March 3, 2017 – Lyle Ritz – bassist for The Wrecking Crew and Father of the Jazz Ukulele, was born on January 10, 1930 in Cleveland, Ohio
He studied violin and tuba as a child and while attending college in California, he found a job at the Southern California Music Company in Los Angeles. Working in the “Small Goods Department” meant, he demonstrated and took care of harmonicas, accessories, and the instrument that was to become his love, the ukulele. He was often called upon to demonstrate the ukulele for potential customers as the instrument at the time was experiencing popularity due to its use by radio personality Arthur Godfrey. Ritz discovered that he enjoyed the uke and took it upon himself to learn how to play it properly, not just as a novelty instrument, its usual fate then and now.He purchased a Gibson tenor ukulele for his own use and became a master of the four-stringed uke. Even though the ukulele is still often considered a novelty instrument when in its usual Hawaiian surroundings, Lyle Ritz never felt that way.
Drafted into the US Army during the Korean War, Ritz played tuba in the United States Army Band. Stationed at Fort Ord, Ritz learned to play the acoustic bass. While on leave, Ritz visited the Music Company and played a few tunes on the ukulele at the urging of his colleagues. Unbeknownst to him, jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, an A&R man and talent scout for Verve Records, happened to be there. After hearing Ritz play, Kessel approached him for a contract and made the connection that resulted in his first commercial record in a long career as front and sideman, during which Lyle Ritz played on more than 5000 recordings including such notable tracks as Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey“, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations“. Other artists he recorded with were the Monkees, Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles, Sonny and Cher, Dean Martin and many more.
Verve released Ritz’s first ukulele record, How About Uke?, in 1957. 50th State Jazz was released in 1959. Both records became very popular in Hawaii and started a wave of new ukulele players. However, they had only limited popularity on the mainland. Ritz, always pragmatic, gave up playing the ukulele professionally and switched to bass. The bass guitar paid better, and so did rock ‘n’ roll.
Obviously a talented multi instrumentalist, Ritz soon became a member of the famed Los Angeles “Wrecking Crew” a group of top-notch musicians, supporting the flavor of the day in their recording aspirations from the mid sixties through the early 80s, contributing to many American pop hits in those years.
The Wrecking Crew was a prolific group of session musicians including a.o. Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Jack Nitzsche, that provided muscle and distinction to an entire playlist of albums in the ’60s — the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Herb Alpert, and Sonny and Cher. That’s the Wrecking Crew on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin.’” And that’s them on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
Brian Wilson, the voice, songwriter and architect of the Beach Boys’ influential catalog of songs, considered the Wrecking Crew to be his sonic muse.
In later years Ritz found work in the world of television and film, and his bass was part of the soundtrack to The Rockford Files, Name That Tune, and Kojak, to name just a few. One of the rare ukulele gigs he received was when he was hired to play the parts Steve Martin would pretend to play in The Jerk in 1979.
In the meantime his fan-base in Hawaii was slowly growing. Ukulele player and record producer and Hawaii’s foremost ukulele teacher Roy Sakuma hunted Ritz down in 1984 and brought him to the islands for a festival. Ritz had no idea his Verve records were the stuff of legend in Hawaii, but it did influence him to return to the festival during the next three years.
Sakuma never forgot how ukulele players tried to mimic Ritz’s style of playing in the ’50s and his signature tune, a cover of “Lulu’s Back in Town.” “When I told my wife the story of of how we used to listen to his records all the time and try to figure out the songs, she said, ‘Why don’t you bring him to Hawaii?’ And I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ And I went out to Simi Valley (in Los Angeles) and I knocked on his door,” Sakuma recalled. “He was shocked to find out he had made such an impact on Hawaii with the ukulele.”
After Sakuma invited Ritz to perform at the annual Ukulele Festival Hawaii in Honolulu, Ritz and his family eventually ‘retired’ to Oahu 1988, where they lived for 15 years, still keeping up his playing; Roy Sakuma Records released Ritz’s third album, Time, that year. In 2004, Verve reissued How About Uke?
In the 1990s, music promoter Jim Beloff says, he was swept away when he discovered Ritz’s album, “How About Uke?” “I hadn’t heard the ukulele played in such a cool and hip way.” Back then, he was the associate publisher at Billboard Magazine in Los Angeles and author of “The Ukulele: A Visual History.”
Beloff said Ritz’s landmark album inspired him to leave his job and go into the ukulele business. He published three Lyle Ritz songbooks, and released two of his CDs and a DVD.
In 2007, Ritz was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. “Anything you want, you can express on the uke,” he told Ukulele Magazine. “It’s an honest-to-goodness musical instrument, and it’ll do anything.”
Lyle Ritz died peacefully after a long illness under hospice care on March 3, 2017 in Portland, Oregon at the age of 87.
“The whole worldwide ukulele community mourns his passing. Lyle Ritz was a giant and continues to inspire players everywhere,” said Beloff.
Byron Yasui: “He was a good friend and a big influence in my life because, coincidentally, we both played the same instruments, bass and ukulele. And we both played jazz.” Yasui grew up idolizing Ritz. “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,” said the retired professor of music at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who also performed onstage with Ritz. “Before Lyle Ritz, ukulele players in Hawaii, for the most part, played songs with simple chords, two or three chords,” Yasui said. “Then, Lyle came along and he played these jazz standards with these rich harmonies that are really challenging to play, and he opened up our ears and eyes to a new style of playing. That’s his biggest contribution. Nobody played jazz like that on the ukulele before. And he played jazz standards with top-notch jazz musicians.”