Alvin Isaacs – Chasing A Sound

In my last post on Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, I mentioned that Alvin organized his first group – the K.M.M. Syncopators – in 1929 followed by a string of other groups – including the original Royal Hawaiians (which often featured the great Ray Kinney), the Waikiki Breakers, and The Islanders which enjoyed a long run at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  These were all small combos which mirrored the mainland jazz combos of the era as well as such famous guitar-only aggregations as the Hot Club Quintet of France (led by the indomitable Django Reinhardt). In 1935, “Papa” 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. (Check out the previous post about Papa Alvin which opens with a selection which demonstrates how he might have sounded fronting such a big band as Owens’.) 

But one could argue that Alvin was looking for a “new sound” in Hawaiian music – a desire which drove him away from the dance hall sounds of the Owens orchestra (a sound which was neither entirely Hawaiian nor entirely portable given the band’s size) and toward the earlier small combos he enjoyed. A jazzer at heart, Alvin was a fan of the swing era rhythms but, perhaps, with more traditional Hawaiian instrumentation – not the trumpets and saxophones that the large dance bands employed (which mirrored the big bands of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, or Benny Goodman –a musical fad that would quickly fade on the mainland through the 1940s). He chased a sound more like that of his earlier Waikiki Breakers which consisted of guitarist Steppy DeRego. bassist Jimmy Kaopuiki (later of numerous groups including the Hawaiian Village Serenaders and the famed Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus), and virtuoso steel guitarist Tommy Castro. Alvin reorganized The Islanders in 1940, and they played at the Young Hotel Roof Garden until the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the same time as his run at the Young Hotel, Alvin led another band - Alvin Kaleolani and The Royal Polynesians - who were the house band for the nationwide NBC program “The Voice Of Hawai`i.” But these were ultimately not the sounds Papa sought. After the attack of December 7th, Alvin joined the U.S. Engineers and served as lieutenant of the guard at Punahou and took his troup of entertainers on the U.S.O. circuit. 

In 1947, Isaacs assembled the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders - an aggregation featuring Honolulu’s finest musicians of that era. Benny Kalama had a beautiful voice, a way with an `ukulele and an upright bass, and a knack for arranging. George Kainapau was Hawai`i’s premier falsetto singer – already a veteran of several bands including the one led by Ray Kinney. And Tommy Castro – a well-regarded and oft-copied steel guitarist – was Alvin’s friend dating back to their Waikiki Breakers partnership. Along with Isaacs’ compositions, the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders were the sound Alvin had been searching for – an unbeatable combination who made musical history at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel from 1947 until 1951. They made numerous recordings for the then fledgling Bell Records label (under their own name and as accompanists for other singers) and they embarked on four mainland tours which broke attendance records at the leading west coast hotels. (It was this mainland exposure which helped introduce Alvin to Bing Crosby – who featured Alvin on his radio programs – and which led to work on Hollywood soundstages with his old partner Harry Owens.) The swing era rhythms, the three strong lead vocalists, the impeccable vocal harmonies, the unique arrangements, the driving rhythm playing of Alvin’s guitar, George’s `ukulele, and Benny’s bass, plus Castro’s jazzy steel work were – as you will soon hear – were a new sound in that moment, but a sound which was to become the template for modern Hawaiian music through the 1950s. Here are just a few examples of the magic they made on record. 

To open the set, Benny Kalama’s fronts the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders on the Lei Collins composition “Ke Aloha.” This is the staple song of every Hawaiian repertoire. Every singer sings it, and every hula dancer can dance it. So it is one of the most oft performed songs in the Hawaiian repertoire. This beautiful version of the song is dedicated to my friend, Nick Masagatani, a fellow musician whose grandmother composed this Hawaiian classic. 

Mel Peterson – a singer and composer with such songs to his credit as “E Naughty Naughty Mai Nei,” “Rainbows Over Paradise,” and “Ring Around The Moon” – joins the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders for another of his own compositions, “You’re At A Luau Now.” This is one of the many examples of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders backing other singers – serving as a sort of “house band” for recordings made on the then new Bell Records label which was owned and operated by another fine musician, Alice Fredlund of the Halekulani Girls. Listen to Castro’s steel work – punctuating Peterson’s vocals primarily with huge chords, becoming another member of the rhythm section, and saving his single-string work for his solo. 

A sultry classic from the Charles E. King songbook, “Mi Nei” – as arranged in the composer’s own King’s Book of Hawaiian Melodies (1948 edition) – is intended to be sung as a duet. But a duet for whom? Typically King’s own arrangements are marked clearly as to which part is to be sung by the gentleman and which part by the lady. Not so with “Mi Nei.” Rather, there is a note directly under the song’s title which reads, “Have the hula dancer sing the song.” And why not, as the song is, after all, written from a woman’s perspective – beckoning a particular suitor to look her over, take her all in, fully confident that a long enough look will do the trick and reel in her man. Still, King is very clear that the wahine is only intended to sing certain lines as indicated as a star in his text with the notation, “The hula dancer sings here.” He only marks such quintessential lines as “ke honi nei ihu” (“kiss me”) and “lili iā mī nei” (“caught by me”). Then who is to sing the remainder of the counterpoint that is not clearly indicated? On this recording, the vocal trio of Alvin, Benny, and Tommy combine to cover the “call” while the “response” – the high obbligatos – belong to falsetto George Kainapau. 

Alvin’s composition “Manowaiopuna” (sometimes referred to as “Kō`ula”) speaks of the Hanapēpē area of the island of Kaua`i. Kō`ula is the old name for both a valley and the stream that runs through it. The stream leads to the falls known as Manowaiopuna (“stream branch of Puna”), a beautiful but largely inaccessible 200-foot waterfall at the lower end of Kō`ula. Benny Kalama takes the lead vocal chores here with beautiful backing harmonies by George (the upper voice) and Alvin (the lower voice). 

Alvin composed “He Nani Helena” for a woman – as the title implies – named Helene. It is no coincidence that Helene was the wife of Alvin’s good friend, Harry Owens. Falsetto legend George Kainapau takes the vocal lead on this number once again. This Isaacs composition remains one of his most beloved – often performed and recorded to this day. 

And, finally, Papa Alvin takes the lead vocal on his own composition “Aloha Ku`u Pua” This typical Hawaiian love song refers to a special someone as a flower (or “pua”) and uses its fragrance as a metaphor for how close two can really become. Dig the medium tempo swing feel that the Serenaders achieve on this number. This is the approach the group took to many of its arrangements, and it mirrors the feel being attained by the small jazz combos on the mainland – or what Sinatra would later come to call “the tempo of the heartbeat.” 

What you hear in this set is the sum total of Royal Hawaiian Serenaders sides that have been remastered and re-released on CD or MP3. We should be thankful to Michael Cord and his Cord International/Hana Ola Records enterprise – which owns the entire (albeit limited) Bell Records catalog – for helping these precious recordings see the light of day again in the digital era. But what about the numerous other important recordings by this group? 

Next time: The out of print treasures of Papa Alvin and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders…

Direct download: 03_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 11:53pm EDT