#1 - Don Ho - The Don Ho Christmas Album

By 1967 Ho had already conquered the mainland U.S. with his two live albums, sold out runs at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles and the Royal Box in New York City, and his signature tune, “Tiny Bubbles.” But if he hadn’t, he would have with The Don Ho Christmas Album. 

Make no mistake: While Ho was a musician from Hawai`i, we cannot say exactly that he performed Hawaiian music. Nor would he have said it. With help from a swinging group of young men whose acquaintance he made while in the Air Force (the quintet known as The Aliis) and a songwriter with Hawaiian roots but pop sensibilities (Kui Lee), Ho and crew set out to turn traditional Hawaiian music on its ear and pave a new path forward. On stage, Ho was all Chivas Regal-fueled swagger and Conqueror of Co-eds, and the sing-alongs that pervaded his twice and thrice nightly (or morning-ly) set lists might have given on-lookers the impression that Ho was all flash and no substance – the master master of ceremonies and a showman’s showman but not much of a singer if he had to have the audience do most of the work for him. 

The Don Ho Christmas Album proves all such theories patently untrue. While Ho was the showman’s showman, he was also the singer’s singer – a talent he rarely had the opportunity to demonstrate given his competing priorities. On the Waikiki strip where Ho held court for decades, crowd-pleasing was more important than raw vocal talent, and Ho could not show off his chops doing “E Lei Ka Lei Lei.” But when he sang a serious Kui Lee song – “If I Had It To Do All Over Again” and “I’ll Remember You” leap to mind – his performance was deeply moving. The reason that Ho could cast a spell over his audiences is because he was first and foremost a storyteller – perhaps the single most important quality of the best singers. When Ho sang good material, he was as good as Sinatra or Mathis or as soulful as Lou Rawls. So when he opens his holiday album with Kui Lee’s “The Song of Christmas,” despite that it was 84 degrees and sunny in Hollywood when he recorded the album, wherever you are you are seated by a roaring fire as snowflakes begin to fall, and it is Christmas. 

In case you have forgotten (or never knew), Ho could have recorded for local favorite Hula Records which would have given him very limited distribution. But with his talent, a little luck, and a whole lot of patience, he held out for the bigger, better deal and was eventually hand-picked by Sinatra himself for his newly launched Reprise Records (which would not long after its inauguration be swallowed up by the Warner Bros. conglomerate). Perhaps Sinatra saw more than a little of himself in Ho – the way that the co-eds flocked to him in much the same way the bobby-soxers had swooned over the crooner two decades earlier. Or perhaps Sinatra saw in Ho some previously unimaginable combination of himself, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. – professional singer, professional drinker, and professional do-whatever-you-have-to-do-to-grab-your-audience-by-the-shirt-collar-and-never-let-them-go. A one-man Rat Pack. But in reviewing The Don Ho Christmas Album, AllMusic contributor Lindsay Planer hits on the thing that even I (as Ho’s self-proclaimed biggest fan – more about that another time) overlooked for more than 40 years when he writes, “The likeness in style and delivery between Ho and Crosby has never been as vividly pronounced as it is here.” 

And this is why The Don Ho Christmas Album ranks #1 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i. Not only was Ho as good a singer as Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Nat Cole, Johnny Mathis, Vic Damone, Jack Jones, or any of the other jazz-flavored pop singers of the era, he assembled a list of classic songs each of which must be heard at least once during each holiday season (and eschewed – as cute as they may be – the local-flavored offerings like “Here Comes Santa In A Red Canoe” and “Numbah One Day of Christmas”). And the one local favorite he did record, Alex Anderson’s classic “Mele Kalikimaka,” he recorded in a manner that it had not been recorded before or since – giving it an air and gravity that puts it on par with such beloved holiday treasures as Percy Faith’s “Christmas Is…” and Mel Torme and Bob Wells’ “The Christmas Song” (both covered on the album as well). So “Mele Kalikimaka” does not stand out (as it might on a Jimmy Buffett album) as a feeble attempt to turn a pop album into a Hawaiian album. Just the opposite: Ho took a Hawaiian song and made it a universally acceptable pop song. 

And this, essentially, is the theme for the entire album. This is not Ho’s “Hawaiian Christmas Album.” This is Ho announcing to the world… We are Hawaiian, but we are serious musicians. Deal with it. This was serious music from an oft playful presence who just also happened to have serious vocal ability. 

And this seriousness could not have been put forth any finer than by Sinatra’s personal first choice for arranging strings since 1957, Gordon Jenkins, who arranged for strings or full orchestra two of Sinatra’s moodiest offerings, Where Are You? and No One Cares, and who not coincidentally arranged Sinatra’s finest Christmas album, A Jolly Christmas from Frank. In other words, The Don Ho Christmas Album might have been titled A Jolly Christmas from Don for it was a fitting follow-up to Frank’s previous effort and stands up – to this day – to any of the classic holiday albums from any of the above named male vocalists of the era. 

For the quality of its arranging, the collective musicianship, the selection of classic holiday material, Ho’s vocal performance, and the reality that Ho did not create an album aimed solely at his local Hawai`i fan base but at the mainland U.S. (and, dare I say, the world), The Don Ho Christmas Album ranks at this elite position on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i. You can hear the entire lush album on such streaming services as Spotify or Rhapsody or download it to your iPhone or iPod from iTunes or Amazon.com. 

The few selections from the album offered here are my favorites and (I think) a fitting way to wish my reader/listeners the best and brightest of holidays and my sincerest mahalo for making 2014 the most successful year in Ho`olohe Hou’s seven year history. Here’s looking forward to whatever adventures in Hawaiian music and entertainment await us in the year ahead. Thank you for making the effort worthwhile. 

From my house to yours, Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau`oli Makahiki Hou… 

~ Bill Wynne 


Direct download: 1_Christmas_-_Don_Ho_-_The_Don_Ho_Christmas_Album.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 6:57am EDT