Berkshire singer/songwriter Bernice Lewis explains appeal of ukeleles

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WILLIAMSTOWN -- Bernice Lewis has been performing in local clubs since she moved to the Berkshires, about 28 years ago. A Boston native, she has had a varied career that now includes heading up the Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra and helping organize the annual Sheep Hill Ukulele Festival, as well as performing solo.

In a recent interview, Lewis talked about her career and her roots and gave a very cogent reason for her love of ukuleles.

Q: Okay, so what's the deal with ukuleles?

A: Most instruments were invented for male bodies. I'm not a large person. I'm only 5-2. When I pick up a bass guitar, or an electric guitar or even an acoustic guitar, it's heavy! It puts a lot of pressure on your left side. When I pick up a ukulele, it fits my body perfectly. It doesn't make a big sound, but it's easier for me to play.

Q: Fair enough. Let's roll back to the early days. When did you first pick up a guitar?

A: I had a guitar when I was 12 years old. Unfortunately, it was stolen. I didn't get another one until I was in my 20s. But I was always singing, and I always enjoyed music. When I was in eighth grade, I tried out for a supporting singer in Carmen. And I was given the lead.

Q: What accounted for the gap?

A: My parents wanted me to do something practical. They weren't into music. My mother always used to say, ‘Bernice, nice Jewish girls don't sing.' But then I thought, ‘So what about Barbra Streisand?'

Q: But eventually you did get another guitar.

A: Yes. I was in my 20s, teaching, and I got an acoustic guitar. I'd finish grading papers and begin playing. I knew almost immediately I wanted to perform.

Q: You arrived in the Berkshires with your husband in 1985. Where did you first start performing locally?

A: There was a little bar beneath the Lenox Inn -- that was great. It was a lovely spot. They had one of those old-fashioned popcorn-makers, and every time someone turned it on, I would play "Mr. Sandman," because then I would have a percussion machine.

Q: That's a good story.

A: I'd also like to say that I really enjoyed playing at La Cocina. That was another early stop. I would play once a week downstairs. The owners really supported local live music.

Q: We're all over the map here, today. But I wanted to ask, before I forgot, what your musical influences were growing up.

A:Well, when I was growing up, radio was just so great. I guess it's kind of the standard answer. I would listen to the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones and on the same program, I would hear Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. The programming just wasn't as structured as it is now.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I do solo shows and tour with the Ladies Auxiliary. But my big project these days is that I'm working on a CD of solo material. I've launched a Kickstarter campaign to help with the funding. [For more information on Bernice's upcoming CD and to help her fund it, go to www.bernicelewis.com].

Q: We talked a little about your experience as a ukulele player. And I know you play guitar. Do you play any other instruments?

A: Ukulele and guitar are pretty much it when I'm performing. When nobody's watching, I play piano, and I have a little drum kit. But I'm not sure I'll ever play those instruments live. But maybe.

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile


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