It now seems almost obligatory for every musical festival to pay homage to the humble ukulele, the little instrument that has been enjoying a surge in its popularity unprecedented for at least six decades. This year's Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire is no exception. It features Sam Brown's International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common on Saturday 30 June – along with the likes of Elvis Costello, Alison Moyet, Will Young and Jools Holland who are also appearing during the three day event. As Cornbury Festival Director Hugh Phillimore, however, says, there is something rather special about Sam Brown's Ukulele Club.
When we meet at her village home in Oxfordshire, we reflect that more than three decades have passed since 47 year-old Sam Brown started performing with the elite of the UK music scene. Daughter of top 60’s guitarist Joe Brown and his vocalist wife Vicki, Sam had a huge international success with her own composition ‘Stop’ in the late 80s. A series of albums and a world tour with Pink Floyd followed plus years on the road as a lead vocalist with Jools Holland who has described Sam as “without question, one of the greatest singers I ever worked with”. There have been similar plaudits from Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ronnie Wood, David Gilmour, Deep Purple's Jon Lord and many more. Sam has performed at the Albert Hall on over 50 occasions, and she has sung for the Queen and for prime ministers as well as for President Bill Clinton. She has appeared at over a thousand charity gigs, raising massive funds for good causes. Songs she has written have been recorded by some of the biggest names in the business. But then, in October 2007, Sam had a cyst removed from her vocal cords and her career took a new direction.
She recalls, “I first felt my voice starting to falter back in 2006 when I was touring with Jools. I was just exhausted. I'd been working so hard for so long and was commuting back and forth from Scotland where I was living then. I was in the process of separating from my husband and moving back to Oxfordshire. I was also doing some performances with my dad and was scheduled to tour with David Rotheray of the Beautiful South as part of his Homespun band. Suddenly I could not sing in tune. I couldn't find the notes in any way. And I had to just stop working.”
“Early in 2007 I saw a laryngologist but he couldn't find any major problem. I took his advice and did some speech therapy alongside the voice training I had been doing for years. Things improved a little but I still couldn't sing properly. So I went back to the laryngologist. This time he spotted a cyst on my vocal cords which he removed successfully. But even after intensive voice training and a long recovery period my voice didn't improve. Since then I've tried everything – I've seen more specialists including some hugely expensive world class “experts”, I've had acupuncture, speech therapy, yoga, hypnotherapy, counselling – but nothing has solved the problem.”
“The doctors insist my voice is normal now, but I know it isn't. Oddly I can sing high, especially in an operatic voice believe it or not and, though I have lost a lot of power, I can sing in a low register again. But in the mid-range my voice just crumbles and won't hold a note. So, whatever the doctors may say, it isn't right. Maybe there's some psychological problem, I don't know. But I suspect it is actually a physical thing. Possibly it is hormonal. It's just that nobody can discover what the problem is. What I do know is that I can't sing professionally and have had to do different things to survive, to earn some money and take myself out of an incredibly depressing situation. I've taken in lodgers, written lots of music, mentored novice song-writers, done vocal coaching, taught in colleges, undertaken session work as an instrumentalist, produced recordings and even worked for a florist – which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did release an album, ‘Of the Moment’ - back in 2007 which the music critics liked but unfortunately I wasn't able to do promotional gigs to support it.”
“If you have been a professional singer from a musical family and have thrived on live performances for over 35 years, it really is hard to suddenly find you can't sing any more. A big part of your identity is lost and a lot of your hard-won self-confidence ebbs away. Most of my friends were from the music world and you do get this huge urge to perform. I'd give anything to be able to sing like I used to.”
Sam pauses suddenly, her blue eyes glancing wistfully towards the Yamaha grand piano in the corner of the room. After a few moments of silence she smiles gently and continues.
“But you know, in a strange way there have been many positive things from the last few years. I've reclaimed my life. And maybe I've gained a better sense of perspective now. I've spent a lot more time with my children – Vicki who is 18 and off to university soon and Mohan who is almost 17. Mo is already at college and he's performing regularly in a duo called the Charlie Vaughans. The kids and I have rebuilt some bridges and created lots of new ones, and I'm so glad I've had the chance to share more time with them. They are both great people and I've brought them up to be pretty self-sufficient – which is the way I was raised.”
“I've also rediscovered the joys of the Oxfordshire countryside with lots of long walks and I've gardened and done painting and sewing. I even went off on a charity trek in the Himalayas. I've also met some wonderful people from outside the music business - including several quite inspirational women. So there have been compensations. But I needed to find a new professional niche too. The ukulele has turned out to be the key to that.”
For many years Sam's dad Joe, along with his good friend George Harrison, had been a ukulele enthusiast and Sam had recorded her own successful ‘Ukulele and Voice’ CD in 2005. So, a couple of years ago, Sam decided to teach a few people the ukulele.
“Little did I know how quickly it would mushroom. It has been amazing. At first there were just a couple of friends in my front room. But word spread fast and, with the current craze for learning the uke – which has been outselling guitars in the UK for the first time for generations, by late 2010 there were 25 members of the newly formed “Sam Brown's International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common” (the IUCSC). We moved into my garden shed and then to the Nettlebed Folk Club near here for our sessions. I started teaching basic chords and everyone just learned together. There were people of all ages, from diverse backgrounds and with varying musical ability. The group suggested songs and I'd pick the ones that were easier to arrange for the ukulele. By Christmas 2010 we'd learned fifteen songs and could play two sets.”
“I'd always been focused on the Club achieving early successful stage performances so they had a tangible goal. To me that is part of the process of learning. Our first performance was at the end of our initial 11 week course on a snowy December night in a little village hall near Henley. There was a paying audience and I arranged for some professional musicians to join us. My dad performed with us as did my brother Pete Brown who is a brilliant guitarist plus Mike Nichols on bass, my foster brother Richard Newman on drums and there was Aitch McRobbie, Sonia Jones and Katie Kissoon with John Holtorp singing – including a pretty a capella piece.”
“Well, to my delight it all went so well. Somehow the mix of enthusiastic amateurs, really focusing on doing their best, plus the virtuosity of the professionals raised everybody's game. It was a magical atmosphere. And I thoroughly enjoyed my role as band-leader and compere too. Until that night I don't think I'd fully grasped how important being up on a stage, giving a performance, is for me.”
By 2011 Sam had started a second uke club in London - the North London Ukulele Collective - which meets weekly at Cecil Sharp House in Camden, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. This now has 25 members. Meanwhile, back in Oxfordshire, demand for places in the IUCSC continued to grow until there were over forty members. Early in 2012 Sam had to establish a new club - the People's Ukulele Brigade (or PUB) to accommodate newcomers. The PUB already has over 20 members. And to keep everybody in touch Sam has also introduced an over-arching virtual “umbrella club” – the Fabulous Ukulele Club (or FUC) with Facebook pages and a website at www.thefabulousukuleleclub.com The three clubs each stage a concert at the end of every eleven week course.
Meanwhile Sam and her ukulele people have played with Joe Brown on his new album; they have featured on radio and TV, in the music press as well as in a very warm profile in ‘The Sunday Telegraph’. The 40-strong IUCSC's end-of-course performance last Christmas was at Henley's Kenton Theatre. It received rapturous reviews. Guest stars included Nick Heyward of Haircut 100, the talented singer-songwriter Charlie Dore as well as Joe and Pete Brown. There were the usual professional instrumentalists and singers in support. The capacity audience included various celebrities.
I was lucky enough to be there and I can affirm this was one of the happiest, most memorable concerts I've ever seen. The audience were wildly enthusiastic. There is something surprisingly jolly and uplifting about hearing so many ukuleles of every imaginable colour and size playing together – something really infectious in an unsophisticated, cheery, smiley, toe-tapping way. The IUCSC's repertoire is wide-ranging and Sam's uke arrangements are deceptively skilled and imaginative. It isn't often you hear ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, ‘Ukulele Lady’, ‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘Ring of Fire’, ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, ‘When I'm Cleaning Windows’ and ‘I'll See You In My Dream’ in one set, all played with such zest, such huge enthusiasm and energy. I could suddenly see why the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is gaining international plaudits while the likes of Jeff Lynne, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Frank Skinner, Bob Dylan and James Franco are all now committed uke players.
But there is something different and rather exceptional about Sam Brown's uke clubs. Sam's sheer ebullience, her skilful tutelage and her role as chief ring-mistress at each public performance are crucial. Hugh Phillimore, Director of the Cornbury Festival, said to me, “I don't know if she realises it, but Sam Brown has really achieved something quite special. To unleash all this enthusiasm from such a diverse group of people and teach them to play alongside top professionals and entertain like this in a very short time is really remarkable. Sam's an old friend and I have always admired her work. She's irrepressible and I'm really pleased she's encouraging so many people to play live music – something we really need. I'm delighted to welcome her ukulele club to this year's Cornbury.”
Singer-songwriter Charlie Dore has performed at several of Sam's uke club gigs. She commented, “I do think all those involved with Sam realise they've landed in a very lucky place. They quickly appreciate they are going to come away with far more than a few uke chords. It is very evident they relish every moment!”
The members of Sam's uke clubs are equally eloquent about the experience. Dave Pinder, a 56 year-old production director for a technology company, was one of the early recruits to the IUCSC. “I've played guitar for years but I fell in love with the ukulele when I saw Joe Brown playing ‘I'll See You In My Dreams’ as the finale to the George Harrison tribute concert at the Albert Hall back in 2002. My wife had bought me a ukulele and when I heard Sam Brown was giving lessons near my home, I couldn't believe my luck. It's been fantastic, such fun. The camaraderie is wonderful and I like that we are from all kinds of backgrounds, different ages and with very varied musical skills. We all share a big commitment, though. Of course it is Sam personally who makes the thing work. She has real charisma and is a very special kind of person; if you could bottle what she has you'd make a fortune! Highlights for me so far were the Kenton Theatre show at Henley last Christmas and recording with Joe Brown in Mark Knopfler's British Grove Studios in West London - just fantastic!”
Lynne Butler, a professional musician and radio presenter, was equally enthusiastic. “I am a guitarist but I'd never played the ukulele. My son George who is 12 wanted to learn the uke so we both joined Sam's club. It's big fun. Of course the uke is fashionable now and I think schools should teach the ukulele instead of recorders. It is also the perfect instrument to compose songs on. Learning the uke has boosted George's confidence. And Sam is the cookiest, most wonderful band leader. She always gets the best from everyone and relates to all ages, regardless of ability. At our performances she's a brilliant ring-mistress - and very funny on the stage, really connecting with the audience who love her. The whole uke club thing has been an amazing experience.”
Jess Parkin, an administrator, has been playing with the IUCSC for 18 months. “I love it. It's such fun to be doing something that takes you out of your own life, absorbing you totally. I started playing because my son Angus wanted to do it. The ukulele is so easy to play. It is light and much more user-friendly than a guitar which gives it a special appeal to women – plus it is very quick to master. I love being part of Sam's orchestra. We play and then stop and drink wine and eat chocolate. And the gigs have been amazing.”
Nikki Mitchell is a reporter with BBC Oxford TV. “I played the oboe a bit as a child but I can't read music so learning the uke has been a big challenge for me. It started when I did a story about Sam for local TV and we filmed the ukulele club. I thought the atmosphere was so casual and laid-back and not at all intimidating. There was a fascinating mix of quite skilled musicians and people like me who couldn't play anything but it all seemed such fun. Anyway I joined the next course and Sam was so encouraging. Now I really look forward to my uke club nights, even after a heavy work day. I'm achieving something I never thought I would and the recording session with Joe Brown was amazing. I love the gigs too – though I am always very nervous. I'm used to working on TV but somehow it is very different when you are on a stage live with all those faces staring back at you. But the whole experience has been great. And it has been good just being one of the group, not having to stand up front!”
42 year-old Sammi Davenport spends her working days assisting undertakers as a freelance embalmer. She added, “My husband is a record producer though I'd never played a uke or sung in public before. But I knew from the beginning that Sam was achieving something magical with her uke club - though I'm sure she had no idea what a success it would be I still can't quite believe I've achieved so much and have played and sung in front of audiences plus recorded with a rock'n'roll legend like Joe Brown. At this stage in my life with a family and a busy job I'd not expected this extra dimension. It is wonderful. But so much is down to Sam's personal qualities and the inclusive way she runs the group, always quietly boosting confidence and making it all such fun.”
Sam Brown is clearly touched when I share these comments with her. She readily agrees there have been some wonderful moments.
“I did feel the Kenton Theatre performance at Henley was pretty special. Many members of the club had never been backstage at a theatre before and I enjoyed seeing how excited they were about that. Other highs for me were playing to the group for the first time the recording they helped make for my dad's new album. The version of ‘Pinball Wizard’ they did with my dad and my brother Pete was just so good and you can hear them all on it very clearly. You know, it sends shivers up my spine just listening to it on my own. And they were all so thrilled when they heard it - and rightly so. The other brilliant thing was breaking to them the news that we'd been invited to play at Cornbury. They were really so happy. You could feel the sense of pride in the room, it was tangible. That meant a lot to me.”
Looking ahead, how does Sam see her uke clubs developing?
“Well, the demand is still huge. I need to think about new ways of handling that. People have talked about franchising and there is the possibility of publishing my uke arrangements or doing tuition books or DVDs. And one day I intend to write my autobiography, of course. I'd like to spend more time gardening, too! But for now I'm happy with the present balance of my life. Being on stage with the uke clubs has given me the chance to be up there performing again and I do really relish that.”
For news of Sam Brown's ukulele clubs – including performances - see www.thefabulousukuleleclub.com. Sam's album 'Of the Moment' is available from www.onecandle.co.uk/shop and from all good music outlets.