MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Memphis has a new recipe for musical fun:
- Break out the ukuleles! Unite four of the tiny stringed instruments with a quartet of gifted musicians.
- Next, place a sweet songstress with some serious pipes smack in the middle the ukulele players.
Get yourself within earshot of this fun loving group called the Memphis Ukulele Band and you'll understand why they're leaving audiences clapping along with joy.
"It was my whacky idea to start a ukulele band," said Jon Hornyak, MUB's elder statesman. Hornyak, the longtime leader of The Recording Academy – Memphis Chapter, said he was hanging around at Sun Studio in late 2013 with gifted multi-instrumentalists Matt Ross-Spang and Jason Freeman, casually jamming on their ukes.
"People at the Folk Alliance International in Kansas City asked us repeatedly, are you guys really from Memphis?," said Hornyak, who confirms the whole band calls River City home.
The original Memphis Ukulele trio recruited singer-songwriter Mark Edgar Stuart to jam in his whimsical way on a ukulele bass. The group was made complete with singer Kyndle McMahan, a star-power packed University of Memphis music student who happens to be gorgeous. By all indications, Ms. McMahan's vocal agility and bright stage presence are the secret ingredients to a recipe that could make the Memphis Ukulele Band dough rise to heights unfathomed.
These local ukulele aficionados have some deep roots in the American songbook. Ross-Spang just won a GRAMMY for engineering one of the top albums of 2015, Jason Isbell's "Something More Than Free," which also won the singer top award in music for Best Americana Album.
Ross-Spang is one of the hottest engineers in modern music at the moment, having cut his teeth at 706 Union Ave. better known as Sun Studios, aka the "Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll," where Sam Phillips helped launch the 20th century's most iconic musical names: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, just to name a few.
Now, Sun can also lay claim to becoming launching pad for Memphis Ukulele Band! Uke slinger Freeman has made a name for himself as a Memphis roots-rocker with the Bluff City Backsliders and solo projects, including a new album Hex & Hell. Stuart is one of the most in-demand bass players in the Mid-South region, having toured with GRAMMY nominee Alvin Youngblood Hart and garnering high praise for his solo projects, Blues for Lou and Trinity My Dear.
"This is an A-list of the best young musicians available," said Hornyak, who's paid the most dues in the music business to enjoy the Memphis Ukulele Band's super fun ride so far. He was born September 23, 1949, the same day as Bruce Springsteen, the multi-platinum superstar who jumped off the Jersey Shore stage and into the rock 'n' roll hearts of countless millions.
Hornyak is a man synonymous with the Memphis music scene who now finds himself the elder statesman of the Memphis Ukulele Band. From his boyhood home an hour and a half drive north of Memphis in Caruthersville, MO, Jon set his heart on a career making music the night The Beatles changed the world on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.
Jon formed a number of garage bands as a young teenager but "Interstate 55" was the one that took off. Jon sent a demo tape of his band from the Missouri Bootheel and won a spot on WHBQ TV's Talent Party hosted by Elvis pal George Klein. It was a local version of American Bandstand. Interstate 55 played every high school prom and gym dance in the region in its heyday. Interstate 55 reunites from time to time and you can find YouTube videos
of the now seasoned rockers here.
After adolescence, Hornyak dedicated his life to making music as a session musician, member of numerous bands (Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers, Keith Sykes), band manager (Drive-By Truckers, Gunbunnies, Jimmy Davis) sound and lighting expert on numerous concert tours (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Joel, Journey) owner/operator of a Memphis recording studio (Sounds Unreel), recording engineer/ producer and for the past 22 years, leader of the Memphis Chapter of the GRAMMY organization.
The region Hornyak oversees stretches across perhaps the most musically rich section of America, Memphis to New Orleans. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recently opened a GRAMMY Museum smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi Delta and Hornyak had a hand in its planning to grand opening on March 5.
All five members of the Memphis Ukulele Band seem to be having a blast on stage. At the group's CD release party, they smiled and played to a standing room only crowd at Lafayette's Music Room. They played the "covers" we've all come to know and love on the new CD: "I Can Help," "Every Day I Have to Cry Some," "Valerie," "Blue Bayou," "Country Roads," "(You Keep Me) Hanging On," "Just Because," "Brand New Key," "Lookin' Out My Backdoor," "I'm Living Good" and the lone original song on the album, "In Laws," that features a jovial performance by Mark Edgar Stuart, the song's author. Just before intermission, Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob invaded Lafayette's with more than a dozen ukulele players jamming with MUB on stage.
These amateurs play ukulele together at hospitals, nursing homes and schools to brighten up the days of people who could use a lift. Memphis Ukulele Band and the Ukulele Flash Mob did something exceedingly rare these days: they got the whole audience to sing along in a heartfelt rendition of "You Are My Sunshine." It was corny, yes, but there's something about talented people singing and playing ukuleles that makes people happy.
Do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Memphis Ukulele Band's self-titled CD on Blue Barrel Records and get cooking on making yourself ukulele happy.