Billy Hew Len in the 1970s

Billy Hew Len continued to be the preeminent force in steel guitar in the Honolulu music scene in the 1970s. In addition to a regular engagement at the Dolphin Room at the Outrigger Hotel in Waikiki with singer Myra English and slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth, he was also performing at Chuck Machado’s luau show and doing occasionals with good friends Genoa Keawe and Violet Pahu Liliko’i. And he made at least one iconic recording that has represented Hawai’i well for nearly 40 years.

I wanted you to get an idea for the unique sound that Billy and Sonny Chillingworth created to support Myra English’s vocals. They did a few recordings together, and the first selection here comes from Myra’s classic Hula Records LP “Drinking Champagne.” This is generally the sound you would have heard at one of Myra’s performances in the Dolphin Room but with a twist. Myra did not have the benefit of a bass player at the club as she did in the recording studio. When performing live, the low bass notes were provided by Sonny Chillingworth’s unique guitar style which was much like the stride piano style of Fats Waller or Teddy Wilson – alternating a running bass line with chords and occasional single note fills. Although known as a slack key guitarist, Sonny played this “stride guitar” style in standard guitar tuning. Myra did three LPs for Hula Records – none of which have been reissued in their totality on CD or MP3. But you can hear some selections from all three original LPs on the Hula Records reissue “The Best of the Champagne Lady.”

Next up is one of the most iconic – and also most controversial – recordings ever to come out of Hawai’i. “Steel Guitar Magic Hawaiian Style” was an album of steel guitar duets by Billy and Barney Isaacs. Recorded for the then still new Music of Polynesia label under the direction of orchestrator Jack de Mello, the album was not in as traditional a vein as the albums offered by the popular labels of the last decade – Hula, Lehua, Makaha, and Sounds of Hawaii. Even as the latter two labels began moving Hawaiian music into a new era by incorporating elements of rock, jazz, and Latin music (see the last post on Billy’s collaborating with arranger Benny Saks), “Steel Guitar Magic Hawaiian Style” had wound back the clock on Hawaiian music. Jack de Mello felt that he knew what appealed to the tourists, and so he incorporated many of the pre-statehood elements of Hawaiian music into this recording. And perhaps he was right for this is the only Hawaiian music recording of which I am aware that has been continuously in print for 40 years and which continues to sell, I have seen versions on long playing vinyl record, 8-track tape, cassette, CD, and now MP3, and yet I never find a copy in the music collections of Hawaiians. So who bought them all? The recording brings to mind an on-going issue which will be explored and re-explored in this blog over time – specifically the question of “What is Hawaiian music?” Because once an attempt is made to define Hawaiian music, then attempts can be made to judge some music as being more Hawaiian than other music. A controversial topic indeed. This recording appeals more to mainlanders’ sensibilities of what “Hawaiian music” should sound like and the images that it should conjure and sounds far more like the brand of “Hawaiian music” that was being recorded on the mainland and which was criticized – if not reviled – by traditionalists in Hawai’i - leaving Hawaiians to ponder whether or not it is indeed “Hawaiian music.” Of importance today, however , is simply the interplay between two greats of the steel guitar, Barney and Billy.

Finally, a glimpse of Billy in his evening performances at Chuck Machado’s luau. You hear the voice of emcee Doug Mossman (also known for his role as “Moki” on the original “Hawaii Five-O” television series) who goads Billy into a medley of the beautiful waltz-time steel guitar standard “Whispering Lullaby” followed by his rendition of a country/western classic, “Steel Guitar Rag,” popularized by country steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe. Hawaiian steel guitarists are too often judged by their approach to tunes written specifically steel guitar – among these “Sand,” “How D’Ya Do,” and “Whispering Lullaby.” In case you have never heard this version before, it is Billy’s only recording of “Lullaby” from an album that was likely only given away to visitors to the lu’au. “Chuck Machado’s Luau Recorded Live On The Beach At Waikiki” remains out of print.

Tomorrow: We wrap up our week-long tribute to Billy Hew Len’s career with a look at his too few commercial recordings in the 1980s before his untimely passing in 1987…

Direct download: Billy_Hew_Len_-_1970s.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 6:25pm EDT