Tue, 19 February 2013
Despite being an island in the middle of the Pacific, Hawai’i has always been subject to the influences it has imported. From its food to its clothing styles, Hawai’i has long been a melting pot of cultures ranging from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to the other South Pacific peoples.
But nowhere is the melting pot theme more apparent than in Hawaiian music. Already on this blog we have discussed the influences of American big band jazz and small combo jazz and the incorporation of the rhythms of the Latin Americas. But what happens when you take everything you have ever heard and thought about music from around the world and throw it into a cosmic blender?
Between 1958 and 1960, two records of “Hawaiian music” were released on the popular Liberty Records label based in Hollywood. The covers bespoke something slightly less than traditional Hawaiian music but, rather, some cheesy mainland version of it. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? The covers featured scantily clad women, and the titles could not have been more ill conceived - one completely unmemorable (“Little Grass Shack”) and the other an odd play on Parisian men ogling dames on the Champs Elysées (“Hu La La”). Now add to this a name not yet immediately associated with Hawaiian music - Chick Floyd - and all elements considered lovers of Hawaiian music would have immediately passed this record over as another affair from the Longines Symphonette. Who was going to shell out for a recording of Hawaiian music by “Chick Floyd and His Orchestra” when pressed to make the choice between available Hawaiian music recordings by a guy named Floyd and other guys named Aloma and Pineapple?
But this is one of those cases where the whole is clearly more than the sum of its parts. So let’s look at the parts.
In the 1930’s Chick Floyd was the arranger with Orville Knapp’s orchestra. This was not a jazz band per se but, rather, a band that played “sweet music” - something slightly less than jazz, but heavily arranged and intended for the dance halls as opposed to pure listening pleasure. The band featured a sweet music singer - Edith Caldwell - whom Chick wasted no time wooing and marrying. As arranger for the band, Floyd relied on exaggerated brass and unison saxes - a sound later perfected by such arrangers as Billy May. But success was fleeting. Chick and Edith gave other bands a go, but their success - and the marriage - were ultimately doomed. Eventually Chick moved to Hawai’i and started a new orchestra which was the featured band for the Lucky Luck Show. Chick also went on to arrange albums for such talented Honolulu-based singers as Lani Kai and Ed Kenney.
In January 1954, Don the Beachcomber brought pianist Martin Denny to Honolulu for what was to be only a two-week engagement. But like Chick, he fell in love with the islands and stayed. More than this, the inspiration of the melting pot that was and is Hawai’i helped Denny forge a new sound all his own. By 1955, Denny and his group were performing at the Shell Bar of the Hawaiian Village Hotel. It was in this exotic setting that Denny’s new sound was born. To try to outdo the sounds of the frogs croaking in the nearby pool, Denny and crew began a unique approach to vocalizing with a series of bird calls. To make matters more exotic still, Denny used the burgeoning jet plane to import instruments from all over the world. The Martin Denny Group was reinventing the standards written by the Gershwins and Cole Porter by arranging them for entrancing rhythms on percussion instruments from around the world while issuing bird noises from deep within their lungs. Denny and crew were soon signed to Liberty Records, and label head Si Waronker branded this new sound “exotica.“ Martin soon after became the label’s A&R man in Honolulu - seeking out the best and brightest in talent from the islands.
By 1959, the “Hawaii Calls” radio broadcasts heard around the world were nearing their 25th anniversary. So the luminaries of the show’s cast were already becoming household names beyond Hawai’i’s borders. But there was still more local talent that were not “Hawaii Calls” regulars but who were becoming wildly popular with the tourists. In a stroke of genius, Martin Denny decided to bring together members of the “Hawaii Calls” orchestra and chorus, members of his own band, and to stir this soup, arranger Chick Floyd. And to round out the cast, Floyd brought some talent of his own - members of the cast of the evening Polynesian show at Don the Beachcombers, a show for which Floyd was now the arranger. This amazing all-star cast led to the two presumably “cheesy” albums mentioned earlier - “Little Grass Shack” and “Hu La La.” The albums were not cheesy at all, as it turns out, but two of the finest examples of the blending of Hawaiian music and other cultures on record. Some - but not all - of this talent was credited on the album covers, so for many years those who have had the rare pleasure of hearing these recordings may have wondered just what and who they were hearing. Pua Almeida was a key vocalist on both albums. So in this segment, we feature songs from both albums which highlight Pua’s voice while identifying the contribution of the other players along the way.
The set opens with an obscurity only recorded once. From the “Hu La La“ LP, “There’s Still A Lot Of Steam In Kilauea” was written by Sam Kaapuni who became famous for his work with the California-based Hawaiian music group known as The Polynesians. On this tune, Pua Almeida trades lead vocal duties with Hawaii Calls’ cast member Sonny Nicholas. You also hear Martin Denny’s piano (despite that he goes uncredited), Julius Wechter (then of Denny’s group but later of the Baja Marimba Band) on vibraphone, and the bass clarinet of Denny group collaborator Willard Brady.
From the “Little Grass Shack” LP we hear Pua take the vocal lead on the lovely “Sweet Someone” - a song adopted by Hawaiian musicians but which was actually made popular by Nat King Cole’s brother, Eddie Cole, and his musical partner, wife Betty, during their long engagement in Honolulu. Again, the “sweet music” style arrangement centers on Denny’s piano and an unidentified woodwind section.
Also from the “Little Grass Shack” LP, we then hear “Hukilau” again featuring Pua and Sonny Nicholas on lead vocals - getting their Bobby Darin on - and the backing vocals of the “Hawaii Calls” vocal chorus comprised of singing sisters Nina Keali’iwahamana, Lani Custino, and Lahela Rodrigues. None of these artists are identified in the liner notes.
And the last song has been one of my favorites since childhood. Pua takes the vocal lead on a Chick Floyd original, “Late At Night” and turns in what may be his most haunting performance ever. We again hear Denny’s piano, the flute and oboe of Willard Brady, the steel guitar of Danny Stewart, and a vocal chorus consisting of Pua, Sonny Nicholas, Sonny Kamahele, and Sonny’s sister, Iwalani Kamahele whose high soprano in octave unison with Pua give this number an even more haunting quality.
And these are just the selections from these two LPs which feature Pua! There are 18 more selections across these two albums which feature other greats of Hawaiian music of this period exotically interwoven with the members of the Martin Denny and Chick Floyd aggregations. We will get to these other tunes eventually. But if you ever passed up one or both of these LPs on your crate-diving adventures, don’t think twice should you ever see them again.
Next time: Pua transitions gracefully from the jazzy 50s to the groovy 60s…