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San Clemente Journal

A Ukulele Club With Spirit

Dec 06, 2018 03:00PM ● By Nina Welch

Left to right. Harry Cope, Malvina King, Emilie Mathews, Al Pierce, Vaughan Curtis, Jerry Weeks and Dick Herr.

By Nina Welch

On three mornings a week in the corner of Café Calypso’s courtyard under a large umbrella, a Ukulele Club strums and sings songs. Aint She Sweet, Hey Good Looking and Cotton Fields are among the favorites of this close-knit group of friends. 
Al Pierce, founder, maestro and leader of the sing-alongs got his first introduction to the ukulele during Airforce basic training in the early ‘50s. His wife bought him a small soprano ukulele and four thin song books, “When I played, a crowd gathered around me. Only one guy said, ‘Can you play far away?’” said Al. 
The youthful spirit of Al Pierce leads the group,“I’m 87 ½ years old with 21 great grandkids and counting.”


Al always loved music. He was able to bring his love of music into the high school classroom. One of his favorite stories from teaching math at Dana Hills High School (1973-1994) was the day his students were rewarded with two boxes of donuts from the principal. He was surprised to learn that his students didn’t know the school’s fight song. They’d been to football games but never sang along. According to Al, when they sang Happy Birthday, they sang in ten different keys. He then took it upon himself to teach his class school spirit. His math students thought it was fabulous and wanted to sing before every class. One day, when the principal and a school board member visited, they were greeted by an on-key, pretty good version. The principal was impressed with the school spirit presented by the class and rewarded them with donuts.

The Beginnings
The Café Calypso coffee group began when Al and his friend Martin Smith sang in the San Clemente Presbyterian Church Choir over 20-years-ago. Martin was thinking of quitting and Al suggested getting a coffee to talk. It started out just the two of them, then the group got bigger, and they brought their dogs. 

Al’s son-in-law, who was in a Ukulele Club in Ventura, reintroduced Al to the ukulele. He gave Al a uke and told him to take it home and practice. “I looked up songs on the computer and I was hooked,” said Al. 

After a few months, he brought the uke to the café and said, “You guys all know this song,” and he sang You Are My Sunshine. It’s been over ten years and he has been playing and leading sing-alongs every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the Café Calypso courtyard on Del Mar ever since.

When leading the group, Al always starts with a joke, which is lovingly referred to as, “Uncle Al’s Storytime.” Malvina and Emilie play the ukuleles and sing; Jerry Weeks, retired San Clemente City Manager, plays the banjolele, ukulele and sings. Al and Jerry took ukulele lessons at the senior center seven-years-ago. Harry Cope, age 95, is a retired San Clemente dermatologist, singer … and he dates Emilie. Martin Smith had suggested to Harry if you want to get in good with Emilie, buy her a ukulele. 

Other members include, Dave, retired engineer, Sarah, artist of paintings and stone carvings, Vaughan, a retired accountant, and Dick, retired elementary school principal and tambourine player. They even have a visiting ukulele player from Scotland, and Brenda Walsh joins the group in the summer. Sadly, some members have passed on including Martin Smith, charter member and cupid.

Emilie and Malvina refer to the club as family. “If someone is missing a couple of days, they get a call.” The group chats between songs and sometimes get carried away. “Al gets us back on track. He starts playing or he gives us the snake eye,” says Emilie. Right on cue, Al says, “Music, Music, Music in the key of C.” Al lent Malvina a ukulele and taught her how to play the chords and then told her to go home and practice. She was doing pretty good and then he said, “Now you have to learn to tune it.”

Not only does the Ukulele Club’s repertoire include old-timey sing-along songs, they regularly sing Elvis’ Blue Hawaii and the Beatle’s All My Loving. It was noted by one of the members that this was the first song the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan. 

Around Thanksgiving, they start singing Christmas carols. We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Silent Night, and Jingle Bells are among their favorites. But the last song is always the same: Dark Town Strutter’s Ball. 

Most of the group’s songs might be old-timey, but the Ukulele Club has a youthful spirit led by Al Pierce, who when asked his age says, “I’m 87 ½ years old and I have 21 great grandkids and counting.”