Chuck Coffey, a member of The Hix Bros Ukulele Band, practices at Musical Expressions in Naperville on Saturday. The group, which consists mostly of older adults, performs at festivals, retirement centers and libraries.
The colorful opening chords of “Hanalei Moon” are enough to transport the listener to the tropical climate and coastal waters of Hawaii.
So it was a welcome treat to hear the entire song played by about 15 to 20 ukuleles and an electric bass on a downcast Saturday morning in Naperville.
A picture of paradise was further painted by the colorful leis hanging on the walls of the small classroom at the Musical Expressions school, where the group of musicians — ranging in age from their 40s to their early 80s — rehearses weekly.
“It’s my happy place,” said Ruth Schneider, 72, of Downers Grove, the group’s bass player, who sang lead on “Hanalei Moon.” “When you’re playing with other people and sharing that energy, it just makes it so much more special.”
Known as The Hix Bros Ukulele Band, the group of musicians mostly over 65 has been performing at retirement centers, libraries, festivals and fundraisers for 15 years. Some are longtime musicians, some beginners. In the band, they say they have a chance to learn new and to find new friendships.
“None of these people knew each other before this whole thing started, and, when our little class is over, you can hear them talking and talking some more,” said band leader and instructor Carl Hix, 70, of Plano, who took over the group after its founder, his brother Peter, moved to San Diego.
Carl Hix, the leader of The Hix Bros Ukulele Band, practices with the group at Musical Expressions in Naperville on Saturday.
“A lot of them have not played an instrument before and had never been in a band, so I think this is a really good opportunity for them. The ukulele is, in some ways, an easier instrument to play because there’s only four strings. They’re easier on your fingers. If you have arthritis, which some of them do, it’s a little easier to try to play than the guitar or the banjo.”
It’s not just soft, dreamy Hawaiian tunes for the musicians, who play ukuleles of various sizes (concert, tenor, soprano) and strings (four, six and eight). The group rehearsed everything from “Take It Easy” by the Eagles and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel and “When I’m Sixty-Four” by the Beatles.
Linda Robinson performs a solo during The Hix Bros Ukulele Band rehearsal Saturday in Naperville.
Hix also gave band members opportunities to shine. Linda Robinson, of Aurora, who didn’t disclose her age, sang a beautiful lead vocal on a rendition of “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. Another player provided accompaniment on wooden spoons while the band played “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys.
Hix also showed off his chops with solos on both ukulele and an eight-string double-neck Hawaiian steel guitar. As he led the group, he sometimes stopped to discuss chords, fingerings or crack jokes.
“They put up with all my antics,” he said. “I play stuff wrong on purpose and they just think it’s funny, so I get a laugh out of them. It’s just a good time.”
Multiple band members cited Hix’s sense of humor as one of their favorite parts of the class.
“He’s just funny,” said Kathy Kussro, 72, of Batavia. “Sometimes you don’t even know he’s being funny because there’s a straight face, and then you burst out laughing.”
The silliness doesn’t take away from Hix’s musicianship; more than one band member used the word “brilliant” to describe him.
“Carl is an excellent teacher and excellent reader,” said John Haspert, 71, of Naperville, who has been playing for 45 years and owns nine ukuleles.
Carl Hix, the leader and instructor of The Hix Bros Ukulele Band, plays an eight-string double-neck Hawaiian steel guitar during the group’s Saturday rehearsal.
An instructor for 50 years, Hix grew up in a musical family. He and his brothers, Andrew and Peter, ran the Hix Bros Music store in Aurora for decades. Hix said Andrew encouraged Peter to start the band when pop songs featuring ukulele — “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz and “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train — were gaining popularity.
Jenny Kleist, one of the youngest band members, said she didn’t start playing the ukulele until she joined the class with friends 10 years ago. “We just wanted to try something new,” said Kleist, of Naperville, who is in her 40s.
“It’s just a lot of fun to sit around and play music with good people, so it keeps me coming back.”