Born September 9, 1904, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs was – and remains – one of the most important figures in the history of Hawaiian music.  “Papa” Isaacs’ contributions to Hawaiian music are incalculable - including the formation of one of the seminal Hawaiian music ensembles (the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders featuring the falsetto voices of Benny Kalama and George Kainapau and the unique steel guitar stylings of Tommy Castro), composing more than 300 songs in both English and Hawaiian (think “Nalani,” “Analani E,” and the comic “No Huhu”), and bringing into the world three more musical Isaacs (steel guitar great Barney Isaacs, slack key legend Atta Isaacs, and singer, bassist, and funnyman Norman Isaacs).

Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs taught himself to play most string and wind instruments by the age of ten.  He formed an orchestra by the age of 13 - doubling on piano and mandolin - and composed the first of his more than 300 songs a year later.  (The first - “Kau`ionalani” - has been recorded countless times - most recently by Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom.)  During this period, this husky lad also excelled in sports.  As a freshman at McKinley High he became the first freshman in Hawai`i’s history to make the All-Star Scholastics football squad, and he did equally well in track, baseball, and swimming.

Alvin married his high school sweetheart, Julita Chung, in 1924.  To support the large family they planned (they eventually raised ten children), Alvin joined the Honolulu Police Department as a motorcycle patrolman.  But after a debilitating motorcycle accident on the HPD job which left him hospitalized for a year, he turned his full attention to music for income - and the Hawaiian music world hasn’t been the same since.

After the tragic accident, Alvin organized a group, the K.M.M. Syncopators, in 1929.  He formed several other groups after, including the original Royal Hawaiians (which often featured the great Ray Kinney) and The Islanders which enjoyed a long run at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  In 1935, he joined a band led by Harry Owens’ (who took over at the Royal), and Alvin was this group’s featured singer and comic hula dancer until 1940.

Despite Isaacs’ importance to Hawaiian music history – both in the quantity and quality of songs he wrote and in his innovations in the sound of Hawaiian music – Papa does not even merit his own entry in the encyclopedic Hawaiian Music and Musicians (originally compiled by George Kanahele in the 1970s and more recently edited and expanded by John Berger). (In fact, Papa is only mentioned as a footnote to his collaborators such as Harry Owens, Randy Oness, and Benny Kalama.) Over the next few days, Ho`olohe Hou aims to right this grievous wrong with a series of articles and sound clips in tribute to Alvin Isaacs. 

The musical “set” this time around consists of a single tune from an old 78 rpm – the origins of which are unknown. “He`eia” – a chant later set to music - is a mele inoa (name song) for King Kalākaua which commemorates his visit to He`eia – not the He`eia on the windward coast of O`ahu, but the other He`eia, a surfing area on the leeward side of Hawai`i, a favorite gathering place of ali`i (royalty). The song praises Kalākaua’s skill on a surfboard (and perhaps even speaks of a secret rendezvous with a sweetheart). You have read here previously that in order to be officially deemed a mele inoa, the song must refer to its subject by name, and you do not hear Kalākaua mentioned here. Rather, he is referred to as “Kaleleonālani” which means “flight of heavenly chiefs.” (And this can be confusing since this is also a name used by Queen Emma Na`ea Rooke. But such is the poetic license of the composer.) The earliest recording I can locate by Papa Isaacs, the record is credited only to “Alvin Kaleolani.” (I do not have the original record. A collector – who shall remain unnamed – created CDs in his own home compiled from long out of print 78 rpms. And while attempts to preserve Hawaiian music should be applauded, these efforts were clearly solely for personal gain – the CDs well overpriced, with little attempt to restore or remaster the original sound quality, and with little annotation about what the listener is hearing.) But we can tell, at the very least, that the recording dates to the late 1920s/early 1930s based on the style of music heard here in which traditional Hawaiian rhythms and lyrics were incorporated into the ballroom dance band sounds of that era – slurping saxophones, a barrage of brass, and even a string section. Listen to the rhythm employed as well. While originally a chant, this tune would ordinarily be taken at a more relaxed pace by today’s Hawaiian music groups. But here the tune is taken at the tempo of the fox trot and, therefore, suitable for dancing. This is typical of so many such arrangements of Hawaiian songs in this period – that they needed to be made more dance-able for the ballrooms of the Moana and Royal Hawaiian Hotel. This single recording marks an important period in the evolution of Hawaiian music, and so it deserves to be heard. While it features the voice of Papa Isaacs, without any annotation of the players it is impossible to know whether or not this is also Alvin’s steel guitar playing you hear for Alvin was one of the leading steel guitarists of that era – taking the steel guitar chores for an extended period with Harry Owens’ Orchestra. (This may even be Owens’ band we hear on this recording. Who knows?) 

Next time: “Papa” takes Hawaiian music in new directions with his Royal Hawaiian Serenaders…

Direct download: Alvin_Isaacs_-_Heeia.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:23am EDT