ukulele

In the 1950s, while an undergraduate at Penn State, I was passing by a dorm room door after dinner and I heard a soft musical instrument being played, coming from within. Fascinated, I knocked and introduced myself to the student and asked about this melodious sound. He introduced me to the ukulele, and showed me several basic chords. I was hooked, and later that week, I went downtown to the 5 and 10 and purchased a $3.95 basic plastic uke and began to play.

Right after graduation, I secured my first job at the former Quaker State Metals Co. in Lancaster and began my employment as a basic-level trainee. I enjoyed the challenge, gained confidence and moved right along.

Each year during the holiday season, the company held a Christmas dinner at the old Guernsey Sales Barn for the employees and their spouses. A “talent” show was put on, with some of the workers doing the acts. The second year, I chose to participate by composing a satirical ballad spoofing the forming of the company and its growth pains, while accompanying myself on the ukulele. The president and founder of the company loved it, and I became recognized as something more than just a new employee.

As time went on, whenever a valued customer was invited to visit our facility and treated to a dinner at the boss’ country club, I would be assigned to get details on their company and compose a musical ballad in their honor. It was a way, I guess, to impress them — that they were not just another customer, but deserving of special tribute.

At that time, our building products division supplied Sears, Roebuck & Co. with all their rain gutter and metal roofing. Sears, at that time, was the world’s largest merchandiser, and they were our biggest and most valuable account. Several of the Sears executives and buyers were to visit our facility, and I was asked to come up with a real first-class musical presentation. I met with the local Sears store manager, who gave me details on the history of the company, and I was able to conjure up a presentable offering.

The dinner tribute went over extremely well, and they asked for a copy of the song to play for the team at the Chicago headquarters. We had never recorded it, of course, but the boss said we would send them some records the following week.

Quickly, it was arranged that I would go to New York and cut a record at Rockhill Recordings, in their state-of-the-art studio. Off I went to the Big Apple with my trusty uke and fresh-pressed suit and wearing clean Band-Aids.

My time slot was right after a well-respected soprano was finishing and just before a prestigious string quartet was to do their session. There I was, sandwiched between professional performers, feeling quite out of place and well out of my league, especially plinking my way alone in that sterile, glass-enclosed room, with real pros observing my vain amateur efforts. I’m sure they were quite amused and wondered what was happening to this respected studio now letting in common riffraff to take up valuable recording time.

Records were cut and we sent them to the guys in Chicago. In later years, when I was assigned to handle the Sears account, I would sometimes be introduced to a new buyer and they would look at me saying they had somehow recognized my voice, and would ask me if I was the guy that made the “Ballad of Sears, Roebuck” record. What an obscure back door to fame, I thought.

When I left the company to start my own venture, they held a “retirement” banquet for me at the Hamilton Club and presented me with a brand new, quite valuable Martin ukulele, which I have to this day. I treasure it, and ponder how the playing of a simple little instrument over the years, learned on a whim at college, aided in my advancement along a convoluted corporate path. I’m sure this methodology is not taught in business corporate management courses at any institution of higher learning, even to this day.

The author lives in Manheim.

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