Sun, 9 September 2007
This week on Ho`olohe Hou, we celebrate the birthday of one of the most important figures in the history of Hawaiian music: Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs. “Papa? Isaacs’ contributions to Hawaiian music are incalculable - including the formation of one of the seminal Hawaiian music ensembles (the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders featuring the falsetto voices of Benny Kalama and George Kainapau and the unique steel guitar stylings of Tommy Castro), composing more than 300 songs in both English and Hawaiian (think “Nalani,? “Analani E,? and the comic “No Huhu?), and bringing into the world three more musical Isaacs (steel guitar great Barney Isaacs, slack key legend Atta Isaacs, and singer, bassist, and funnyman Norman Isaacs).
My goal was to cram as much of “Papa? Isaacs music into a two-hour program as possible. In so doing, I made the mistake of saying very little about the man. So, some things you should know:
Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs taught himself to play most string and wind instruments by the age of ten. He formed an orchestra by the age of 13 - doubling on piano and mandolin - and composed the first of his more than 300 songs a year later. (The first - “Kau`ionalani? - has been recorded countless times - most recently by Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom, a selection featured on this week’s program.) During this period, this husky lad also excelled in sports. As a freshman at McKinley High he became the first freshman in Hawai`i’s history to make the All-Star Scholastics football squad, and he did equally well in track, baseball, and swimming.
Alvin married his high school sweetheart, Julita Chung, in 1924. To support the large family they planned (they eventually raised ten children), Alvin joined the Honolulu Police Department as a motorcycle patrolman. But after a debilitating motorcycle accident on the HPD job which left him hospitalized for a year, he turned his full attention to music for income - and the Hawaiian music world hasn’t been the same since.
After the tragic accident, Alvin organized a group, the K.M.M. Syncopators, in 1929. He formed several other groups after, including the original Royal Hawaiians (which often featured the great Ray Kinney) and The Islanders which enjoyed a long run at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. In 1935, he joined a band led by Harry Owens’ (who took over at the Royal), and Alvin was this group’s featured singer and comic hula dancer until 1940.
Alvin reorganized The Islanders in 1940 and they played at the Young Hotel Roof Garden until the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the same time as his run at the Young Hotel, Alvin led another band - Alvin Kaleolani and The Royal Polynesians - who were the house band for the nationwide NBC program “The Voice Of Hawai`i.? After the attack of December 7th, Alvin joined the U.S. Engineers and served as lieutenant of the guard at Punahou and took his troup of entertainers on the U.S.O. circuit.
In 1947, he assembled the aforementioned Royal Hawaiian Serenaders - an aggregation featuring Honolulu’s finest musicians of that era. Benny Kalama had a beautiful voice, a way with an `ukulele, and a knack for arranging. George Kainapau was Hawai`i’s premier falsetto singer. And Tommy Castro was a well-regarded and oft-copied steel guitarist. Along with Isaacs’ compositions, the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders were an unbeatable combination who made musical history at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel from 1947 until 1951. They made numerous recordings for the then fledgling Bell Records label (under their own name and as accompanists for other singers) and they embarked on four mainland tours which broke attendance records at the leading west coast hotels. It was this mainland exposure which helped introduce Alvin to Bing Crosby (who featured Alvin on his radio programs) and which led to work on Hollywood soundstages with Harry Owens.
A guiding principle that helped shape Alvin’s philosophy on life was his faith. He was a lifelong member of the Mormon Church, and it was not uncommon for the Isaacs clan to spend evenings in family prayer. Alvin was very active in his church, and it was while producing a talent show at his church that he conceived of the comedy classic “No Huhu.? They were rehearsing a one-act skit featuring a Chinese-dialect comedian, and Alvin dreamed up the idea for the song and had it finished it only two hours. “No Huhu? remains a staple of the Hawaiian comedy repertoire. You may hear steel guiatarist Alan Akaka perform this with aplomb on Thursday evenings when performing with Genoa Keawe and Her Hawaiians, or you may catch Ocean Kaowili regaling audiences at Honey’s at Ko`olau with this number on Sunday afternoons. (In an earlier time, two steel guitarists were known for their way with this song - Jules Ah See and Alvin’s son, Barney Isaacs. You will hear Barney’s version on this program, and you will hear Jules Ah See’s version when this program celebrates his birthday next June.)
The world lost Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs in 1984, but his memory lives on through his many compositions. This program will take a look at the new generation of Hawaiian music artists’ take on Isaacs’ classic compositions.
This week’s program opens with music from a 1984 recording by Alvin Isaacs’ longtime friend and partner, Benny Kalama - a recording on which Benny recreated the classic sound of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders (and an album which, in my personal opinion, was robbed of a well-deserved Na Hoku Hanohano award). We then spend some time listening to the 1940s recordings of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders on Bell Records on which Benny and Alvin performed together. Listen and discover the timeless sound Alvin and friends created that is still recognized as epitomical “Hawaiian music? - a sound you can still hear today at sunset each evening at the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki.
The remainder of the program focuses on Isaacs’ numerous compositions performed by some of Hawai`i’s most well-loved artists - including some long forgotten names and voices. I expect that these selections will bring back great memories for some of you and for others the realization that some of your favorite Hawaiian standards are, in fact, Alvin K. Isaacs compositions. During this set, you will hear some selections from an extremely rare LP entitled “A Lei Of Songs From Sam? by Sam Kahalewai. I included as many songs from this recording as I could fit since it was extremely rare to get the Isaacs `ohana into the recording studio together, but “A Lei Of Songs From Sam? features Barney Isaacs on steel guitar, Norman Isaacs on bass, Alvin Isaacs on `ukulele, and - a surprise! - Gabby Pahinui on guitar, and more than half of this beautiful record features the compositions of Alvin Isaacs. (If only slack key guitarist Atta Isaacs had been present at these sessions...)
And speaking of Barney, this week in our “Why In The World Is This Out Of Print?? segment, we revisit an out-of-print treasure from just a few years ago - “E Mau - Take One? - with a band led by Barney Isaacs and which - like Benny Kalama’s “He Is Hawaiian Music? just a few years before - recreated the classic Royal Hawaiian Serenaders sound. Barney enlisted the help of Benny Kalama for this recording, as well as Aaron Mahi on bass and singer, guitarist, and vintage Hawaiian music acolyte Scott Furushima.
This week’s “Three-Of-A-Kind? contest is very special. After listening to so much Alvin Isaacs music, listen closely to these three selections and the answer should be apparent to you! If not, listen closely anyway because they are three beautiful recordings which represent rare moments in Hawaiian music history. (That is a hint!)
And we close the program with proof of the timelessness of Alvin Isaacs’ compositions as we feature a handful of recording by today’s Hawaiian music artists performing Isaacs’ classic songs.
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All selections out-of-print unless indicated. (Click on the link to a title to locate a possible distribution source.)
*Remastered and rereleased on CD.
**Selections from the same recording session by the same artist remastered and rereleased on CD but which does not include the out-of-print selection featured on this program.
***Recent release available on CD.
****This selection remastered and rereleased on a compilation CD.
Category:Radio -- posted at: 10:30am EDT