The Keech Brothers: Barons of the Banjolele

Alvin
Kelvin

The Keech Brothers were Alvin (1890-1948) and Kelvin (1895-1977). Born in Honolulu before Hawaii was even a U.S. territory (though the colonial takeover had begun), the boys were adept ukulele players from a young age. In young adulthood they moved to San Francisco, where they sold and repaired ukes, gave ukulele lessons, and published “how to” books. They played society parties and social gatherings in Hawaiian bands and early jazz ensembles. Circa 1916, Alvin became one of the inventors of the instrument known as the banjolele, banulele, or banjo uke. As the name suggests, the instrument is a smaller version of a banjo, making use of a ukulele fretboard.

When the U.S. joined World War One, Kelvin enlisted in served in the army as a radio engineer in France. After the war he remained in Europe, touring with a band called The White Lyres. Meanwhile, Alvin had continued promoting his banjo ukes. The two reconnoitered in London in the ’20s, and hustled the banjolele in the U.K. the continent. No doubt this how George Formby Jr caught the bug. In 1926, the pair starred in a DeForest Phonofilm. Around the same time, Alvin became an announcer on the BBC. In 1928, he moved back to the U.S. and began announcing for NBC. He worked on such shows as Popeye the Sailor, Terry and the Pirates, and The Eveready Hour. He narrated a couple of films in 1933, including a bio-pic short about Stephen Foster. The pair cashed out their banjolele business in 1939.

On a related topic, I’ll be talking ukulele history tomorrow (June 29, 2020) on “Play it Daily, Ukulele”, which may be viewed here.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,