Jake Shimabukuro has a number of famous fans: Yo-Yo Ma, Queen Elizabeth, and Olivia Harrison, wife of the late Beatle George Harrison. All are openly fond of the ukulele virtuoso, who is coming to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Friday night (9/28).
However, when Shimabukuro, 41, was assembling songs to cover for his latest album, “The Greatest Day,” which dropped in August, he was mindful of the fans who are closest to him: his parents.
Shimabukuro recorded versions of Jimi Hendrix’ “If 6 was 9,” the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” since his mother and father grew up with those songs.
“My mom and dad were children of the ’60s and I thought I could record something from that era, which they would love,” Shimabukuro said by phone from his Honolulu home. “But I love those songs too.”
Shimabukuro is a huge music fan and it shows throughout “The Greatest Day.” He revamps New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” which was a smash during the ’80s. He covers “The Shape of You,” which is a recent Ed Sheeran hit.
“Hallelujah” was popular during the ’90s courtesy of Jeff Buckley’s cover of the Leonard Cohen’s classic.
“I didn’t realize until I was out of high school that Jeff Buckley didn’t write ‘Hallelujah,’” Shimabukuro said. “I love music from all eras and I love all types of music. Genres don’t mean a lot to me. It’s all about melody to me.”
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Olivia Harrison’ reaction after she heard Shimabukuro’s version of the Beatles favorite “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” means a great deal, Shimabukuro said.
“What she said blew me away. 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.”
Bette Midler, a kindred Hawaii native, invited Shimabukuro to England to play a single tune at a 2009 event.
“When Bette asked me, I said, ‘Are you sure you want me to fly to England to just play one song?’” She was serious, and they performed his arrangement of another Beatles hit, “In My Life.” For the Queen of England.
“Playing before the royal family was amazing,” he said.
Queen Elizabeth told Shimabukuro how much she enjoyed him.
“That was something I’ll never forget,” he said. “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.”
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.’ 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 rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral in 2005.
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After the song scored more than 15 million views, a number of noteworthy musicians, including Jimmy Buffett and Yo-Yo Ma, asked if Shimabukuro would join them in the studio or on tour.
“It’s been surreal,” Shimabukuro said. “I have a dream job and I live in the most amazing place on earth. I should send you a picture.”
WHAT: Jake Shimabukuro
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday (9/28)
TICKETS: $35; Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/event/jake-shimabukuro-2/
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Jakeshimabukuro.com