Thursday, 15 November 2018

From garden shed to showbusiness

Journalist ROBIN POPHAM was looking for a new musical challenge to keep him busy in retirement, but the 65-year-old from

Journalist ROBIN POPHAM was looking for a new musical challenge to keep him busy in retirement, but the 65-year-old from Valley Road never thought he’d be strumming alongside rock ’n’ roll luminaries...

I DON’T know if you’ve ever tried playing Pinball Wizard on the ukulele in front of a large audience, accompanying one of the great legends of British popular music, but as an amateur musician it’s an experience to tighten the uke strings — not to mention certain parts of your anatomy.

But this is what’s extraordinary about playing in Sam Brown’s International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common…. I’ve ended up doing things that, as the rankest and most amateurish of rank amateur guitarists, I could never have imagined in my wildest fantasies.

Backing Joe Brown at a live concert? No way! Recording for his album at a London studio owned by Mark Knopfler? Geddouddahere! Playing at Cornbury Festival on the same bill as Elvis Costello? You’re having a laugh! Having a laugh we certainly were, but all this and more have we done. And it’s all down to the amazing Sam Brown, who started one band in her kitchen at Sonning Common and whose ukulele empire now extends to three bands with about 120 people. All three are playing public concerts this Christmas.

Sam of course is the brilliant singer who had hit singles of her own — most memorably her 1988 single Stop! — and has sung with Jools Holland, Pink Floyd and Steve Marriott among many others. She’s the daughter of the great Joe Brown, but she lost her voice in 2006 so had to do something else. And luckily for us, she put an ad in the Henley Standard for ukulele players.

When I rang up she made it sound so much fun I instantly said: “Buke me a uke” and joined.

If you’ve ever played guitar, the uke is easy to learn. And even if you’ve never played an instrument, it’s not difficult to pick up. So off we went, starting with simple three-chord songs and progressing to such complexities as the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows and The Who’s Pinball Wizard. Among the 80-odd songs we have since learnt are numbers by Peter Sellers, Motorhead and Charles Trenet, Twenties jazz and Eighties funk, and of course, a bit of George Formby.

It all became so popular that Sam Brown had to start new bands. There are now three, with the addition of the People’s Ukulele Brigade and the Jumping Flea Club. And for the first time all three are playing Christmas concerts in quick succession next month at Shiplake Village Hall and the Kenton Theatre.

Naturally, it’s not all glamour gigs such as Cornbury Festival or playing on Radio 2 for Aled Jones (which we did last Christmas). We play many small local charity events. It may not be the O2 but to do the Ibstone Horticultural Society summer fête is just as big a thrill for us. We love playing anywhere — so long as it gives us the chance to dress up a bit and strut our stuff.

It is wonderful of course to play with professional musicians. At our bigger concerts, Sam brings along a drummer, bass player and backing singers, which helps to keep us in time. In a large ukulele band, one side can be starting the chorus before the other has finished the verse!

And to play with Joe Brown on I’ll See You In My Dreams, the song which brought tears to everyone’s eyes when he played it at the memorial concert for George Harrison at the Royal Albert Hall, was a huge privilege and will stay in my memory for a long time.

Now we’re getting excited about next year. A trip to Paris is in the offing, plus a 100-ukulele spectacular — all three bands together — at the McAlpines’ Vintage Fair at their Fawley estate in May.

For me the whole thing has become a delight in my retirement. Sam’s such an inspiration and a joy, bringing huge humour and great professionalism to a group of amateur players who could not have dreamed of such achievements without her. As she says, we’ve gone “from shed to showbusiness”.

* The People’s Ukulele Brigade play at Shiplake Village Hall on Friday, December 6, and the Jumping Flea Club at the same venue on Saturday, December 7. Email:

* The International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common plays at the Kenton Theatre on Thursday, December 12. Call (01491) 575698 or visit

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