The Perfect Strum

 

If you’ve been wondering whatever happened to the kind of songwriting that depends not on pounding rock beats but on lyricism, heart and wit, you should know about Jim Beloff. But then, maybe you do already, and already own one or more of his CDs. Or perhaps you were in the audience on a recent winter night at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center and heard Jim and his wife, Liz, sing a few of his songs while accompanying themselves on ukuleles.

That evening the Beloffs were among the performers who raised money for a soup kitchen and also the level of my musical optimism. Indeed, two weeks after the concert in Old Saybrook, I was still shower-singing one song in particular. From Jim’s lyric for “At the Magic Laundromat”:

    Anything can happen when the       
    world is spinning round,
    Dreams you left in pockets
    are mysteriously found.

When I’d heard the Beloffs turn the Laundromat into a wondrous place and the other original songs, I thought how rare—messages that appear so simple but are the product of complex life experience. And how fitting, too, in a state with a heritage of great songwriters. Indeed, Jim Beloff had connections with several musical masters, including Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and long ago showed how a boy from Meriden could use his talent in unconventional ways.

We talked of all that, two weeks after the benefit concert, in what Liz refers to as “our embarrassingly large kitchen.” They had bought the house in Clinton five years earlier from restaurateur Steve Wilkinson, who once owned Esteva in Guilford and FineBouche in Centerbrook, and had done major culinary renovation at home.

It is from this augmented ranch that the Beloffs have created the ukulele songbooks that are helping turn our state into a kind of Hawaii of the East. But though their living now is made largely from that resurgent little instrument, the Beloffs are artistically versatile.

Liz, who grew up in Stamford, contributed her harmony and solo renditions to the most recent CD, Rare Air. As a graphic designer, she created the flying horse logo for Tri-Star Pictures, and title designs for In the Line of Fire and Home Alone. She designs covers for the ukulele books she and her husband create, as well as covers for the CDs for their Flea Market Music label (company motto: “Uke Can Change the World”).

Jim’s efforts to change the world date back to that milestone year 1976, when the Wallingford Bicentennial Commission asked the Choate grad and Hampshire College junior to write a show based on the town’s history.

The musical-theater major had the temerity, however, to choose a story line that strayed from the strictly patriotic into something closer to debauchery, at least in the eyes of many locals. At Yale’s Beinecke Library, he happened upon a reference to the Oneida Colony, a branch of which lived in Wallingford until the mid-19th century. The sect practiced free love and used selective breeding as they strove for a utopian society.

When word leaked out about what young Beloff was up to, a figurative bonfire broke out, and The New York Times reported on the bicentennial show that “splits a New England town.” The attention, of course, guaranteed a standing-room-only crowd for Wallingford, U.S.A: The Two Sides of Heaven, performed at the Paul Mellon Arts Center at Choate.

But Jim's musical career was not done, as it turned out, with musicals based on U.S. history. He went on to do what any shy 19-year-old would: He wrote to Stephen Sondheim, Joseph Papp and Leonard Bernstein asking for work. Consequently, he actually got to sit down individually with the creators of Follies and West Side Story.

Sondheim invited him to his New York apartment. “There,” Jim recalls, “I had the distinct honor of having one of my lyrics ripped apart. But he did it in a kind way.”

When Jim landed a job as a staff assistant (“really a gofer”) for Bernstein, the composer was working with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was expected to be a huge hit from two men whose credits included some of the most influential musicals in theater history.

Jim sat with Bernstein in the back of a theater in Philadelphia on the night “that beast of a show lumbered in front of an audience for the first time.” Within 30 minutes audience members started to leave, and by intermission the theater was half empty. People weren't expecting a tutorial on James Buchanan and other presidents, and their relationships with their black servants. Though the play did wind up on Broadway, it lasted only seven performances.

Even so, Jim remembers a poignant moment on opening night in Philly—when Bernstein, who stayed until the bitter end, went out to the lobby to face the music, and give those few who had stayed the chance to say they’d met a legend.

Jim Beloff went on to other work, eventually landing a job as associate publisher of Billboard magazine in Los Angeles. It was while in that job that his interest in the ukulele developed. He came across one at a flea market—hence the name of their company—and instantly fell in love with its portability, the way it is easily learned, and its quiet message in an increasingly noisy world.

When he went looking for ukulele sheet music, he found there wasn’t any. Nor was there any real literature about the instrument. The quiet instrument had fallen out of favor in the age of noise.

But when he approached Hal Leonard Corp., the huge music publishing firm, with the idea of filling that void, he got a warm aloha. For all of the sheet music the company had produced over the years, it had never produced anything for uke players. Also, a publisher of music books (now named Backbeat) bought Jim’s idea for a history of the ukulele. The Ukulele—A Visual History was released in 1997 and has been reprinted many times since.

With another couple, the Beloffs developed new styles of uke, called the Fluke and the Flea, both in use around the world. Jim has also written songs for actor and fellow uke enthusiast William H. Macy, who sang one of them on “Oprah.”

But the story that still has the Beloffs pinching themselves about their tuneful good fortune was the night in Los Angeles when George Harrison sat with them and another friend, and the four sang “All My Lovin’.” As Liz says, “It wasn’t lost on us—there we were, singing with a Beatle.” Harrison later contributed a uke appreciation for one of Jim’s books.

With all his success, “Jumpin’ Jim” Beloff retains one more professional dream—a bookend musical. Something, he says, like The Fantasticks, which takes only a few cast members and runs for years. He’s certainly got a head start as a lyric writer with a gift. He told me, “What I’m trying to do is show a commonality among human beings, something that touches people and hasn’t been said a thousand times before.”

Which is exactly how I felt about the craft and the message of another part of “At the Magic Laundromat.”

    Bring your weary blues in
     any day or night,
    Twenty minutes later
     all your blues are bright.

The Perfect Strum

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