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At 9 years of age, Herb Ohta performed at a local radio station’s contest called “Amateur Hour” and walked away with first prize winnings. What humble beginnings. Herb began playing the ‘ukulele when he was 9 years old.
At the age of 12, he met Mr. Eddie Kamae. He taught Herb many techniques and told him to apply these techniques to all kinds of music. Eddie was Herb’s first and most influential mentor.
Eddie Kamae said of their first meeting: “Herbert was maybe 12 years old. He had his ‘ukulele and we talked. I remember asking him to play a song for me. He played the “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Jesse Kalima’s song. I told him as time goes by, he should play something that would identify him. I had a feeling that he was very dedicated and serious about his music.”
After World War 11, Ohta-san played his ‘ukulele at the Honolulu Army-Navy YMCA on weekends with John Lukela. From 1953 – 1963 he served with the U.S. Marine Corps. During these years, his career as a musician prospered. By the time he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, he had spent two years studying music theory with Barbara Smith at the University of Hawai‘i.
When he left the Marines, his former St. Louis High School classmate, Galen Kam, a distributor for Decca Records, introduced him to Don McDiarmid, Jr. President of Hula Records. In 1964, his first recording was released. He recorded “Sushi” for Hula Records, and was given his professional name, Ohta-san by Don McDiarmid, Jr. “Sushi” became a hit! The song was later released to Warner Brothers.
Ever since then, Herb has performed at many hotels in Waikiki and traveled the world. He has recorded on over 75 recordings locally in Hawai’i, internationally on the Decca, Surfside, Warner Bros., Polydor, JVC Victor, M&H Hawai’i, Poki, and others. After the success of his now signature song “Song for Anna,” written for him by French composer Andre Popp (sold over 6 million copies), A&M Records signed him to a five-year recording contract. He is the only ‘ukulele artist to have over 300 tunes played on national radio
Ohta-San’s style is expressive, with cleanliness and a feel that is unique. It is very hard to describe. The listener has to determine the feeling that is expressed when they hear the ‘ukulele being played by the magical hands of Ohta-san. A person will not believe that a ‘ukulele, being played by Ohta-san, is actually a ‘ukulele.
Herb extends his love of the ‘ukulele from Hawaiian music to classical, jazz, rock, pop, and Latin. His diversity, knowledge, and style reflect his lyrical sense, and respected as a master of his instrument.
Today, Herb continues to fascinate his audiences at special events in Hawai’i and abroad. He continues to record his feel for music with the ‘ukulele. He his considered to be the best ‘ukulele virtuoso in the world. He is considered by many to be a “‘ukulele god in Japan”. Herb Ohta is surely one of the reasons why the ‘ukulele is where it is today, and where it will go in the future.