Billy Hew Len in the 1950s

We’re spending the week looking at Billy Hew Len’s life and music not only in honor of his January 18th birthday, but because he was one of the most recorded and most sought after sidemen in the history of Hawaiian music. But his story is also an inspirational one - a tale of triumph over adversity. As a student of the steel guitar myself, I listen to Billy Hew Len for endless hours, and I aspire to attain his level of not only technical proficiency, but also creativity and inventiveness. But, alas, apparently I have a handicap. I have two hands.

Billy Hew Len only had one.

Like Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt before him who reinvented his playing style after a caravan fire which left two fingers of his fretting hand paralyzed, Hew Len’s accident was also the genesis of his distinctive style. Billy became fascinated with the guitar around the age of 10. When his cousin would leave for work, Billy would sneak into his room and “borrow” his cousin‘s guitar and play all day.  (Some days he didn’t sneak the guitar back and time, and his cousin would scold him.) At the age of 15, Billy quit school and went to work in a garage. And then, one day, a tragic accident… A planing machine took Billy’s entire left hand - clear at the wrist. Thinking that any potential career in guitar was now over, Billy fell into a depression.

Billy’s mother encouraged him not to give up and turned to anyone she thought might be able to help. Enter Edwin T. Morrell, an elder in the Mormon church who also worked with the disabled. He spoke to Billy and asked him what he liked to do, and the dejected lad said, “Ah, nothing.” But his mother interjected, “Billy plays the guitar!” And Mr. Morrell promised that he would find a way to help Billy play the guitar again - even in his new, differently-abled condition.

Mr. Morrell took Billy to a leather shop - you know, the kind that made saddles in those days. He explained Billy’s situation and gave him a drawing of a device he thought would ultimately help Billy. And the leather worker made it: A glove that would fit snugly over Billy’s wrist and to which they could attach the steel bar for which the steel guitar takes its name. Billy saw the glove but was only mildly encouraged. He expressed the practical concerns of a musician far more seasoned than his years should imply: How will I attain the vibrato that is the signature sound of the steel guitar and which begins and ends with the wrist? Will I have to shake my entire arm back and forth? And what about slants? Steel players slant the bar forward to create one kind of chord and slant it backward to create another kind of chord. How am I going to do that without a wrist?

But, somehow, miraculously, and through no small effort, Billy did. And if you have ever seen the much too little video that exists of Billy playing (such as the “Hawaiian Rainbow” documentary discussed in my last post), you can easily see how Billy overcame the very real limitations he predicted. But more than that, you can see how he turned such limitations into the assets that became his unique playing style.

In order to better understand the evolution of Billy’s unique approach to steel guitar, it is probably best to look at his career in chronological order - starting with the late 1940s through 1959. Even if you have heard these recordings before, you may not have known that it was Billy doing the steel guitar work on these sides since it was not customary to list the names of the sidemen on recordings - only the name of the leader. But aficionados of steel guitar know a certain player when we hear them by certain characteristics of their playing. And those aficionados will tell you that there was no other like Billy Hew Len who is instantly recognizable from the downbeat.

The first partial selection - the master is inexplicably incomplete - is the audio track from a movie short - the kind you would have seen before or between the feature films at the old Sunday matinees. You hear Billy playing a song long associated with steel guitarists, “Moana Chimes,” accompanied by a band led by his longtime musical associate, Pua Almeida. This is the earliest work I could locate in my archives by either Almeida or Hew Len. And, ironically, “Moana Chimes” is the song Billy played on his last commercial recording - the Robert Mugge documentary “Hawaiian Rainbow.”

We then hear Billy leading the Moana Serenaders, the group primarily known for its association with Pua Almeida. But on this Decca side - “Hula O Makee,” found both as a 45rpm single and on the compilation LP “Stars of Hawaii” - the leader of the group is George Keoki. This record - although rare - comes up in conversation among Billy Hew Len “completists” often for it is indeed a curiosity. First, nobody with whom you will speak - in Hawai’i or beyond - recalls an entertainer by the name of George Keoki. But as often happened in those days, an artist under contract to one record label was forbidden to record for other record labels lest those releases compete with each other for sales or radio play. So many - not only in Hawai’i, but also in the worlds of pop and jazz - recorded for other labels under pseudonyms. If there is no such real person as “George Keoki,” could it be Pua Almeida incognito? Somebody else? Perhaps we will never know since the other curiosity about this recording is that both the 45rpm and LP versions list the vocalist as Billy Hew Len as well. Billy Hen Len…the singer? Yes, those who knew him claim that he could sing and sing quite well, but we have had rare opportunity to hear him take the vocal lead on record. The 45rpm and LP date to the 1950s and remain out of print more than 50 years later. 

The next selection is not merely one of my favorite things Billy ever did or even one of my favorite pieces of Hawaiian music. I think it is one of the greatest things ever laid down in a recording studio! There is so much going on here that I don’t even know where to begin… First, this is not a regular recording group. It is a once-in-a-lifetime all-star band under the direction of arranger Chick Floyd (whose work you have heard previously on Ho’olohe Hou with both Lani Kai and Lucky Luck). But he is leading the best of the best in the 1950s Hawaiian music scene - including members of the Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus featured on that weekly radio broadcast (the voices and instruments of Sonny Kamahele, his sister, Iwalani Kamahele, Pua Almeida, and Sonny Nicholas), the Tahitian drummers that performed nightly in the Polynesian show at Don the Beachcomber’s (where Chick Floyd was the musical director), members of the Martin Denny group (such as Willard Brady, Augie Colon, Harvey Ragsdale, and Julius Wechter) that was experimenting with combining traditional Hawaiian music with the instruments and rhythms of other world music, and not one… not two… but three steel guitar legends - Barney Isaacs, Danny Stewart, and Billy Hew Len. Now, there is a precedent for steel guitar duos in Hawaiian music which came about by necessity (which we will discuss in a future Ho’olohe Hou post). But a steel guitar trio is rare. More rare still is that all three gentlemen are playing the much maligned pedal steel guitar (which we will talk about in tomorrow’s Ho’olohe Hou post). “Nani Waimea” is from the 1959 classic Liberty LP “Hula La,” and I can safely write that nothing like it was done before or since. This beautiful recording also remains out of print.

And, finally, more from the on-going collaboration of Pua Almeida and Billy Hew Len from one of Pua’s most rare recordings - the 1960 LP “Pua Almeida Sings with Billy Hew Len and the Moana Surfriders.” Throughout this album, the inventive arrangements - no doubt the collaboration of Pua, Billy, and Benny Saks who went on to be known as the foremost arranger of Hawaiian music recordings in the 1960s - are indicative of the melding of traditional Hawaiian sounds and the jazz arrangements of such combos as led by Nat King Cole, Joe Bushkin, or George Shearing. Like Shearing’s group, the combo is a quintet anchored by upright bass, rhythm guitar, percussion, piano and vibes (handled most ably by vibraphonist Saks). In that formation, the group might be considered staunchly jazz. But the addition of Hew Len’s steel - such as on the swinging “E Liliu E” - brings it all back to Hawaiian style. And like the earlier “Hula O Makee” by this same group, you will also hear the introduction of a drummer/percussionist. Here the group outright swings, but often the percussionist dabbled in Latin rhythms as few did before this group (with the notable exceptions of Lena Machado and Jesse Kalima).

Tomorrow: Billy Hew Len swings into the 1960s in grand style at the side of friend Benny Saks…

Direct download: Billy_Hew_Len_-_1950s.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 10:27am EDT