Music Trades Mobile Editions February 2011 : Page 196

NEW COMERS Uke Pioneer: The Magic Fluke Fighting the image of the ukulele as kitsch, the company’s high qual-ity Fluke and Flea lines helped set the stage for the present ukulele boom. are debatable, but it’s fair to say that Jim Beloff—Phyllis Webb’s brother— had something to do with it. A guitarist and frequent business traveler, Jim stumbled across his first ukulele at a California flea market in the early ’90s and immediately realized he’d found an instrument that could fit under an air-plane seat and keep him company on the road. It wasn’t long before he began composing for the ukulele and pub-lished the first of nearly 30 songbooks under the moniker “Jumpin’ Jim Beloff.” Jim and his wife Liz Beloff went on to found Flea Market Music, a retail supplier of ukuleles and related books and DVDs, Jim’s own and oth-ers. Inconveniently for both Jim the musi-cian and Jim the businessman, high quality ukuleles were not then being made in significant numbers in the United States. Such ukes as did exist were mostly cheap souvenirs and chil-dren’s toys—only perpetuating the image of the ukulele as a piece of kitsch. Eventually Jim took the problem to his brother-in-law Dale Webb, Phyllis’s husband, an engineer special-izing in product design and manufactur-ing. Dale, who had been looking to leave his corporate position, not only accepted the challenge but took it up as a full time job. Within weeks the first prototype was born, a hybrid of wood and plastics baked in the toaster oven. It was during this period that friends would ask Jim’s and Phyllis’s mother what her grown children were up to and she would have to reply, under her breath, “Um… they’re making ukule-les.” “Yes,” the friend would inquire, “but what do they do for a living ?” “It was wild,” says Phyllis. “Those early prototypes look kind of funny now, but on the other hand they were amazingly close to what we needed to achieve. Dale had created this whole new uke. It was a serious instrument with a big, bright sound that was durable and could be manufactured consistently.” The Magic Fluke co-founders Phyllis and Dale Webb, along with sister company Flea Market Music, have been making and selling ukes since the late ’90s. s one observer later put it, the appearance of a ukulele maker at the 1999 NAMM show was a little like E.T. touching down in Anaheim. That wasn’t entirely fair. The uke never lacked for musical credentials, hav-ing been played by such heavyweights as George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Pete Townshend. Yet by the end of the 20th century it was considered more of a punch line than a legitimate musical instrument. One of the first companies to suggest otherwise was The Magic Fluke, the New England-based uke maker that brought its early product line to the ’99 NAMM show. Success—even serious consideration—was far from certain. As co-founder Phyllis Webb recalls, “We were probably that oddity that made someone in charge say, ‘I suppose we’ll let them in… but they probably won’t be back.’” Twelve years later, The Magic Fluke is a thriving manufacturer of two complete ukulele lines and has-n’t missed a NAMM show since. As the industry now knows, The Magic Fluke and its sister company Flea Market Music were at the leading edge of a ukulele phenomenon. The origins of the craze A 208 MUSIC TRADES FEBRUARY 2011

Magic Fluke: Making The Ukulele Cool

Uke Pioneer:The Magic Fluke

Fighting the image of the ukulele as kitsch, the company's high quality Fluke and Flea lines helped set the stage for the present ukulele boom.

As one observer later put it, the appearance of a ukulele maker at the 1999 NAMM show was a little like E.T. touching down in Anaheim. That wasn't entirely fair. The uke never lacked for musical credentials, having been played by such heavyweights as George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Pete Townshend. Yet by the end of the 20th century it was considered more of a punch line than a legitimate musical instrument. One of the first companies to suggest otherwise was The Magic Fluke, the New Englandbased uke maker that brought its early product line to the '99 NAMM show. Success–even serious consideration–was far from certain. As co-founder Phyllis Webb recalls, "We were probably that oddity that made someone in charge say, 'I suppose we'll let them in… but they probably won't be back.'" Twelve years later, The Magic Fluke is a thriving manufacturer of two complete ukulele lines and hasn't missed a NAMM show since.

As the industry now knows, The Magic Fluke and its sister company Flea Market Music were at the leading edge of a ukulele phenomenon. The origins of the craze are debatable, but it's fair to say that Jim Beloff–Phyllis Webb's brother– had something to do with it. A guitarist and frequent business traveler, Jim stumbled across his first ukulele at a California flea market in the early '90s and immediately realized he'd found an instrument that could fit under an airplane seat and keep him company on the road. It wasn't long before he began composing for the ukulele and published the first of nearly 30 songbooks under the moniker "Jumpin' Jim Beloff." Jim and his wife Liz Beloff went on to found Flea Market Music, a retail supplier of ukuleles and related books and DVDs, Jim's own and others.

Inconveniently for both Jim the musician and Jim the businessman, high quality ukuleles were not then being made in significant numbers in the United States. Such ukes as did exist were mostly cheap souvenirs and children's toys–only perpetuating the image of the ukulele as a piece of kitsch. Eventually Jim took the problem to his brother-in-law Dale Webb, Phyllis's husband, an engineer specializing in product design and manufacturing. Dale, who had been looking to leave his corporate position, not only accepted the challenge but took it up as a full time job. Within weeks the first prototype was born, a hybrid of wood and plastics baked in the toaster oven. It was during this period that friends would ask Jim's and Phyllis's mother what her grown children were up to and she would have to reply, under her breath, "Um… they're making ukuleles." "Yes," the friend would inquire, "but what do they do for a living?"

"It was wild," says Phyllis. "Those early prototypes look kind of funny now, but on the other hand they were amazingly close to what we needed to achieve. Dale had created this whole new uke. It was a serious instrument with a big, bright sound that was durable and could be manufactured consistently."

The company's original line of ukuleles are known as Flukes, a name derived from the fusion of "uke" and "flea"– but chosen also because, as Phyllis says, "this whole thing was a fluke." The distinctive shape of the instrument, roughly triangular, evolved from the company's desire for a fun, off-beat design that would stand out from other ukes on the market. A second style, the Flea, is slightly smaller and takes a more traditional pineapple shape. Standard Flea and Fluke models come in Concert and Tenor sizes–Fleas also come in a Soprano size–and are made with maple or walnut necks and soundboards of Australian hoop pine. Both lines are made entirely in the United States.

Except in premium solid wood models introduced this year, the bodies are made from a durable molded composite developed out of Dale's expertise in materials properties and injection molding. Besides making an ideal sonic conductor for the ukes' characteristic bright tone, the material is exceptionally consistent and nearly impervious to temperature, humidity, and assorted acts of God. Dealers from every imaginable climate– Flukes and Fleas are now sold in 16 countries–report that the instruments never need more than a quick tuning when they arrive. The company even got a letter from a family that brought their Fluke along for a sail on the Mediterranean, only to have it fall overboard and bob in the salt water for half an hour before being recovered. Once it dried out, the impressed customers wrote, the tone was as good as ever.

FLUKES ON THE BIG SCREEN

As it caught the momentum of the mounting ukulele craze, The Magic Fluke added variations on its original product lines. Initially limited to just three colors (Natural, Mango Orange, and "Ukelyptus" Green), finishes were expanded to include seven solid colors and a range of lively prints–Tie Dye, Denim, Bamboo, etc.–with new designs added each year and old ones retired. Rosewood fret boards were introduced as an optional upgrade. Flukes and Fleas even went electric with B-Band pickups and preamp systems. In July 2010, using woods handcut and milled from family property, The Magic Fluke introduced limited production of the Fluke SB, a solid body electric uke also equipped with BBand pickup technology. "Quantities are limited, but it's a beautiful instrument," says Phyllis. "And it's part of us, which makes it neat."

Meanwhile, Flukes have been played by Bette Midler in television appearances and her Las Vegas stage show. The Grammy Award-winning children's musician Dan Zanes has collaborated on two signature Fleas. Jim Beloff, for his part, has a starring role in Mighty Uke, the popular documentary released and screened around the world in 2010. "When we started out, most people in our area didn't know what a ukulele was," says Phyllis. "It's amazing to see how it's come full circle."

Explanations abound for the ukulele's resurgence in the marketplace, though most boil down to common sense. Considered one of the easiest instruments to learn, the uke is portable, versatile, and inexpensive: Magic Fluke models start at $179 for a basic soprano- sized Flea and rise to the $500 range for fully tricked-out models with all the upgrades. With their small scale and just four strings, they're justifiably promoted as an accessible instrument for the young, the old, and anyone who lacks the finger dexterity to play six strings.

Whatever the reasons for their surge in popularity, they've given rise to a funloving, "big tent" musical culture– nicely documented in the Mighty Uke film–and for that, says Phyllis, the time was right. "At a time when people are dealing with so much hardship in their daily lives, there's a need to laugh and make music," she says "Because the ukulele is an instrument you can carry with you and play anywhere, it has a way of bringing people together. You can't play a ukulele or watch someone playing one without smiling."

IN ON THE GROUND FLOOR

Inspired by the "share and share alike" vibe of the instrument, The Magic Fluke piloted a program with a local library, donating four instruments for cardholders to check out. When the program proved a hit with patrons, who immediately racked up long waiting lists for the ukes, the library purchased more Flukes and Fleas along with instructional books and DVDs to go with them. A second nearby library has since picked up the program. "It's neat because you can get a feel for the uke without even having to buy one," says Phyllis. "You can try it out without investing."

As this issue went to press, The Magic Fluke had just completed a move to a new 3,500-square-foot headquarters in Sheffield, Massachusetts, having outgrown the smaller facility in New Hartford, Connecticut, that it had occupied for the past nine years. That a ukulele maker would still be on its way up after more than a decade is a prediction few would have signed up for 1999. But to say The Magic Fluke was in the right place at the right time to ride a wave nobody predicted is to miss the real point–that it helped to start the wave. "We've given a new personality and respect to the uke," says Phyllis. "We're proud to say that we helped build the foundation and we were there on the ground floor."

www.magicfluke.com

Read the full article at http://onlinedigeditions.com/article/Magic+Fluke%3A+Making+The+Ukulele+Cool/603668/57294/article.html.

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