After a couple of decades of playing music in, what some might call, night spots, Tracy Lee Simmen was looking for something more schedule-friendly. So she began contacting places like senior centers and retirement communities.
“When I started calling and saying, ‘I play the guitar and I sing,’ they’re like, ‘Well, there are thousands of you,’” she recalled. “So I mentioned to somebody, ‘Well, I play the ukulele.’ And she said, ‘That’s your foot in the door. Lead with that.’
“So that’s how I became Pittsburgh’s Ukulele Lady.”
The Irwin resident takes her four-string instruments, tenor and baritone varieties, around the region, entertaining audiences with a repertoire that features plenty of songs made famous by Hawaiian musicians.
Or they at least make reference to America’s 50th state, such as Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger’s “Blue Hawaii.”
“She really has a great voice,” an audience member was heard to comment during Simmen’s recent performance of the Elvis Presley-popularized tune during a recent Family Night at the Grand Residence at Upper St. Clair’s Family Night, where she has become a regular.
A native of Pittsburgh’s Westwood neighborhood, Simmen comes from a musical family that includes her brother, Kurt, who also is a talented singer and guitarist.
“My father played the baritone ukulele,” Tracy said about the late Fred Simmen, “so the first instrument that I ever fiddled around with was his ukulele.”
He bought her a ukulele when she was in high school, and she began playing and writing songs.
“When I was in my early 20s, I sat on both my father’s uke and my uke. But it was OK, because I was playing the guitar then, and I thought the guitar was cooler.”
She continues to play the six-string when the occasion calls for it.
“I still can rock out some (Janis) Joplin, some Linda Ronstadt, some Grateful Dead. And I like to belt out some Gracie Slick,” she said about the retired Jefferson Airplane singer and ’60s-era cultural icon.
She also keeps up with 21st-century performers.
“You’ll hear me do some (Lady) Gaga or Meghan Trainor, whatever the spirit moves me to play,” she said.
On ukulele, she likes to perform a version of the much-heard medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” as recorded by the late Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole. Other tunes in the several books’ worth of music she takes to gigs draw from the Great American Songbook, including compositions by George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Henry Mancini.
Perhaps she’ll sing George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” or Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” or the signature song of the late Hawaiian great Don Ho, “Tiny Bubbles.” Another favorite is C. Carson Parks’ “Somethin’ Stupid,” which she introduces as the only father-daughter song, as recorded by Frank and Nancy Sinatra, to hit No. 1 on the American charts.
Her closing number, appropriately enough, usually is “Aloha ’Oe,” composed by Queen Lili’uokalani, the final monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii before it was overthrown by business interests in 1893.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the Ukulele Lady is be proud to play the islands’ favorite instrument.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/Tracy-Lee-Simmen-the-Ukulele-Lady-1440428229589973.