Sat, 2 August 2014
It is ironic (in a way) to disrupt our discussion of Kui Lee with a discussion of another Hawai`i composer, Andy Cummings. Both have written unforgettable songs which continue to be sung by Hawaiians wherever they may be, but their approach to songwriting couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. Kui rejected almost everything Andy (and others like him) stood for. There were few palm trees or pikake blossoms ever mentioned in a Kui Lee composition. But it was just this imagery that made Andy Cummings’ compositions epitomical examples of the music of the hapa-haole era – the music that beckoned mainlanders to visit the distant island paradise and know its people. Kui’s music was universal; Andy’s music was distinctly Hawaiian.
A gifted athlete (first baseball – ascending from team mascot to its star pitcher – and later football and basketball) and a member of his church's choir and orchestra (switching off between violin and trumpet), Cummings professional music career began in 1929 playing dances and parties for a whopping $3 / night. When his family moved to Hilo in 1933, Andy formed the Huapala troupe. By 1936 he signed with KHBC radio and – billed as the 'Wandering Troubador' – launched a 15-minute radio program every Sunday. Impresario E.K. Fernandez (you know, of the carnivals!) discovered Andy’s group and booked them on a nine-month North American tour – an excursion which took the troupe to Toronto, Kalamazoo, Detroit and Lansing.
Anecdotally, it was during winter time in Lansing, Michigan when Andy wrote the song which many cite as the greatest hapa-haole song of all time, “Waikiki.” While many would say the song is typically Hawaiian, I would contend that Andy actually took Hawaiian music subtly in a new direction with this (and his other) compositions. In terms of poetry, the lyric – with its clever dual rhyme scheme – is as good as anything Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, or Johnny Mercer ever wrote:
There’s a feeling deep in my heart
Stabbing at me just like a dart
It’s a feeling heavenly
I see memories out of the past
Memories that always will last
Of a place beside the sea
But more than this, Andy employed a harmonic structure that would have challenged many Hawaiian musicians of this period. It is clear from the chords to “Waikiki” – and “Only Ashes Remain,” “Pikake,” and “Kanani Mine” – as well as from his penchance for writing a swing tune that Cummings was also a frustrated jazzer. To this day fine musicians still play the chords to the bridge of “Waikiki” dead wrong. With this song, Cummings set a new standard in writing a Hawaiian song with a complexity of composition that had not been achieved since David Nape before him.
After the war, Andy formed a variety of groups which played at the night spots of the era – Chock See's By the Sea, the Outrigger Canoe Club, Kilohana Gardens, Felix Florentine Gardens and Queen's Surf. He also began laying down sides for the short-lived Bell Records label – most (if not all) of which have been remastered for CD by Michael Cord for his Hana Ola Records. But it should not be mistaken that this is Cummings’ entire recorded output. He recorded for several labels throughout his career including mainland label Decca (taking his music around the globe through its worldwide distribution), Terna Records (later licensed to the GNP label and also distributed around the world), Waikiki Records, and a few independent or privately-funded releases.
Today’s selections focus on an Andy Cummings LP that only had one pressing and which has been out of print for nearly 40 years. I feel that it is his master work because by this point in his career Cummings was a seasoned music veteran who knew the sound and style he sought and how to attain it. But perhaps because of the circumstances under which it was recorded, it is possible that nobody knows where the master tapes for this LP reside after so long. The recording – “Songs of Hawaii” – featured both Andy Cummings and Sol K. Bright – two friends who also happened to be doing promotional work for Hawaiian Airlines during this period (the early 1970s). Hawaiian Airlines funded the recording project which perhaps was never even commercially available. (It is possible that Hawaiian Airlines gave away copies to promote tourism.) But it should be considered a classic for fans of both Bright and Cummings as well as a special rarity on which both composers perform some of their compositions that had never been recorded by any other artist before or since.
The set opens with Andy singing one of Sol’s compositions, “Sophisticated Hula.” You’ll hear Sol chime in with a chant on the two bars between each verse. And the incredible steel guitar solo – in my humble opinion, one of the finest ever laid down on record, rivaling only Jules Ah See’s and Jake Keli`ikoa’s jazzy style – is Andy’s longtime musical associate, pedal steel guitarist Peter Dillingham. (The liner notes do not list the personnel, so I am making this assessment of the mystery steel player based on other recordings I have on which Dillingham is accurately identified and after consultation with a number of active steel players in Hawai`i and abroad such as Jeff Au Hoy and Basil Henriques.)
“Mauna Kea Paradise” is an Andy Cummings original and – like “Waikiki” – is another love song for a place. The vibes gives this song its dream-like state, and Peter Dillingham turns out another amazing steel guitar solo. And even at this advanced age, Cummings turns out an absolutely stellar vocal performance to boot. This is the only ever recording of this song by any artist.
Finally, a song co-written by Andy with friend Jake Holck, “Kanani Mine.” This is likely one of the rarest of Cummings’ compositions as this was its one and only appearance on record – a record long out of print. And it is clear that Cummings wrote the bridge – a chord structure he robbed from himself as it is largely the same as the bridge for both “Waikiki” and “Only Ashes Remain.”
There are many such forgotten Cummings compositions. I hope to use this space to give these beautiful recordings back to the world. But some I am not currently at liberty to share. There are the songs Cummings published, of course, but I am in possession of a number of home recordings of Andy singing songs that he never published. I will continue to explore how I can make these recordings available.
I hope you enjoy this forgotten music of one of my heroes, Andy Cummings.
~ Bill Wynne