Hawaii Calls – The Versatile Barney Isaacs

One of the issues which Hawaii Calls struggled to overcome throughout its 40-year history was a somewhat limited repertoire. A song sung by one artist one week might be sung by a different artist on the very next week’s program. If you have sifted through dozens of hours of Hawaii Calls program in a very short period of time as I have for this tribute, then you will hear the same songs over and over and over again. If you are a musician and you undergo this exercise, then you will likely make some very interesting discoveries by hearing two different versions of the same song.

In our profile on Hawaii Calls bassist and vocalist Jimmy Kaopuiki, you heard him sing a version of “Palolo.” In fact, Jimmy performed that song on the program twice within a few months of each other in similar – but not entirely exact – arrangements. As I have put the two performances side-by-side in this set for the sake of comparison, the first thing you will notice is that one version is taken at a considerably faster tempo than the other. The next thing you might notice is that Jimmy gets a bass solo on only one of the versions. (This may, in fact, be his only bass solo on record and one of the few solos ever afforded a bass player in a Hawaiian band.)

But most importantly, since we are looking today at steel guitarists, in these two different versions of the song we hear Hawaii Calls steel player Barney Isaacs twice. And while he takes the intros, endings, and vamps (the two bars between each verse) largely the same on each version of the tune, he takes his all-too-brief solos on each version entirely differently. And this speaks to the steel guitar as a highly improvisational art form akin to jazz. While the songs on Hawaii Calls were heavily arranged (host Webley Edwards’ credo was that the cast “rehearse and rehearse the songs over and over again until they sound like they weren’t rehearsed”), hearing a song performed on the show multiple times over several months – or even several years – by different artists elucidates the reality that Hawaii Calls tended to recycle arrangements regardless of who was singing the song. They merely changed the key depending on the singer. But the steel guitarist is the lead instrument in this aggregation, and as such he has some degrees of freedom. Barney could have chosen to memorize a solo and recycle it every time the song was performed just like the rest of the arrangement. But the improvisational aspect of the steel guitar is what keeps performing fresh and new every time the steel player steps on stage.

It almost makes one pity the rhythm guitarist, the `ukulele player, and the bassist.

The improvisational aspect of steel-guitarist-as-lead-instrument is true regardless of the steel player. This could just as easily have been David Keli`i, Jake Keli`ikoa, Jules Ah See, or any of the future Hawaii Calls steel players we haven’t even gotten around to mentioning yet. But it was merely ironic that I popped two tapes on to the player practically back-to-back and heard the same song. For a moment I wondered if I had two copies of the same week’s broadcast. It was Barney’s solo that snapped me back into reality – that the show was (as it often did) recycling the songs and arrangements…

…Making me ever more thankful for Hawai`i’s long and colorful history of inventive and often comical steel guitarists.

Next time: Barney Isaacs’ comic side – captured on video…


Direct download: 23_Hawaii_Calls_-_1957-1962.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 5:37pm EDT