Two Sides of Billy Gonsalves

William Gonsalves was born September 21, 1930 in Honolulu. Billy started playing music professionally around the age of 15 with a group called The Manoans which consisted of his brother Peter on bass, their cousin Raymond on guitar, Billy on the second guitar, and their friend Henry Allen on the steel guitar. (Henry Allen is still going strong today.) They played at the Irish Cab and the Thomas Square jam sessions just for tips. But Billy’s big break didn’t come until eight years later in 1953… 

Lawaina Mokulehua was playing piano at Fuji’s Grill with a group led by composer, falsetto singer, and hula master John Pi`ilani Watkins. When John was drafted, he asked Lawaina to take over the group and keep it going until his return. But some of the group’s members rejected her as leader. So Lawaina had to go out and recruit some new musicians. And one of those was Billy Gonsalves. Lawaina’s father dubbed her new group the Paradise Serenaders, and the name stuck. This group performed all over Honolulu for many years including the original gig at Fuji’s Grill, the Jetty Club, Kapahulu Tavern, Yoko’s (also in Kapahulu), the Hawaiiana, Sierra Madre, The Surrey, and eventually the Hilton Hawaiian Village both in its Garden Bar and at its evening lu`au. Throughout this period, the membership of the Paradise Serenaders changed frequently – some members going off to join other bands, others marrying and having children and giving up “show business.” But the two constants in this ever evolving group were Lawaina and Billy. 

Believe it or not, although the group was formed in 1953, the Paradise Serenaders didn’t make it into a recording studio until 1966, and despite the group’s longevity, they only turned out two LPs. But those LPs were worth the wait, and both remain treasures among Hawaiian music fans. Curiously, on these two LPs the group is listed as Billy Gonsalves and the Paradise Serenaders. One has to wonder how this happened since it would appear by all accounts that Lawaina not only founded the group, but remained their leader and primary arranger. Regardless, Billy’s voice – both his beautiful full baritone and his gorgeous falsetto – is out front on most of these cuts, and so top billing is not entirely inappropriate. The first recorded incarnation of this group was comprised of Lawaina on piano, Billy on guitar, Lena Motta on `ukulele, Sam Aiko (Genoa Keawe’s son) on bass, and Willy Aki on drums. Let’s check out a few selections from their debut release from 1966 – simply entitled Billy Gonsalves and His Paradise Serenaders – and examine how their new sound differed in many ways from the styles of Hawaiian music that preceded them. 

From the first four bars of the first tune here, anybody familiar with Hawaiian music knows they are about to hear something different. A solo ipu (a hollowed out gourd used as a percussion instrument, originally the only accompaniment to the ancient Hawaiian chant) in a traditional rhythm is soon joined by the distinctive “pop” of a bass drum and the double-time shuffle of a snare drum of a modern drum kit in a non-traditional rhythm. The drum kit signals that this is the rockin’ 60s. Then we hear the full quintet – drums, bass, guitar, piano and vibes, the same combination employed by the jazzy George Shearing Quintet, an aggregation Shearing formed in 1949, just a few short years before Lawaina formed the Paradise Serenaders. It was considered a new sound in jazz – the piano and vibes somewhat redundant as they usually fufill the same harmonic role in a jazz combo. But George used these to unusual effect – the piano and vibes often doubling each other in unison, not unlike the way Lawaina has employed them here. And then finally, after a solo chorus by Lena Motta, we hear the signature sound of the Paradise Serenaders – the tight vocal harmonies. A style made popular by their contemporaries such as the Richard Kauhi Quartet, the Kalima Brothers, and Buddy Fo and The Invitations, Lawaina’s vocal arrangements do not employ much closer harmonies than the usual thirds employed by more traditional Hawaiian vocal groups of the previous era. But Lawaina accomplished this most simply: She arranged the harmonies in pairs (sometimes the ladies, sometimes the gentlemen, and sometimes a mixed pairing) and then put the pairs together. This made learning the parts much simpler because each singer only had to relate to one other note in the chord rather than the whole chord. Lawaina combines this approach with simple unison singing by everyone and occasional vocal duets – two guys, two girls, or a guy and a girl. These were the same techniques used by popular mainland groups such as The Mamas & The Papas (that had just gone into the studio for the first time a year earlier in 1965) and The Free Design (which cut the quintessential “Kites Are Fun” in 1967). The pop and Latin rhythms, the use of the full drum kit, the piano/vibes combination, and the unique approach to vocal harmonies made the Paradise Serenaders either just in time for the world at large or well ahead of their time for Hawaiian music. The song, by the way, is “Nanakuli” – not to be confused with a John Pi`ilani Watkins composition by the same title (and one could be confused given Lawaina’s association with Watkins), but, rather, a song by an unknown composer given to the group by musician and hula master Pauline Kekahuna. 

The set continues with Billy’s beautiful baritone drifting into his atmospheric falsetto on the Charles E. King chestnut “Ku`u Lei Aloha.” To ensure that the group was singing the Hawaiian lyric correctly, Lawaina sought out the assistance of musician, composer, and song archivist Vicki I`i Rodrigues. In the first half of the chorus, you hear an example of the aforementioned technique in which Lawaina arranged a duet for two of the singers – in this case, Billy and Lena – and in the second half of the chorus, you hear an example of two vocal duets intertwined to create the close quartet harmonies. Again, while traditional Hawaiian vocal harmonies are typically based on intervals of thirds (often referred to in music theory as “tertian” chords), jazz vocal harmonies usually add notes to chords in intervals closer – or tighter – than thirds (often referred to as “non-tertian” chords). A very complex and “jazzy” sound can be accomplished by taking a much simpler tertian chord and adding another non-chord tone. You hear this to grand effect here – even if you do not possess a musician’s trained ears – in the closing chord in which one of the voices takes the second note (the note between the root and the third, sometimes notated “add2”). 

The arrangement for “Naka Pueo” – suggested by producer Herb Ono and which is clearly a nod to The Invitations – opens with the vocal group singing in unison but the piano playing what is becoming a ubiquitous “add2” chord. Billy’s lead vocal – with its ornamentations – is simply gorgeous, as are the four-part harmonies on the repeats of each verse. The closing chord in which the voices join here is another non-tertian chord – this time adding a sixth note (which might have once been notated “add6” but because it is based on a major triad is now more commonly referred to as a “Maj6”). While this might be a common chord for a guitar player to play, it is an uncommon chord for a vocal group to make. But then, such a non-tertian chord requires four notes, and, of course, most Hawaiian vocal groups utilized only three voices until Kauhi, Kalima, and Fo came along. And then there was the Paradise Serenaders. 

Next time: But they cut two LPs, didn’t they?...

Direct download: 01_Billy_Gonsalves_2014.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 8:37am EDT