Lyle Ritz, a revered bass player, who was also known as the “Father of Jazz Ukulele,” died last week in Portland, Oregon. Since the late 1950s, Ritz has had a huge impact on musicians in Hawaii and he also once lived in the Islands. HPR contributing reporter Heidi Chang has this remembrance.
Lyle Ritz taught himself how to play the ukulele when he worked in a music store in Los Angeles in the 1950s and had to sell the instrument.
“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.”
Eventually Ritz signed with Verve Records, but when he released “How About Uke?” in 1958, it didn’t generate much interest on the Mainland. After a second album, he hung up his ukulele and took up the bass.
Ritz became part of the legendary Wrecking Crew, a group of Hollywood musicians who played on most of the pop hit’s that came out of Los Angeles in the mid-60s to early 80s. Songs like the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers.
In 1984, Hawaii’s foremost ukulele teacher Roy Sakuma tracked him down in L.A. Until then, Ritz had no idea his first album had made such an impact in Hawaii, says 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.”
After Sakuma invited Ritz to perform at the annual Ukulele Festival in Honolulu, Ritz and his family moved to Oahu, where he lived for 15 years. Many in Hawaii will always remember Lyle Ritz as a humble guy with a sense of humor, who paved the way as the Father of Jazz Ukulele.
Byron Yasui, plays bass and ukulele, and is a retired professor of music at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He says Lyle Ritz will always remain a great inspiration for ukulele players and generations to come.
“He was my big idol, you know like how Elvis Presley was to a lot of kids, Lyle Ritz was like that for me, like a god, that’s how big an impact he made on, not just me, but a bunch of us. Nobody played jazz like that on the ukulele before. And he played jazz standards with top-notch studio jazz musicians. He opened up our ears and eyes to a new style of playing.”