We used to just play C, F, G7 back then, and then all of a sudden here comes Lyle with all these fantastic chord harmonies that just, you know, took music to a whole new level on the ukulele.

(Soundbite of song "How About Uke?")

CHANG: Sakuma invited Ritz to headline his annual Ukulele Festival in Hawaii, and Ritz ended up moving to the island. Today, he lives in Portland, Oregon. He's made a few more recordings since the follow-up to "How About Uke?" But his most recent is a first he's done entirely on his own. Ritz admits it's a challenge adapting to the new technology, but he's happy about control it gives him.

Mr. RITZ: The song, "Setting Doll" sounds like this on the uke.

(Soundbite of song "Setting Doll")

Mr. RITZ: So that's how it - we'd start with the uke. Now, I have already recorded and entered the bass line in. And when I played the bass, I also used a metronome, and not the least bit shy about admitting that because this maintains order and there's a continuity to the whole song. The tempo stays in one place. So here it is. Let's listen to the bass part with click.

(Soundbite of song "Setting Doll")

Mr. RITZ: Okay. Now, here comes the uke.

(Soundbite of song "Setting Doll")

CHANG: Ritz' ukulele is never far from his side. He said he's always fooling around with it just to hear what comes out.

Mr. RITZ: I'm a firm believer and an exponent of the art of noodling. That's just fooling around with the uke and keep it by your side and you don't necessarily have to have a goal in mind. You don't have to - just fool with it and things happen. And I call the result the fruit of the noodle.

CHANG: In seven decades into a life of music, Lyle Ritz is already noodling around with ideas for his next CD.

For NPR News, I'm Heidi Chang.

ROBERTS: Lyle Ritz was inducted last month into the Ukelele Hall of Fame. You can hear highlights from his career on ukulele and discover more music at our Web site npr.org/music.

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