"To sing to when it's cool and shady, where the tricky wicky wacky woo. If you like Ukulele Lady, Ukulele Lady like 'a' you." The strains of this vintage ditty by Richard Whiting and Gus Kahn may linger in the air like the scent of jasmine, but there are many fans of nostalgic music that might not realize there really was a "Ukulele Lady," the one and only May Singhi Breen. She was also one half of the radio duo known as "The Sweethearts of the Air" with songwriter and performer Peter De Rose, who would eventually marry the Ukulele Lady. It is inevitable that even the most casual ukulele plucker will become familiar with the name of Breen, if only because she wrote many of the ukulele arrangements that adorn sheet music published in the '20s, '30s, and '40s. She was also one of the first instrumentalists to attempt the creation of an electric ukulele, and may have authored a 16-minute attempt at a serious concert piece for the instrument, although some ukulele scholars give De Rose the credit for this long-lost composition, originally performed with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Breen's first ukulele was a Christmas gift, and apparently one she wasn't too thrilled about it. The story goes that she attempted to swap it back at the department store for a bathrobe, but there was strictly a no-refund, no-return policy on ukuleles. Stuck with the thing, she decided to take lessons. As it turned out she had an instinctive knack for the instrument, and soon had formed a female ukulele group called the Syncopators which began performing on radio. In 1923, she met De Rose, ditching the Syncopators and forming a duo which almost immediately found a popular NBC radio slot. The Sweethearts of the Air show ran until 1939; Breen and De Rose were married in 1926. The program was solidly music, with De Rose backing the Ukulele Lady on piano. Breen's performances were so popular that the instrument company P'Mico added the May Singhi Breen autographed model banjo uke to its line.
For Breen, being the Ukulele Lady was about more than just appearing alluring while strumming. Rather, she seems to have dedicated most of her time to promoting the instrument and its cultural background rather than her own star persona. She taught ukulele both in private schools and her private studio, encouraging both the formation of ukulele groups and the instrument's solo repertoire. She was known for the slogan "Uke can play the melody," a reference to the typecasting of the ukulele as a device for light strumming and plunking. She was the first ukulele instructor in schools and also pioneered recorded ukulele instruction, turning out a famous Victor 78 entitled The Ukulele Lesson. She lobbied with the Musician's Union until they classed the ukulele as a legitimate musical instrument. Breen also is credited with convincing music publishers to include a ukulele arrangement with sheet music for a song, and as a result her arrangements are found on more sheet music than any other person in publishing history. Her teaching methods were also published in folio form, including an instruction book from the '50s that became a standard for the instrument.
Breen and De Rose regularly collaborated on songwriting, creating the music for "No One but You Knows How to Love" or both lyrics and music for the marvelous "Marvelous" in 1927. She also was a co-writer of "Ukulele Blues," which perhaps included a hint of agitation at the instrument's limited ability to project sound. This speculation is based on modifications she had done to one of her special custom ukuleles, the type of instruments stars own that have their names engraved on the head stock. A large hole was sliced out of the back of the instrument, a modification requested by Breen for the aforementioned performance with Whiteman. She was apparently hoping that this performance would prove once and for all that the ukulele was a "serious" musical instrument. Inventor Albert Allen, an early electric instrument experimenter, was brought in, the idea being to make use of techniques he had developed creating both electric guitars and violins in the mid '30s. It is not known exactly what it was Allen stuck in the hole he had made. The resulting instrument was finally given back to Allen, perhaps indicating dissatisfaction, finding its way into the hands of collectors following Allen's death. Breen used the instrument to perform the lengthy "Rhapsody for Uke" which has been credited to both Breen and her husband in commentary about the Aeolian Hall event.