Billy Hew Len in the 1960s

After the loss of his left hand in a tragic accident, Billy Hew Len miraculously regained the ability to play the steel guitar through a one-of-a-kind invention: a leather glove with the steel bar attached to it. But this was still a less than perfect compromise that still required that Billy work exponentially harder to conquer what was already one of the most difficult of musical instruments.

Ultimately Billy turned to another device that would help him overcome his deficits and create his own sound, but he took an even bigger risk in doing so. For while the steel guitar is a uniquely Hawaiian invention, the pedal steel guitar was a product of the mainland U.S. Billy began playing the pedal steel guitar which was primarily associated with the country/western music of Nashville and which was much maligned by steel guitarists in Hawai’i - still today even as it was back then. But he discovered - for he was nothing if not practical - that he could do with his feet what the Hawaiian steel players did with their hands - such as the aforementioned bar slants. Most agree that Billy developed a sound on the pedal steel guitar that was uniquely Hawaiian - not country/western - and time and again throughout his career Billy went back and forth between the pedal and non-pedal steel guitars - depending on what the market demanded and the performers he accompanied desired.

And in creating a whole new kind of Hawaiian music for a new generation, arranger Benny Saks required the pedal steel as only Billy could play it.

Benny Saks (professional name of Ben Sakamoto) was a pianist and vibraphonist, but his magic was in arranging for the great vocalists of Hawaiian music. He was the “house arranger” for Mahaka Records through the 1960s as well as an occasional arranger for recordings on the Sounds of Hawaii label - two companies aimed at endearing Hawaiian music to younger, hipper audiences. As such his memorable arranging work is heard behind such amazing voices as Myrtle K. Hilo, Marlene Sai, Kai Davis, Frank and Cathy Kawelo, Bill Kaiwa, Iwalani Kahalewai, Billy Gonsalves, and Leinaala Haili. And wherever Benny was, Billy was there too on these iconic recordings.

Courtesy of Lehua Records which inherited the libraries of both of these iconic record labels over time, some of the recordings featuring Billy and Benny - such as those from Bill Kaiwa and Iwalani Kahalewai - have been reissued on CD. Others - such as those by Billy Gonsalves and the Paradise Serenaders - have been licensed by Michael Cord for his Hana Old Records label. This post will therefore take a look - as it usually does - at those recordings which remain unavailable after so many years.

You would be hard pressed - no pun intended - to find a copy of the first recording as it was not released on any of the major record labels in Hawai‘i. As the label is not identified anywhere on the recording, we should consider it “private issue” and, therefore, of very limited distribution. The singer is Ilima Baker (wife of Pua Almeida sidekick and Moana Serenaders’ guitarist and singer Kalakaua Aylett) who headlined in such venerable venues as the Moana Hotel and the Niumalu Hotel (on the site of what is now the Hilton Hawaiian Village) since before she graduated from high school. Even if you have never heard the name or even the voice, fans of Hawaiian music have felt her legacy as she brought the popular Hawaiian standard “In A Church In An Old Hawaiian Town” to prominence. To my knowledge, there is no other commercial recording of Ilima Baker except for this one LP simply entitled “Ilima” which featured the arranging of Benny Saks and the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len. This most unusual album features hymns and Christian songs on one side and Hawaiian standards on the other. But the most unusual thing about the album is the song you hear - Ilima’s voice accompanied only by Billy’s steel guitar and Ambrose Hutchinson’s kaekeeke, or bamboo organ which consists of bamboo pipes of varying lengths in order to tune them to various pitches which - when tapped on the ground - create a percussive tone much like a giant xylophone. I can find no recordings that feature the steel guitar and kaekeeke before or since this rarity.

Inexplicably, as diligent as Lehua Records has been about its reissues, only one of three sessions from Myrtle K. Hilo - the “Singing Cab Driver” has been re-released. Pity…for Auntie Myrtle has a kolohe (or rascal) way with a Hawaiian song and we are depriving Hawaiian music lovers of more of the joy of the collaboration of Billy Hew Len and Benny Saks. “Piukeone” comes from Myrtle’s Makaha Records LP “Will You Love Me When My Carburetor Is Busted.” And on it you can hear the sound that Benny was cultivating for the new generation - including a full drum kit used to infuse traditional Hawaiian songs with the modern rhythms of rock-and-roll and the Latin Americas. Until this point in the history of Hawaiian music had the rhythmic focus ever been on the snap of the high hat cymbals? Not so much.

On Bill Kaiwa’s second Sounds of Hawaii release “More From Bill Kaiwa - The Boy From Laupahoehoe,” Benny returns to the swinging jazz idioms that go back to his earlier time with Pua Almeida and the Moana Serenaders. His ear ever to the ground to pick up the rumblings of the musical happenings on the mainland and beyond, Saks incorporates the Hammond B-3 organ that was being popularized on the Blue Note jazz recordings of Jimmy Smith (among others). Never before had the jazz organ made its way into the Hawaiian music idiom. In fact, not even in jazz had this combination of instruments ever really been used for anything beyond instrumental music. So in using the Hammond B-3 to back Bill Kaiwa‘s vocals, Saks’ invention anticipates the changes in American popular music that would be heard only a few years later in such legendary recordings as Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” album on which arranger Ernie Freeman plays the Hammond B-3 himself. The xylophone - played by none other than Saks - adds a playfulness to the proceedings. And Billy Hew Len’s pedal steel guitar is here again as well.

Marlene Sai - known affectionately by friends and family as “Auntie Goofy,” a nickname given to her by Don Ho - is one of the most recognizable voices in Hawaiian music. From Marlene’s Makaha Records LP entitled “Not Pau,“ in this version of Alvin Isaacs’ composition “Lei Momi,” Saks returns to the lounge sounds of the Shearing jazz unit with Billy’s steel guitar and Benny’s piano playing complimentary block chords in rhythm. This recording also offers proof that the arrangements were quite organic - often being worked out during the recording session - and that the new multitrack recording technology allowed them to change things on the fly and splice together a best take from several pieces of less perfect takes. Listen carefully around 5:57 in the sound clip and you will notice that Billy played a glissando - in which the bar is used to slide from one fret to another - that gets abruptly cut off. This is a really bad edit on the part of the engineer. It must have been decided that Billy would instead start playing the counterpoint theme with the piano in that first verse, and so they simply did a second take with Billy playing that theme and not-so-seamlessly spliced the takes together.

Finally, on a slightly more relaxed arrangement of Leinaala Haili’s version of Lena Machado‘s composition “Holo Wa’apa” from the Makaha Records LP “Hiki No,” Benny gives himself and Billy the freedom to noodle to their heart’s delight. The steel guitar takes the traditional role of playing “fills” or “accents” in the spaces between the vocals as well as in the vamps that connect the verses in this more traditional hula ku’i, while the piano takes on the more rhythmic role of aiding the drummer in propelling the Latin beat. Again, Saks does his homework as this is the same sound of the piano as heard in the famous Latin dance bands led by Xavier Cugat and Perez Prado and their more avant garde disciple Juan Garcia Esquivel.

Tomorrow: Billy Hew Len still going strong in the 1970s…

Direct download: Billy_Hew_Len_-_1960s.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 7:21am EST