John King, undisputed prince of classical ʻukulele, dies at 55
Prelude from the Cello Suite, No. 1, BWV 1007 performed on unaccompanied ukulele by John King.
John King, Who Made Ukulele Ring With Bach, Dies at 55
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
John King adored Hawaii, though he lived there for only a few years as a boy. The “Hawaiian room” in his Florida home was stuffed with hundreds upon hundreds of hula dolls, leis and other artifacts. He once owned 400 Hawaiian shirts, more than enough to wear a different one every day of the year — which he was proud to do. Is it a surprise that Mr. King played the ukulele?
And boy, did he play that ukulele. His huge hands and stocky wrists darted and danced up, down and across the tiny instrument’s strings in a way that few, if any, players have ever attempted.
Mr. King resurrected a guitar technique from the time of Bach to play a piece that was almost certainly never before tried on a ukulele, Bach’s Partita No. 3, and went on to play other difficult classical works with dazzling mastery. He opened pathways of sound unimaginable to those whose memories of the ukulele involve Arthur Godfrey, Elvis Presley and, of course, Tiny Tim.
The Journal of the Society for American Music last year called Mr. King “perhaps the world’s only truly classical ‘ukulele virtuoso.’ ”
Mr. King’s death at 55 on April 3 at his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., sent shock waves through the ukulele universe, which has widened with enthusiasts now clustering on the Internet and at festivals around the country. His wife, Debi, said that Mr. King died of a heart attack, suddenly and completely unexpectedly.
In one of the tributes that pervade this online universe, Jim Beloff, a leading ukulele player, calls Mr. King’s work in classical ukulele “the finest in the world, and the finest we will ever see in a long time.”
Tom Walsh, a board member of the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum, said in an interview last week that Mr. King was “adored by the ukulele community,” most of whom faced an inescapable realization: “I could never possibly play like that.”
The foundation of Mr. King’s achievement was reviving a Baroque guitar technique and applying it to the ukulele. The technique involves playing each succeeding note in a melodic line on a different string. The ukulele — which is tuned so that the four strings go not from the lowest to the highest note but instead run G, C, E, A — turns out to be great for doing this. (An illustration of ukulele tuning can be found at theuke.com.) The result is a bell-like quality of sound in which individual notes over-ring one another, producing an effect that some compare to a harp or harpsichord.
“The people Bach originally wrote this music for must have been fabulous musicians, because this stuff is really hard to play,” Mr. King wrote in an essay. “My heart is in my throat whenever I play these pieces in concert.”
In another essay he expounded on the sheer difficulty: “The truth is it’s a crazy way to play the uke; ease of execution is all but sacrificed, subordinated to whatever it takes to get that shimmering, harplike sound. It works for me, because when I play it that way, the ukulele sings.”
John Robert King was born in San Diego on Oct. 13, 1953, the son of a naval officer. The family moved a lot; when John was 6, they lived in Hawaii. His mother took up the ukulele to get a feel for local culture, and John imitated her. He noticed two things: it was difficult, and he had “absolutely no talent.” So he took up the guitar and progressed impressively. He ended up taking lessons from Pepe Romero, the classical guitarist, and Pepe’s legendary father, Celedonio.
After attending Old Dominion University in Virginia, Mr. King became a guitar instructor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. He also worked in the campus bookstore.
He picked up a ukulele occasionally, but not successfully. Then he learned that the diminutive ancestors of today’s guitars were tuned like ukuleles. He tried Bach on the ukulele and was deeply intrigued. He soon commissioned Gioachino Giussani, the Italian luthier, to make a ukulele expressly for classical music. After a decade of practice, he put out a record, including the Bach partita, on his own label in 2001.
Pepe Romero concluded in the liner notes: “The sound of the ukulele is exquisitely well suited for Bach’s music, and I delight in this discovery.”
Mr. King made a second record, again on his own label, Nalu Music. It was music composed in the later part of the 19th century by the members of the Hawaiian royal family, in the decades before the state’s annexation by the United States. Many pieces had not been played for a century.
He also wrote books of arrangements for the ukulele, including works by Mozart, Chopin and Scott Joplin. At his death, Mr. King was working on a book about ukulele history, beginning with its introduction to Hawaii by the Portuguese in the late 19th century.
In addition to his wife, Mr. King is survived by his daughters, Katie and Emma King and Amy King Majer; three grandchildren; his mother, Delores; and his brother, Paul.
Mr. King liked to pick his uke at his neighborhood Starbucks, where he said he did not feel nervous, because people had no expectations.
Mr. King, who always wore a hula skirt on Halloween, had a prized possession: a Hawaiian shirt of the same color and design that Montgomery Clift wore in the movie “From Here to Eternity” — bought in 1986 for $500.
He often said that his fondest desire was to move to Hawaii and live in a shack in the mountains near the beach.