Finding my stage-look was actually a natural transition from the clown costume I had when booking myself out as:
Ralph the Clown
Entertainer of Repute
Music Included (No batteries required)
The chequered jacket and red trousers were replaced by a navy suit. And my large gold (with white polka dots) bowtie was supplanted by smaller more normal bowties. I even kept the bowler hat for a while until I found that constant hat care made it a pain to travel with while touring.
My English accent marked me as an outsider but it also gave me an advantage over American entertainers because it made me sound funnier than I actually was. My look, which combined stereotypical London commuter with generic-era lounge singer, went well with my accent and, most importantly, required minimal faff.
I’d used a similar faff-free philosophy with my clown outfit. While other clowns bragged about the time it took to apply their makeup (ninety minutes was not unusual) I could do mine in ten minutes and, in a pinch, five. It was ridiculous how fast I was able to transform – and a useful skill when changing in gas station restrooms.
However, changing career path from Ralph the Clown to Ralph Shaw, King of the Ukulele had a surprising obstacle. Previously most of my clown gigs had come via an advertisement in the Yellow Pages so I tried the same strategy and was amazed to find that my new listing, hailing my services as King of the Ukulele, brought no work at all. After a year of watching our savings diminish, I ruefully donned the big shoes once again and went back to putting on the clown makeup for one more year while I figured out what went wrong.
No-one, it seemed, was opening the Yellow Pages looking for a King of the Ukulele. I needed to find a different, more encompassing, approach. So bit by bit I started the Vancouver Ukulele Circle, taught classes to small groups in people’s homes for The Moveable Music School, travelled to the earliest ukulele festivals on the US mainland, appeared on radio, recorded CDs, filmed and distributed my own teaching DVDs and was known as the go-to ‘ukulele guy’ by all the music shops in Vancouver. And, in between, I went busking. The whole thing was an improvised business model that somehow worked and, through it all, I continued to make sure my appearance involved minimal faff.
Fast forward to England 2021 and the career transition from major Canadian city to small English village has been surprisingly hard. Even taking covid out of the equation it’s probably been harder than going from clown to ukulele entertainer. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t regret coming here. The situation with my parents was worse than any of us realised. My dad had been taking care of my mum with her memory troubles but once I arrived it became apparent that his memory was fading faster than hers. Plus, his poor eyesight was putting us all in danger. On one of his regular hospital check-ups the ophthalmologist examined his eyes and said, “Very good come again in six months.”
I said, “Okay. But I just want to ask, is he still okay to drive?”
The doctor spun in his chair and stared at me, “He’s DRIVING?!!”
Even with his terrible memory dad would not forget the moment that I’d ratted him out to the eye doctor.
Very soon we got dad to give up the car and it was shocking to discover that two days after signing it over to me he couldn’t even remember what the car looked like.
Meanwhile I was trying to make inroads as an entertainer over here and it slowly dawned on me that I was no longer the exotic creature I had been in the new world. No-one gave a hoot about me here. No more was I the beguiling outsider but instead I’d become just another northern bloke with a ukulele. It was hard to take. Especially when the names of my uke playing North American peers were mentioned and I saw unveiled excitement in people’s eyes. Over here, I learned, they are the exotic ones.
I began reassessing my persona. The accent wasn’t going to change so I concentrated on my look. Could it be that the suit, bowtie and gloriously faff-free short hair, that had worked so well for me as a younger man, no longer looked hip and ironic but instead made me look like a middle-aged accountant who was trying to get away with being an entertainer without changing his office clothes?
…I started growing my hair.
Although I still occasionally wear a bowtie, it has become a take-it or leave-it accessory. But any bowtie faff I’ve saved from not wearing one is more than made up for by the curly Robert Plant-like hair that now bounces on my bonce.
You might think that this latest incarnation to regain some level of exotic appeal has resulted in a lot of extra hair-faff for me. That was my fear. But it’s not so bad as you’d think. I’ve actually reduced hair-faff to a minimum by learning how to stop it getting knotted and frizzled. I got a Curly Hair-Cut by the only practitioner of the art in all of South Yorkshire. She also gave me the conditioning secrets for maintaining faff-free curly hair. So, it’s working out well really.
The main bonus for me is the positive effect this new look has on other people. When I wore the suit, I noticed shop-workers would call me Sir: a title I’ve never managed to achieve while dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. But no longer do strangers give me that wary look, as if I were a religious pamphleteer, a taxman, or a part-time gynaecologist, but instead I’ve become more approachable. People are immediately less guarded and instantly friendlier. I now look like the entertainer that I’m supposed to be, even in my time off.
There are those, like Bowie and Madonna, who’ve made their everchanging exoticness a part of their schtick but my favourite example is that of my friend Josh Minsky. He’d grown up in New York but also spoke fluent French, having lived for years in Paris. We met in the early noughties when he had a young daughter and two twins to support and was trying out busking as a way to make a living. Every day he was out there in his jeans and tan jacket playing every style from Jazz to Soul to Funk and R&B. His mastery of his old Gibson guitar was clear but he just wasn’t making money.
One day he’d had a gig where they wanted him to wear a tuxedo and sing in French. After the gig, and still in the tux, he tried busking as a French café singer. The effect was immediate. The public loved him. They paid him with cash and CD sales. And from then on, he’s been the tuxedo-wearing French singer of Vancouver, and he hasn’t changed since. Because, I mean to say, why would he? Changing is a lot of faff.