When Jake Shimabukuro thinks white Christmas, images of sand, not snow, are conjured.
“That’s because I grew up in Hawaii,” Shimabukuro said while calling from Cupertino, California. “Christmas for me was a white sandy beach and an iconic statue of Santa in shorts and a surfboard in Honolulu.”
Shimabukuro, 46, has yet to experience winter weather this season but it’s on the horizon for the ukulele wizard when he performs Wednesday at the Bing Crosby Theater.
“I’ll be fine with it since the show in Spokane is indoors, not outdoors,” Shimabukurio said. “It’s also appropriate for me to play in a wintry environment since this is more of a holiday show than anything.”
A third of Shimabukuro’s concert will feature seasonal tunes, including the Donny Hathaway classic “This Christmas,” a Beatles-esque version of “We Three Kings” and a traditional “O Holy Night.”
“I love playing these songs since I grew up playing all of the holiday songs,” Shimabukuro said. “Christmas was always my favorite time of year since I spent it with my family. I remember my parents spinning records and that got us all in the holiday mood. The great thing about playing Spokane where it’s wintry and I’ll see snow is that’s the visual I actually grew up with watching movies and television shows. You look at holiday movies and it looks like Spokane. I never experienced that as a child but I look forward to it as an adult.”
The concert will also include an array of songs from Shimabukuro’s recent albums, including tracks from 2021’s “Jake & Friends.” The eclectic set of covers includes collaborations with such icons as Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett and Bette Midler, who like Shimabukuro is from Hawaii.
“Bette is incredible and is such a perfectionist,” Shimabukuro said. “It was a dream come true since she sang ‘The Rose’ with me. When I was a kid my mother would sing ‘The Rose.’ My mother’s favorite singer-actress is Bette Midler. So after the song was recorded I played it for my mom and she flipped out.”
Midler invited him to England to perform at an event in 2017 in front of the royal family. “When Bette asked me to come out, I said, ‘Are you sure you want me to fly to England to just play one song?’,” Shimabukuro says. “Playing before the royal family was amazing.”
Queen Elizabeth told Shimabukuro how much she enjoyed his performance. “That was something I’ll never forget,” Shimabukuro says. “I kept bowing. I guess it’s due to the Japanese in me. It was bizarre meeting the Queen. I was told never to speak to her before she spoke. She had to initiate the conversation and I couldn’t shake her hand unless she extended her hand first. She did. I got to shake her hand. I’ll never forget it.”
Shimabukuro flashed back to his memory of meeting the Queen when she died in September. “I thought back to how it was such an honor,” Shimabukro said. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people like Willie Nelson. (Asleep at the Wheel singer-songwriter) Ray Benson, who is also on the ‘Friends’ album, told me that I have to work with Willie and he just called him up and made it happen on the spot.”
One of Shimabukuro’s favorite songs is his spare version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. Shimabukuro is a huge Beatles fan but he experienced their songs initially in an unusual manner.
Shimabukuro’s father played “Let It Be,” by jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, who covered the Fabs throughout his 1970 album.
“I heard Charlie Byrd play (the Beatles’) ‘Michelle’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as a child and I thought, ‘Man, this guy has written some of the most beautiful songs ever,’ ” Shimabukuro said while laughing. “I do love the Beatles’ sense of melody and their arrangements. The Beatles inspire people to pick up an instrument.”
It all started for Shimabukuro as a child growing up in paradise. Hawaiian kids play the ukulele, like those on the mainland play guitar. Shimabukuro became the Eddie Van Halen of ukulele players.
“One day I was messing around with my ukulele and I started playing (Cream’s) ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ ” Shimabukuro said. “I was like, ‘This is pretty cool, I’m playing a rock song on the ukulele.’ I soon discovered that I could play other guitar parts, violin lines and piano on the ukulele. The options were limitless.”
Shimabukuro signed a recording contract in 2002 and became a star in Hawaii and Japan. However, he didn’t go worldwide until his cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral in 2005.
After the song scored more than 15 million views online, a number of noteworthy musicians, such as Jimmy Buffett and Yo Yo Ma, asked if Shimabukuro would join them in the studio or on tour.
Shimabukuro’s version of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” reduced George Harrison’s widow Olivia Harrison to tears.
“What she said to me blew me away,” Shimabukuro said. “After she saw my video for the song she told me that George, who loved playing the ukulele, would have gotten along so well with me. I didn’t know what to say. Who isn’t a fan of George Harrison? I wish I did meet him because I wonder how many Beatles and solo songs he wrote on the ukulele.”
Shimabukuro is working on a Harrison tribute album with Olivia Harrison and her son, Dhani Harrison. “I have a number of projects in the works that I’m excited about but I’m trying to stay in the moment and enjoy these holiday shows,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s going to be getting colder as I travel toward Washington. I can’t wait.”
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