Wed, 17 September 2014
If you are fortunate enough to have lived in Hawai`i in the last decade, you might have caught a rare performance by Hawai`i’s “Three Tenors”: Robert Cazimero, Les Ceballos, and Aaron Sala. Modeled on the format made popular in the 1990s by a trio of more instantly recognizable opera stars - Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti – Hawai`i’s version of the “Three Tenors” features gentleman who – while they spend most of their time supporting and perpetuating Hawaiian music – are by no means coincidentally trained in opera as well. But they are not the first opera singers to emerge from Hawai`i. Tandy MacKenzie and Samuel Kapu come to mind. But then, too, does Charles K.L. Davis.
Charles Keonaohalalalaulani Llewellyn (or “K.L.”) Davis was born September 17, 1925 in Honolulu into a household steeped in music and culture. At an early age Charlie had already conquered the cello, the piano, and even the pipe organ. Graduating from high school just before the invasion of Pearl Harbor in 1944, this smart young man became a sergeant in the 7th Air Force Intelligence, serving in Hawai`i, Saipan, Okinawa, and Washington, D.C. After the war Charlie studied at the University of Hawai`i before transferring to the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, CA to pursue his passion. He topped off his studies at the renowned Julliard School of Music in New York City where he was bitten hard by both city life and his love of the stage.
After an appearance on the famed Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, Charlie’s professional career began – in a duo with fellow Hawaiian Jimmy Shigeta – on March 13, 1951 at Hollywood’s legendary Mocambo on the Sunset Strip. (Critics Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and even Variety called the duo “overnight sensations.”) The debut was followed by engagements at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and The Palmer House in Chicago (where his picture still appears on the walls among such legends as Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme). When Shigeta was drafted, Davis went solo. After a brief return to Hawai`i, Charlie returned to New York City where he became the first Hawaiian to win the prestigious Metropolitan Opera auditions. His popularity grew on the mainland – garnering Charlie a recording contract with Queens, New York-based Everest Records. During this period Charlie also performed in Russia with a troupe led by emcee extraordinaire Ed Sullivan as well as at the White House in a command performance for President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1959. Wherever he performed, the critics raved. Charlie was loved not only in Hawai`i, but the world over.
This first post about Charles K.L. Davis focuses on his New York City days and the early part of his recording career with Everest Records. Researching this period in Charlie’s career, some of the information I have located would probably tickle his agile and often satirical mind. Such research reminds us that there are, indeed, two sides to every story.
Writing for AllMusic.com, Eugene Chadbourne refers to Charlie’s recordings for a “classical budget line.” On the contrary, Everest Records was anything but a classical budget line. In fact, the label likely found it difficult to survive financially since they used the most state of the art – and, therefore, most expensive – recording techniques of the era. Magnetic tape was still a relatively new medium in the 1950s. But 35mm film was not. It has long been forgotten in this digital era, but 35mm was once the most advanced recording medium – not only for visuals, but also for audio. Everest’s introduction of 3-channel microphone/recording techniques – captured on 35mm film stock – were revolutionary for this period and in the era of “hi-fi” offered much higher fidelity than magnetic tape. This recording technique was so trend-setting and influential that none other than Frank Sinatra utilized 35mm film to record his now classic The Concert Sinatra album. Budget, indeed.
During its relatively brief run from May 1958 until 1962, Everest – considered largely a classical music label – made some of what are considered to be the finest quality classical music recordings ever captured including sessions with some of the greatest American and British conductors and orchestras of the 20th Century, including Leopold Stokowski, Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent, the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic (which, because it was under contract to another label at the same time, released its Everest recordings under the Stadium Symphony Orchestra moniker). The label is also remembered for many “firsts” – the first stereo recordings of Mahler’s 5th and 9th symphonies, the premiere recording of Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony, as well as composer Aaron Copland’s first recording as a conductor (his own Symphony No. 3). Despite the development of (arguably) superior recording techniques in the 50 years since, many Everest recordings still stand the test of time. (Check out some of its 2013 reissues on iTunes which have been warmly received by the classical music community.)
The label produced very few recordings total – a mere 75 LPs. But a whopping seven of these – recorded in a brief three years – were by Charles K.L. Davis. Since Everest was primarily a classical label, this gave Charlie the rare distinction of being one of Everest’s few artists that was not purely classical. His signing was a testament to his talent and his popularity in that moment in time, and if nothing else, the label gave Charlie the rare opportunity to showcase all of his musical loves – opera, Broadway, and Hawaiian, bringing the latter back to mainland audiences during a period when its popularity was waning. Here are a few of my favorites from Charles K.L. Davis’ Everest Records catalog.
From one of my favorite Broadway musicals, Lerner and Loewe’s classic My Fair Lady, Charlie sings “On The Street Where You Live” from the LP Front Row Center, arranged and conducted by Franz Allers. And there was no better man for this job since Allers enjoyed a long collaboration with Lerner and Loewe, conducting most of their musicals including the original Broadway productions of My Fair Lady and Camelot, both of which earned him the Tony Award for Best Conductor and Musical Director in 1957 and 1961. The song was a natural choice for Charlie who co-starred in My Fair Lady on Broadway with Patrice Munsel.
Next Charlie takes us to the Champs Elysees with “La Vie En Rose,” made popular by Edith Piaf. Opera singers are trained to sing in any number of languages so that they can sing passably in all of them. But, I have to tell you: As ridiculous as it may sound, I studied French for six years (it was even my college major), and I can attest to the fact that Charlie’s French is not merely passable, but really damned good. This cut is from Charlie’s Love Songs of the Mediterranean LP with orchestra conducted by David Terry.
An incredibly long plane ride takes us from gay Paree to Honolulu where Charlie gives us the beautiful “My Sweet Pikake Lei.” Fans of contemporary Hawaiian music are likely familiar with a composition by the same title with lyrics by Kyle Chock and music by Robert Cazimero. But this song Charlie offers predates that by nearly 40 years – with lyrics by Gerda Maline Beilenson and music by M. Kahale and Galen H. Wai. (For the record, “M. Kahale” was the pseudonym of writer Howard Fenton and “Galen H. Wai” the pseudonym of Gene Bone – who together and separately had already composed numerous American popular songs. They or their publisher likely felt that the Hawaiian-style tune would have no credibility if written by two mainland haole. Ms. Beilenson’s name does not appear on the recording at all.) From the LP Adventures In Paradise, the sessions were conducted by Hal Mooney who – as house arranger and A&R Director at Mercury Records from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s – created the musical backdrops for some of the most notable recordings by Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Helen Merrill, Ernestine Anderson, and Nina Simone.
Another long jet trip takes us from Honolulu back to New York City for another Broadway hit (or, at least, a film adaptation of a Broadway hit). The story from the original 1928 Broadway production of Rosalie was co-opted – with new tunes by Cole Porter – for the 1937 film by the same title. Nelson Eddy sang the song to Eleanor Powell, and the song subsequently became one of the most notable of the songs considered “The Great American Songbook.” The song has been performed or recorded by such popular singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, and countless others – and, here, Charles K.L. Davis
Finally, I had difficult choosing between “La donne e mobile” and “Nessun Dorma” to represent Charlie’s operatic skills. By now you know which direction I went – with Puccini’s most famous aria from the opera Turandot. Charlie’s performance stands up next to performances of the same aria by Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. If you are not crying by the end of this, I urge you to seek out your nearest cardiologist to make sure you have a heart. From the LP Charles K.L. Davis Sings Romantic Arias from Famous Operas, the fabulous orchestra you hear – led by none other than Leopold Stokowski – is the Stadium Symphony Orchestra (which, by now, you already know is the pseudonym of the New York Philharmonic). This is one of the treasured recordings from the Everest Records catalog that was remastered and re-released in 2013, and I encourage you to download it from iTunes. Or, if you’re home audio system can handle even higher resolution than CD or MP3, the recording sounds simply stellar in uncompressed FLAC format available excusively from HDTracks. Only in high definition can one truly appreciate the quality of the Everest Records recording process. (I strongly recommend that those curious about this recording only make their download purchase from iTunes or HDTracks – or the hard copy of CD, where available. Because Everest Records releases were highly prized by collectors and not rereleased until very recently, numerous dubious agents have attempted to profit by releasing their own “vinyl rips” – MP3 copies made directly from an LP, not from the original master tapes. A copy from any other source than those mentioned above should be considered a bootleg and potentially of inferior sound quality).
Next time: Charlie isn’t finished with New York City yet… And more on the myths and misconceptions about Charlie’s career (and how to separate fact from fiction)…