Happy strings make happy people
The toe-tapping and hand-clapping begins the moment the first notes of "The Saints go Marching In" hit the air, and continues on until the final number.
The Happy Strings Ukelele Band has delighted hundreds if not thousands of folks over the last several years.
In the last 12 years alone, band members have performed more than 550 times at senior living facilities, rest homes, civic organizations and AARP meetings, anywhere from Conroe to Huntsville, Cleveland to College Station.
That's a lot of dedication for this group of volunteer band members.
The band began in March 1998 when six women at First Baptist Church in Conroe wanted to learn how to play ukuleles.
They knew just who to turn to for help church member Jim Vaughn, somebody well known for his love of music.
"We bought us some little ukuleles and sat down to see what we could do with them," said 88-year-old Conroe resident Ola Payne, one of the original six women. "I didn't know one note from the other. Mr. Vaughn patiently and eagerly taught us how to pick the ukulele."
The ladies proved to be quick learners, and it wasn't long before Vaughn booked them to play a gig at a senior citizen's facility in Conroe.
"Little by little each week it grew," Payne said. "It grew to be a big band with all kinds of instruments, and that's where we stand today. I still enjoy every minute of it."
The band thrived under Vaughn's dedication, but after he was diagnosed with cancer, Vaughn prepared to hand over the reins to band member Ken Burkhalter.
"He told me I really needed to pay attention to what he does," said Burkhalter, a 67-year-old retired football coach and Conroe resident. "I didn't have any formal music training. The band was very patient with me as I learned music and learned a few things about directing."
Burkhalter officially became the director in September 2003. Vaughn died a few months later in November.
Burkhart said the band is a unique mixture of people who have formal music training, while others "just have that music in their soul."
Some have only recently learned how to play an instrument, while others have been playing since childhood.
Bill Chaffee has been playing the ukulele since he was 8.
"My father gave me a plastic ukulele and said 'here, learn how to play this and I will buy you a Martin ukulele.' A Martin ukulele is probably one of the most sought after ukuleles out there," said Chaffee, 72. "I got that ukulele when I was 10 or so."
Chaffee still has that Martin ukulele, and he's been playing on it in the band for the last four years.
He also plays banjo and guitar.
As the band has grown, more instruments have been added, including mandolin, piano, drums and harmonicas.
But there are no plans to shorten the band's name, which is still and will likely always be the Happy Strings Ukelele Band.
"The name has stuck over the years, and we've kept it that way," Chaffee said.
Another band tradition is opening every show with "When the Saints go Marching In," and closing with its theme song "I'm Having the Time of my Life."
"No one seems to know where the lyrics for Time of my Life came from," Chaffee said. "But I would bet the song was created by Jim Vaughn.
"I never met him. He passed away before I joined the band, but from what all the members who have been in the band for some time say, Jim was an entertainer."
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
The Happy Strings Ukelele Band is always open to new members, regardless of denomination. For more information, contact Bill Chaffee at email@example.com or by calling 936-271-4505. For a performance schedule, visit http://happystrings.blogspot.com/
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