Sun, 3 August 2014
Kui returned to Hawai`i in 1961 bringing him with great success and an even greater prize – a wife. He met singer and hula dancer Rose Frances Leinani Naone – a Hawaiian girl born in New Jersey – when she auditioned to perform in the famed Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel in New York City where Kui spent the last year and a half of his mainland career as a choreographer and knife dancer. The couple was earning $1,700 a week when Kui decided to pack it in and go home. This dynamic duo would eventually find engagements across both O`ahu and Maui – eventually headlining the Queen’s Surf, selling it our night after night. But the couple started out much more modestly on their return – at a small mom-and-pop joint in the neighborhood they made their home, Kane`ohe. The place was called Honey’s. Should it matter that the club was owned by a family named Ho and that the house band was led by their then unknown son, Don? It turns out it matters a great deal. In fact, it is the very definition of “serendipity.”
It would be an understatement to say that in the early running Kui made a nuisance of himself at Honey’s. According to Jerry Hopkins’ “Don Ho: My Music, My Life,” Kui would show up at the club at 10 o’clock in the morning when Don – being the owner’s son and not yet a “star” – was doing whatever family needed to do to make a bar and restaurant run. Kui would urge Don to hear a new song he had written, and Don would tell Kui that the songs – because of their complex melodies and harmonic structures – weren’t “Hawaiian” enough for Honey’s local audiences. And the criticism was mutual. Kui – no stranger to large mainland showrooms – would offer Don unsolicited advice on everything from lighting and staging to his singing, remarking, “When you sing, you look like you’re constipated.” It is difficult to conceive that a relationship born in perpetual appraisal and fault-finding would culminate in a lasting friendship and artistic collaboration that endured until Kui’s early demise. But both became huge stars through this no doubt symbiotic relationship. With this bickering, each propelled the other on to greater heights – each becoming a legend in his own right, but the whole always remaining greater than the sum of its parts. Don needed Kui’s songs to become legend. And Kui – despite being the consummate showman – needed Don’s charisma and universal appeal to bring his songs to a worldwide audience.
Despite Don joking to Nani that he would hire her for the band but “definitely not your husband,” both became regulars in the Honey’s Kane`ohe group – a group that was the launching pad for countless other future stars of Hawai`i entertainment including songbird Marlene Sai, slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth, `ukulele virtuoso Tony Bee, bassist and romantic baritone Gary Aiko, singer and entertainer Zulu (who went on to his own stage show in Waikiki as well as starring in several seasons of the original “Hawaii Five-0” TV series), and singer Alvin Okami (who put his singing aspirations aside for 40 years to build first a successful plastics firm and then – today – KoAloha `Ukulele). (And, yes, Don really played the Hammond chord organ. It was not merely a prop.) There is little tape remaining from that era. But there is a particularly controversial one that lingers in the vaults of ardent Hawaiian music collectors.
In 1962 – long before Don would become famous – Hula Records’ owner Donald “Flip” McDiarmid II heard about the magic that was happening in Kane`ohe every night at Honey’s. So he went over there one evening with a portable tape recorder and captured part of the magic of an evening at Honey’s exactly as it happened. The material recorded that evening was eventually released on the Hula Records label under the title “Waikiki Swings!” despite that the recording was of subpar sound quality. It sounded like what it was – a “bootleg.” I spoke to Flip in his home shortly before his passing in 2010, and this tape was one of the topics I broached. According to Flip, he had taken the recorder in to capture some of the magic so that he could review it to see if he had an album in the making in order to offer a deal to the participants in the band at Honey’s. If the deal had come to fruition, Flip would have returned with a professional remote recording crew and made an “album.” No such deal ever came to fruition. Don held out for a national deal – which came after his show moved to Duke Kahanamoku’s at the International Marketplace in Waikiki just a year or two later. However, according to others familiar with the situation, there was no such deal in the making; the recording was a bootleg – and pure and simple – and when Don released his first two live albums nationwide for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records label in 1965, Hula Records released the bootleg from Honey’s in 1966 to capitalize on Don’s burgeoning success. Making the accusation even worse, some involved with the performance captured that evening claim that they were never paid when “Waikiki Swings!” was released. I am not an investigative journalist. So I chalk up these conflicting tales to there always being “two sides to every story.” And if time has the capacity to heal many (surely not all) wounds, it may merely be because memory invariably fades and, with it, the scars.
Regardless of McDiarmid’s motivations, nobody can deny that he captured an important moment in Hawaiian music history – a pre-fame Don Ho and possibly the only extant live recordings of Kui and Nani Lee. The selections offered here are those portions of the evening which featured Kui or Nani. (I could have posted the entire album since nearly every song sung that evening – including those performed by Don and Alvin – were Kui’s compositions.) But here I wanted you to have a taste of Kui and Nani the entertainers. Occasionally, Don would allow Kui to emcee the evenings at Honey’s, but he did so with great trepidation. Despite being first and foremost a musician, Kui was sharply funny – often turning his rapier wit on the audience, earning him the nickname “Hawai`i’s Lenny Bruce.” (In the Jerry Hopkins book on Ho’s life, comedian Eddie Sherman recounted that one evening at Honey’s in Kane`ohe, Kui spotted a haole couple at the front of the audience and quipped over the microphone that in Kane`ohe “the haoles sit at the back of the room.”) You will hear some of Kui’s political incorrectness on the first tune in this set – his own rewrite of the folk tune “Cotton Fields” which he recast for local audiences as “Taro Patch” – as well as near the end of the set, a duet with his wife, Nani, on Bina Mossman’s “He `Ono” during which Kui takes time out to provide some revisionist history of the "discovery" of Hawai`i and explain some of the ethnic make-up of Hawai`i (perhaps for the haoles at the back of the room).
But there are tender moments here too. Many of Kui’s fans believe that many of his compositions take on their poignancy because he composed them after he was already diagnosed with cancer. He knew that his life was to be cut short, and this resulted in such lyrics as “If I Had It To Do All Over Again,” made popular by Don. But more poignant than this is hearing him sing his own “When It’s Time To Go.”
When it’s time to go
Will I be a bore
And react, my friend
Like a fool once more
I listen to this song and can't help but highly suspect that this is one of those songs that Don would not have liked when Kui brought it to him - with its meandering jazz chord structure and an unexpected shift from major to minor and back again. Don told Kui, "Just play five simple chords and you'll be surprised how beautiful the song can be." And yet I cannot imagine a more beautiful song in any genre from any land.
And Nani sings her husband’s “Where Is My Love Tonight?’ like the seasoned pro she was – a vocal performance that would have stood comparison to such jazz chanteuses of the era as Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, and Morgana King.
I hope you enjoy these sounds of a forgotten era – a simpler time when fun was cleaner and the consequences less dire – as well as this rare glimpse of the equally magnetic personalities that were Mr. and Mrs. Kui Lee.
~ Bill Wynne